Where have you been?
This is a busy time of year, full of important social/family obligations that push aside trivial things like blog posts. One of the things I’ve busied myself with is the production and distribution of the family Christmas letter. Some people think that Christmas letters are cheesy. I don’t think that. Send me yours. I’ll read it and enjoy it.
I love Christmas.
I love how every little detail of every Christmas – each colour, scent, note, sound, taste – evokes memories of every other Christmas. Good, happy memories; but the bad, sad ones are just as much worth remembering. It’s like you’re living your whole life all at the same time. And you know that most everyone is doing the same. It is the most social as well as a most solitary and introspective time.
I love Christmas music. I counted my Christmas CDs today so I could report here that I now own eighty nine of them. All eighty nine are very good. All were wise purchases. Not a single impulse-buy in the lot of them – certainly none among the nine I bought this week.
I love having a big, rapidly dehydrating tree in my living room for the month of December. A goofy tradition. Cut down a relatively young tree, stick in in a stand, put it in the living room and decorate it with lights and ornaments. It sheds most of its needles over the Christmas season, especially when it falls over. The rest of the needles fall off when we wrestle the thing out of the house on Ukrainian Boxing Day. I love all that. The tree makes the house smell good. It’s beautiful. Decorating it is a warm and comforting ritual. Each of the decorations means something to me.
I love how nice everybody is, how everyone wants to renew friendships, reach out, get in touch, wish one another well. People touch each other at Christmas. I love kids’ excitement. The an-ti-ci-pation. I love the holidays – people taking time off work – days with nothing to do but sit in the house and stay warm, read, drink, eat, listen to music and visit.
But hold it just a second here! All this gushing love for Christmas very subtely demonstrates that I am a combatant on the wrong side in the “War on Christmas”, that mythical and largely imaginary threat that has become an annual bitch from our friends on the Christian right. What’s missing from my Christmas love list? Well, Christ, of course. I have not mentioned that the central purpose of Christmas is – or ought to be – to celebrate the birth of our lord and saviour Jesus Christ, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, yadda yadda.
Make no mistake – I was raised Christian. I’ve gone to church most of my life. I sing in the choir. I’m not religious, but I’m far from anti-religious and I recognize and accept that Christmas is a deeply spiritual time for some people. I’m big on the Baby Jesus stuff myself. Who doesn’t love babies? Maybe the terrorists. I love the symbolism: On the first Christmas, light and peace and love is brought to a cold, dark, chaotic and hateful world by a baby. A baby born in humble circumstances. Babies – maybe only babies – can do that. Babies are powerful magic. Just ask any guy who has ever taken his baby to the grocery store, without bringing Mom along.
But Christmas isn’t just about the Baby Jesus. It’s not even mostly about that. Obviously, Jews and Muslims and atheists and other non-Christians don’t get all choked up about the birth of the Messiah. But neither do most “Christians” – who constitute the vast majority of us in Canada.
Christian Canadians aren’t particularly religious. Church attendance among those claiming to be Christian is way way down and declining. Have you noticed any decline in enthusiasm for Christmas? No, because Christmas isn’t, for the most part and for most people, a religious event. It’s a cultural, seasonal celebration. That’s not a threat to anybody.
You’ve seen those billboards and bumper stickers urging us to “Put Christ Back in Christmas”. What do they want? Those of us for whom Jesus is not that big a deal; we’re supposed to stop with the caroling and the gift-giving, the good cheer, decorations, lights, days off work, being nice to each other? It’s not “our” holiday, so we should just shut up and let the “real” Christians enjoy some exclusivity here? Is that it? Or, is it about all us lapsed Baby Jesus Freaks. We’re supposed to have an epiphany, see the error of our ways and get back in our pews?
Or is it just a bunch of pious, leaning-towards-racist and xenophobic nonsense? Is it just members of the overwhelmingly dominant demographic wanting to claim to be victims of secularist, multi-culti, thugs of political correctitude, who bully them into saying “Happy Holiday”? These are perhaps the same people who believe that their heterosexual marriage is somehow harmed by gays and lesbians marrying each other [okay, not gays marrying lesbians or vice versa – you know what I mean.]
I worry about their kids lying awake Christmas night. Not sleeping. So excited. So guilt ridden, because thery’re supposed to be thinking about the birth of the Baby Jesus. And they’re not. God knows that they’re not. And he’s pissed. God so loved the world – including you, you ungrateful little shithead – that he gave his only begotten son ….. And you’re over the top about what? Eternal life, forgiveness of sins, heaven, God and the Baby Jesus [who will eventually DIE for YOUR sins, like you didn’t feel bad enough]? No no. You’re lying there all lathered up about a Nintendo? You won’t get into heaven with that Nintendo kid. Enjoy playing Mortal Kombat in HELL.
Only a very small part of the Bible is devoted to the Christmas story. It is mentioned in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. They didn’t get their stories straight. Luke is the one who gives us the the Baby in Bethlehem in the stable, no room in the Inn, the manger, shepherds abiding in the fields – all that nativity scene stuff. Matthew’s story lacks all the magical detail and actually focuses quite a bit on King Herod, who was one mean bastard. He decides to kill all the babies, to prevent the new born king from usurping his throne. So, on the first Christmas, every child under two in the neighbourhood is killed by Herod’s boys, illuminated by the Star of Wonder, Star of Light. Merry Christmas indeed. Do we ever see billboards advocating “Put the Mass Infanticide back in Christmas”?
The two stories, if you include Jesus’s and his cousin John’s conceptions [both miraculous] and the Holy Family’s escape from Herod, takes about one hundred fifty seven verses, total – thirty in Matthew and one hundred twenty seven in Luke. That’s not much. There are more verses in Leviticus devoted to the subjects of cleanliness, which animals one can eat, what to do about discharges and skin diseases and how to handle mildew in your basement.
Okay, I admit that this “counting verses” method of calculating the relative significance of various biblical events is not likely to catch on among the better theologians.
Christmas wasn’t celebrated in the first four or so centuries of Christianity. Somehow, Christianity survived. Most Christians concede that the birth of Jesus was sometime in the fall, not on December 25th. Probably, the latter date was chosen by the Church in an effort to attract the Pagans into the fold. The Pagans had always made a big blowout of the solstice, so it seemed a good idea to piggy-back on that. Obviously, you need something to cheer you up in late December. It’s the coldest and darkest time of the year. Let’s put up some lights and have a drink.
So the Christians crash a Pagan party and now want to kick out all the guests who aren’t sufficiently Christian. That is so not cool.
Did you know that the best selling Christmas album of the last twenty years is by a Jew? Yes. Kenny Gee’s Miracles: The Holiday Album has sold seven and a quarter million copies. Though it uses the reviled word “Holiday” in the title, it has all the standard sacred songs and even the secular selections have the word Christmas in the titles. And yes, Gee is a Jew. I found this out on this great website: www.guesswhosthejew.com. Barbara Streisand, Neil Diamond, Barry Manilow, Bob Dylan? All are Christmas music mega-stars. All Jews. This must drive the “Christ-in-Christmas” folks nuts.
There’s no Christ in Dickens A Christmas Carol, except in a passing reference by Cratchit to the person “who made lame beggars walk and the blind to see”. Is this classic, then, a stealth attack on Christmas’s true meaning?
The Night Before Christmas, has Santa, not the Holy Child. That poem has been loved for almost two hundred years. We read it to our children on Christmas eve.
When Stuart McLean’s Dave Cooks the Turkey, he does it without inspiration from the Babe in swaddling clothes. It’s just Dave in a hotel room with a grade “B” turkey and a bottle of scotch. However, Mohammad makes an appearance as a cab driver.
The Grinch stole all the material manifestations of Chrismas: the ribbons the tags, boxes and bags, all the food, the presents, the roast beast. The who-hash. He was ready to dump it down the other side of Mount Crumpit. But, it turns out, all that stuff was unnecessary. Christmas came. Down in Whoville, on Christmas morning,the Whos all joined hands and sang. Ah, the true meaning of Christmas? The Grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day because the Whos demonstrated the power and redemptive spirit of Jesus Christ? No. There’s no Baby Jesus in Whoville. The Whos had Christmas without all that stuff because they came together as a community, loved and supported one another. That’s it.
Miracle on 34th Street. White Christmas. It’s a Wonderful Life. A Christmas Story. Bad Santa. Sorry gang, these beloved Holiday classics aren’t about our Messiah.
The exception is Charlie Brown. Troubled by the emptiness of the commercialized Christmas, he laments, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about”? Well, Linus knows. He trots out Luke’s story about the shepherds, ending with a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying “Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace, good will toward men”. No passage from the King James Version has ever been so adorably rendered. Significantly, he doesn’t mention Herod. The next music on the sound track is “O Christmas Tree”. Even Charles Schultz couldn’t keep his sacred focus. Charlie Brown’s religious confirmation results in a stiffening of his resolve to do what? Well, obviously, to decorate his spindly little Christmas tree. That’s his response to the birth of the Saviour. Decorate the Pagan winter solstice tree.
In the end – like every Christmas story – it’s about love. Love redeems the little Christmas tree and it redeems Charlie Brown. All of those who have so vexed him throughout the show, now gather around him lovingly, though Lucy, in her last line of dialogue, asserts that he is still a “blockhead”. They sing together. That’s the point.