Three things go by the name of Christmas…. a religious festival…. a popular holiday…. the commercial racket.”C.S. Lewis, “What Christmas Means to Me”, in God in the Dock.
Observing this year’s Christmas hubbub, I am more convinced than ever that the whole origin and meaning of “Christmas” is sliding more steeply and deeply down the slope to cultural irrelevance.
In “What Christmas Means to Me”, Lewis points out that seventy years ago the “second Christmas”, the popular holiday, still had “complex historical connections with the first”, and the two together gave people a good “occasion for merry-making and hospitality” – which he had no objection to!
Things have moved on considerably since Lewis’s time. Of the “three things called Christmas”, we now observe but two in the generality of culture and people’s awareness of why we have a “Holiday Season” at all. As Lewis says, few object to throwing a good party and being hospitable, at least for a few cheery days of the year – all the more as we deal with the onset of the long cold and lengthy nights of winter (as we experience it here in the great white north, anyway).
What do you note people saying, if anything, in reference to the “Holiday Season” and any particular reason for celebrating it? Is it anything more than “merry-making” for the sake of merry-making and plunging into the tide of the “commercial racket” so you won’t be classified with Uncle Scrooge or the Grinch? Certainly it is a good custom for family and friends to gather to symbolically demonstrate love and affection and concern for one another – although this year this is problematic.
There is no denying that we need some cultural markers to allow us reasons and ways to be together to support one another and experience some more intimate human community. So even if there is no Jesus factor involved, a merry-making and gift-giving binge once or twice a year is not a bad thing. As Lewis said, no need to be the party-pooper harping away at telling everyone they are missing the real point – although it is appropriate to mention the birth of Yeshua-Jesus now and then as a reminder.
But, without Jesus, beyond the binge and after the bloating indigestion, mega-sugar-crash, and fortified eggnog and other spirits hangover, what was it about? Fantasizing about Santa and goodwill to all people for some vague reason? Receiving some gifts that symbolize a love which is usually neglected in practice? Feeling a nice glow for a few days but then crashing back into the loneliness or shallowness of regular life for most of the rest of the year?
Think about what all that maudlin Santa-elogizing and schmaltzy glitter and twitter really says. What about all that “Commercial Racketeering”? “Things are given as presents which no mortal ever bought for himself—gaudy useless gadgets, ‘novelties’ because no one was ever fool enough to make their like before,” as Lewis described it. “Long before December 25th everyone is worn out—physically… by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally… by the effort to remember all the right recipients and… suitable gifts for them.”
Lewis recognizes that for many businesses, the whole thing “is good for trade” and they can’t survive without it. The whole thing is topsy-turvy. Tongue-in-cheek, he suggests that it would be more meaningful to just tell the businesses to shut down and give the shopkeepers charitable donations. (Hmm-sounds like 2020…)
Meanwhile what have we made of “Christmas”? it is now a mostly shapeless cultural lump called “the Holiday Season” in which we wish one another a vapid “Happy Holiday(s)” according to whatever you choose to make it mean. “And so this is Christmas, and what have we done?” asked John Lennon in one of my all-time favourite Christmas songs.
Without the (shudder) “religion”, the merry-making is actually poisoned by the gross usurpation of what was once a joyous but reverent celebration of the coming into the world of the very Person and Being of God in the flesh of a human baby over two thousand years ago in an animal shelter in the village of Bethlehem in ancient Judea. No amount of gooey sentimentality and nostalgia for a fuzzy lost innocence of bright hope for something eternal to be born in us can ever substitute.
To be sure, there are remnants of Jesus, or “the Christ-child”, still invoked or slid in among the multitude of cloying old and new “Christmas music” and trendy films about happy-ever-after love-finding or old hurts being reconciled somehow miraculously. An angel may glide in here and there too, or a nod to a little shepherd-boy or gentle farm-animals lowing softly at a baby in a manger. But who understands what these oblique references are even about now?
It’s a daring and risky school pageant that allows anything like the Bethlehem story to appear.
How do we return to joy in all this, especially when the year ending that has been so full of gloomy-doomy shadows? At least, for the most part, the “crowded shops” that wear us out have been far less wearing. And, if this year of shadow has had an positive effect on our spirits, it might be that we are more open to considering why we are here in the first place. And so, why can’t we say “Merry Christmas” without worrying that it might offend someone’s hypersensitivity to a specific Christian festival in a culture that was largely built by professing Christians? I have met Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists who are less hung up about it than many Christians. And they could care less what the militant secularists think if they say it. Can we face the shallowness of what we now think and do and believe about the real meaning of so much in our Western cultural jungle, including the Reason for this Season?
Thank you for the seventy-year old reminder, Professor Lewis!
Merry Christmas, and may God’s peace (shalom) fill you up unto overflowing so that you can’t help passing it to others!