Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Merry eX-mas

Every year at this time, we Minnesota provincials are subjected to countless pious, cliché-ridden lamentations  about how Christmas has become too secular and commercial. The concluding exhortation of all these jeremiads is always the same:  we simply MUST put the "Christ" back in Christmas.

Or else.

Or else, what?  The apocalyptic consequence, should Americans continue to prefer Santa Claus to Jesus Christ, is unspecified--but presumably comparable to the fate that befell Sodom and Gomorrah.  (The people who fuss about saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" tend to be rather partial to Old Testament Wrath and, in fact, would probably enjoy a nice little display of Divine Displeasure.)

Generally speaking, of course, those who yearn for a more religious or spiritual holiday aren't quite so angry.  Mostly, they just sense, in some vague way, that Christmas isn't as satisfying as they would like it to be.  So they blame commercialism and reflexively (but obtusely) endeavor to "put Christ back in Christmas."

I wonder, though.  What in the world are these people actually talking about?

Because Christmas was NEVER very much about Christ, was it?  I mean, "Christ" was never really IN Christmas to begin with.  Most historians concur that the celebration of Jesus' supposed birthday is just a thin veneer pasted onto an amalgam of much older and much less "holy" festivities.  In fact, it appears that the Christian Church adopted December 25 as the date of Jesus' birth for the largely cynical (or at least pragmatic) reason that it couldn't manage to suppress all the  pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice that already existed and were deeply loved by Romans as yet only superficially converted to Christianity. So Pope Julius I (or maybe another pope in the early 4th century) just decided that, since he couldn't make folks stop eating and drinking and carousing and buying needless stuff at the end of December, well, he would simply "join" them and label their hitherto pagan celebrations "Christian."

So it came to pass that Saturnalia was renamed--or christened--"Christmas.''  But as is so often the case in christenings, the effect of the measure was mostly a matter of semantics:  nothing much changed in actual fact.  True, a Christ-Mass would now be said at midnight--and, eventually, little creches would appear at church doors (some believe that St. Francis started this custom).  But the revelry, the feasting, the gift-exchanging, the singing and dancing (sometimes naked) in the streets continued much as before.  And, as the countries of northern Europe also converted to Christianity, the Church obligingly embraced other pagan rituals and traditions associated with the Winter Solstice:  the festival of Yule (lights, sacred logs, drinking, eating), the druidic and/or Germanic celebrations of nature and enduring life (holly, ivy, mistletoe, evergreen trees and, of course, more drinking and eating).  Fa la la la la, la la la la.

I find it amusing, therefore, that so many present-day churchgoers are surprised and upset that the desired metamorphosis from merry pagan "holiday" to solemn Christian "holy day" never really took hold.  How could it have been otherwise?  Of course, if the Church hadn't been so willing to compromise and so adamant in its desire to co-opt the nearly universal northern-hemisphere celebrations of solar rebirth, it might have insisted upon a more likely birthdate--sometime in the spring, perhaps (when shepherds might legitimately have been tending flocks at night)--or in that really dead time (rightly called "ordinary" in the Church calendar) around mid-July. Had such a scenario been adopted, the festival could have been kept essentially religious and suitably decorous, since no pre-existing and more appealing traditions would have been available to tempt people into frivolity or debauchery.

Oh well.  In any case, the Christmas story as told in Luke and Matthew is almost certainly little more than a pretty fairy tale--or, more fairly--a beautiful myth expressing the Church's belief/hope that God has somehow united himself with human beings and, in sharing our nature, allowed us also to share his.  But the theology of the Incarnation--also an idea that antedates Christianity--is probably better elaborated in the philosophical language of the first chapter of John than it is in the fanciful, albeit poetic, narratives of Luke and Matthew.

In short, I've come to the conclusion that I don't really need "Christ" in my Christmas--and I even feel, a bit perversely, perhaps?--that Christ doesn't much "belong" in this happy--but INCLUSIVE and UNIVERSAL (not narrowly parochial)-- celebration of the Sun's nadir and rebirth.  Christmas is just too big and too important to be reserved for the practitioners of a single religion.

Accordingly, for the first time in many years, I decided to celebrate this Christmas with exclusively pagan traditions, albeit those that have long been honored in my family (you will, no doubt, be disappointed to learn that we generally don't "do" naked dancing). In this eX-masing endeavor, I think I was pretty successful (with one notable exception, see below). I ate, drank, socialized, reconnected with old friends, exchanged gifts, decorated the house--in all the manners and modes customary to generations of Kellys and Kirkebys.  Except:  no church and no Jesus.

And you know what?  I didn't miss the "Christ" stuff very much, not even midnight mass.  The exception I mentioned, though, is MUSIC.  I must confess that, in this one domain, I broke my own rule and listened, almost exclusively, to Christian material.  I love Christmas music, the religious variety--the Bach, the Berlioz, the Handel, and the ancient carols in minor keys.  No "Jingle Bells" or "Rudolphs" or "White Christmases"  please!  That dreck is just too painful to my ears.

So I'm wondering:  isn't there any good Saturnalia music? If there is, please let me know.  Then, maybe--at the very least--we could put THAT back in Christmas.