"Just a hurried line . . . to tell a story which puts the contrast between our feast of the Nativity and all this ghastly "Xmas" racket at its lowest. My brother heard a woman on a 'bus say, as the 'bus passed a church with a Crib outside it, 'Oh Lor'! They bring religion into everything. Look--they're dragging it even into Christmas now!'" --
C. S. Lewis, Letters to an American Lady (Dec. 29, 1958)
Macy's-zation of Christmas. I grind my teeth on Andy Williams' song, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." I cring when I hear mash-ups of "Rudolph" and "Hark the Herald," as I did this morning, and the only thing worse, of course, is if it were mashed threefold with Evie Tornquist's "Come on ring those bells." (I like Evie, mind you, just not a mash-up of Evie.) And I rue the loss of Advent in so many churches.
Then I rummaged around the internet and realized my rant was going to be a massive cliche. John Wilson via the WSJ via David Neff via Andy Crouch via Facebook confirmed that fact.
I thought I could pull out the "More people commit suicide and succumb to despair while warring households shatter" argument. Another rummaging of the internet and a quick visit to snopes crushed that hope.
lamented the fact that his team was slated to play the Miami Heat on Christmas Day. He said, "It's like Christian holidays don't mean anything to them anymore. We just go out and play and entertain the TV. It's really weird." I thought, "Stick it to them, Phil." Then ESPN sports writer Mark Kreidler soured my joy with a cynical read of Jackson. Kreidler's conclusion was frigidly simple:
"For the record, the NBA is determinedly agnostic when it comes to holy days, holidays and any other days you can name. The league schedules basketball games on Christmas Day because the television ratings are tremendous. That's it."
Santa Claus on a cross, right, because at least then we would get to experience a truly satisfying religious symbol of a man who lays down his life for the naughty and nice? Regrettably I found things again less than simple. The answer to the question, "We all hate it, right?" is Yes and No and Heck yeah and Who gives a crap and "What the what?".
(A "What the what?" sampler: "Christianity and its total disregard for self to the benefit of others is the sole cause for the success of the U.S. economy and, by extension, the economic health of the entire world.")
real Saint Nicholas, dragged him into a creepy Astro minivan with no windows and locked him up in a warehouse on the outskirts of Atlanta, only to replace him with a fat doppelgänger and an alternate myth that would rule American civic religion during the last month of the Gregorian calendar? Maybe. But that's already been said.
So here I am sitting in my parent's "locutorium," enjoying a warm fire, a cup of Earl Grey tea, while Phaedra and dad pay a visit to Chuy's, wondering why I'm still feeling out of sorts. I think the answer is this.
Merry or happy with respect to what? For the record, I love the way my family celebrates Christmas. In many ways it's quite wonderful. We laugh a lot and we eat enough Italian foods and drinks, starting on Dec. 23 and running into New Year's Eve, to certify as a merry event with the National Italian American Foundation.
Two things are potentially confusing, I think, and with this I'll bring my reflection to a close, as I focus less on "Christmas Americana" and more on the experience of faithful Christians who attend their churches during the month of December.
A second reason we need Advent to show us what to do with Christmas and with ourselves is that it reminds us that things make best sense in the context of a narrative. (For those who care, Alasdair MacIntyre sits over my shoulder at this moment.) I'll put my point this way.
When we say "merry Christmas," we need always to think Zechariah/Elizabeth/Mary/Joseph/JohntheBaptist/Shepherds/citizensofBethlehem/Jesus. We need to let them help us determine the meaning of the word "merry," and trust me, they each tasted merriness acutely.
Zechariah? Merry because he was given a son at last, a son he could really be proud of. Sad because he did not get to see his son grow up and become a man.
Elizabeth? Merry because in her old age she was delivered from the epithet "the old barren one"(Luke 1:36). Sad because her son was destined to live a hard, lonely life, from which she could not protect him.
Mary? Merry because the Son of the Most High was born of her by the power of the Spirit. Sad because a sword would pierce her soul on his account, over and over.
Joseph? Merry because he was chosen to be Jesus' surrogate father. Sad because the shame surrounding the suspicious conditions of Jesus' birth would continue to haunt the family (Luke 3:23).
John the Baptist? Merry because he was chosen to be the forerunner of the Lord. Sad because even at the end of his life, in prison, he struggled with doubt.
The Shepherds? Merry because they were chosen to receive the first announcement of Christ's birth? Sad, well, because they had to go back to their socially "lowly" jobs.
Citizens of Bethlehem? Merry because they were the privileged citizens who welcomed God himself into their village. Sad because all boys two years and younger were slaughtered on his account.
Jesus? Merry because of the joy set before him, he endures the cross and swallows death whole. Sad because of the hard-heartedness that surrounds him on every side.
twelve days of Christmas on which we remember the Incarnation is a feast after all. On it we have every permission to make riotous merriment. Our merriment, however, shall always be qualified by Advent and by Lent and by every broken piece of our lives. We won't know the undiluted merriment of the Triune God until the eschaton.
If I'm lucky, Phaedra and I will one day find a group of friends to celebrate the twelve feasting days of Christmas properly--with much merriment.