Saturday, December 07, 2013

Keeping Christmas at Home

Last Sunday was the first day of Advent, which means in the most traditional sense possible the beginning of the Christmas season. Of course, Retail Christmas Season began five minutes after Halloween ended, prompting me to some bleak reflections in my last post. But the truth is, I love Christmas, no matter how much this year's commercial display may be getting me down. Last Saturday I bought a wreath and a bunch of assorted greenery. My spouse made an Advent wreath from some of it, and decorations from the rest. Christmas lights frame our living room window, and I've got some nice holiday jazz on the stereo. I enjoy this holiday a lot. But the Christmas-Industrial Complex defeats the season's purpose.

This is not a post about the meaning of Christmas. "The Meaning of Christmas" has become one of those phrases that has been used in so many slippery ways that it's become hard to use straightforwardly, even with the best of intentions. This is a post about the uses of Christmas.

Christmas belongs to you. It does not belong to The Man, whoever The Man might be. It is not meant for you to work harder on your boss's behalf. It is not meant for you to spend more in order to make Wall Street happy. It is meant for you to refresh yourself, physically, spiritually, and emotionally, using whichever form of refreshment you need. What it was never, ever meant to be was an excuse for the Powers That Be to squeeze more work or more money out of you.

Like every medieval holiday, Christmas began as a break from daily labor, an interruption in the grind of ordinary time. Of course that break had an official religious purpose; every holiday was originally a holy day. Religious observance was the only acceptable excuse for a day when you didn't work. And of course, people did a lot of other things beside praying and churchgoing on those official holy days. Calling the "true meaning of Christmas" religious is not the whole truth, because the religious celebration (no matter how genuine, or how personally important to me) has never been the whole story.

In a comedy by one of Shakespeare's contemporaries, a character who's been tricked into marrying a prostitute (which is considered hilarious), consoles himself:

Marry a harlot, why not? . . . if none should be married but those who are honest [i.e. chaste], where should a man seek a wife after Christmas?

17th century Christmas was not a festival of childhood innocence. It was a holiday for adults to feast, drink, and make merry in adult ways, like a snowier Mardi Gras. (This is one of the reasons that the Puritans despised it, and did not celebrate it in early New England.) If it seems odd to have a holiday from the church calendar celebrated with drinking and sex, remember that Mardi Gras comes from the church calendar, too.

And to say that the "meaning of Christmas" is "the children" ignores most of the holiday's history. The 19th century re-invented Christmas as a family holiday centered on kids, but since Christmas has been celebrated in various ways since the 4th century AD, that's about 1500 years of Christmas not being about the children. (It was also the Victorians who turned Christmas into a shopper's festival to boost end-of-the-year consumption. The focus on children and the materialism arrived hand in hand.)

So I'm not going to tell you that modern Christmas is too secular or too materialistic. It has always been secular and excessive, just as it has always been spiritual and reflective. It has never been one or the other. The meditation and the merry-making are part of the same thing.

Christmas is a break from ordinary time: an annual pause. It is a day to suspend our everyday concerns and our anxious labor. That has been its use and purpose for more than a thousand years. Those who have no interest in its religious symbolism can still profit from that break. The body needs it. The mind and the soul need it. And it comes at the most necessary time, the darkest hour of the year, when nature, including our own nature, cries out for a rest and a respite. It is an annual snow day, scheduled in advance because we all need it.

There is nothing wrong with buying things for Christmas. There is something wrong with the pressure to buy things for Christmas, with the relentless campaign to make Yuletide consumers prop up our sagging economy, with the annual barbaric spectacle of Black Friday. There is something wrong with turning an annual day of rest into a fount of stress, competition, and financial anxiety. Christmas is meant to be a step out of our daily grind. This is true whether you spend the day drinking, giving gifts, or singing hymns: they are all faces of the same fundamental, necessary break from the everyday. And that purpose can be served by December traditions that have nothing to do with Christianity. The traditional Manhattan Chinese-restaurant-and-movie combination is a seasonal respite par excellence, specifically designed by and for non-Christians.

What Christmas was never meant to be is an intensification of the everyday routine, the rat race writ large. And that, no matter how many sentimental pieties it comes wrapped in, is deadly. It is inhumane at its heart. That takes the bleak midwinter and makes it bleaker.

Take a break this December. Your body and your spirit need it. Celebrate the official holiday any way you like, even if Jesus isn't involved. (It's not his actual birthday; he won't mind.) Some of you will have your batteries recharged by connecting with family. Some will feel better after a little quiet prayer. Some will benefit most from a new sweater and a stiff egg nog. But whatever it is, make sure you end the season more rather than less rested. The holiday is meant to nourish you, not the other way around. And there's a lot of winter left to go. This is the moment to turn on some lights and relax.

cross-posted from Dagblog

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