Saturday, December 25, 2010

Thoughts on a Christmas Morning

If every Christian in America removed themselves to, say, the Australian outback, would the remaining Americans still celebrate Christmas?

Of course they would. Culturally speaking, Christmas has grown far beyond its Christian roots. We Christians might wish it were otherwise, but the cultural holiday we call Christmas does not belong to us alone. Not any more. In fact, I would say it is not particularly Christian at all. In defense of this assertion, I call to the dock Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and John "And-so-this-is-Christmas" Lennon.

American Christmas, at once glorious and schlocky, is a cultural phenomenon that is not driven by Christians, not defined by Christians, not guided or controlled by Christians. It is defined and driven to a large extent by marketers, who happen to have their finger on a deep longing in the human spirit. Perhaps we should say that cultural Christmas is ultimately defined by this longing. It is a longing that preceded even the "first Christmas," going all the way back, I suppose, to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden.

As further evidence, if any is needed, I submit to you a stack of popular Christmas songs a mile high, many of which I'm quite fond of myself. According to these, Christmas is all about gift-giving, snowflakes, going back to the old homestead, sleigh rides, etc. Even though most Americans live in places where snow is infrequent, images of muffler-wrapped carolers in the snow seem never out of place, because they touch something in us deeper than weather. Most of all these songs display a generalized nostalgia for the way we think things used to be. A desire to turn back. A longing for reunion.
Here we are as in olden days / happy golden days of yore.
Again, the evidence: a zillion greeting cards with Currier & Ives-like imagery of small towns, horse drawn buggies, gaslit streets, snowbound cottages in the country, etc. We want to fade into a charming nineteenth century lithograph of an idealized pre-industrial America. These images were already nostalgia-laden in Currier & Ives' time!

In the end it is innocence we long for, and innocence we almost seem to capture, if only for a moment, in the cloud of images and wishes that together coalesce around our Christmas celebrations. This is a deep and steady longing in all of us, I'm convinced.

And that's why Christmas now is more than a Christian holiday, like it or not. Its non-religious aspect has proven to have remarkable staying power. Cultural heft, you might say. That's why it seems foolish, in my opinion, for Christians to protest, "but Jesus is the reason for the season!" The reason for both the Christian Christmas and the cultural Christmas are ultimately the same: the understanding that we have lost our way.

We have lost our way. Everyone knows that. Christmas, however it is celebrated, reveals a recognition of this, and it is the starting place for understanding the why and the wherefore of Jesus. Why he came, why he lived the way he lived and did the things he did, and why he died the way he died.
“Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
[Update: See also Peter Berger's defense of commercialized Christmas.]


Mark Babikow said...

I like this, seems that you are saying that our failure to make Christmas a perfectly Jesus centered event is, in fact, why we need Jesus to be who He was. I completely agree...this makes me think about Jesus and how his birth was the beginning of His walk towards death...for give life to us. Because we have lost our way.

Anonymous said...

i'm just imagining a bunch of americans roaming around the australian outback...

Bob Spencer said...

Mark, that's right. It's foolish for us to try to claim exclusive rights over Christmas. Rather than trying to "put Christ back in Christmas" we ought to be trying to put Christ back in our Sunday morning church services.

Nance, playing worship songs on the didgeridoo!

Nate said...

Best thing I've read about Christmas all year!