Christmas has become the most difficult holiday. Like most of our holidays in post-Christian America, it has become detached from its religious origins. But moreso than our other holidays, it has become reattached to a free floating, rampant consumerism that is overlaid with a patina of economic patriotism (“Sales were up; a great Christmas for the economy; America is booming.”) And because it takes place in deep winter, it puts the hardship of life in high relief when we look just outside the edges of our own good fortune. And worst of all, in these times it puts the cruelty of our current social policies and political climate, and the moral hypocrisy that they demonstrate, on full naked display.
I envy those of you who remain strong Christians and can find in the Christmas story a real event that animates your faith. I applaud you and hope that your Christianity does not stop at the borders of that story while ignoring the suffering that is going on at other borders in the name of our supposedly Christian nation.
But the vast majority of us can no longer find an animating literal religious truth in the Biblical Christmas story. We may be able to expand it to metaphor or lean our moral grounding from “away in a manger” to “over the river and through the woods”, turning the celebration of the birth of the Christ child into a celebration of gathering and family, even though most of us travel over few rivers and through few woods, braving instead the difficulties of mall parking lots and on-line websites.
And therein to me lies the difficulty. Our fragile moral high ground on this holiday is found by setting the brightness of family gatherings against the darkness of the high winter season — a fair transition from the holiness of religious worship to the spiritual richness of familiality and the ritual of gathering and sharing. But in doing so, we have refused to give up the trappings of the origin story and have seen it completely coopted by the worst aspects of our American character — our rampant consumerism and jingoistic belief in our own exceptionalism. “Oh Come all ye Faithful” might still be heard, albeit with a surfeit of jingling bells and fake snow, but it has nothing to do with going to Bethlehem and adoring the King of Angels. Instead it is a sound track to accompany our going to Home Depot to buy dad a power saw or to take our incredibly wealthy white selves into a Lexus or Ford dealer to buy our beautiful white wife or George Clooney husband a new SUV or pickup truck complete with giant red bow. Or it is used to accompany military fly-overs as we prepare for the NFL pre-game show.
And if we move the myth one notch up, to Germanic Christmas trees and bells and decorations and snow-covered window panes, we find the same coopting, though of an even more pernicious, though less sacrilegeous, order. Santa, the the one legitimate piece of magic left to the children, is seen pulling down his beard and to reveal himself as dad, while winking from behind the Christmas tree with his gift of a diamond ring or a blender or a new Star Wars light saber. And he’s sitting in every mall in an overly festive cardboard gingerbread house selling pictures of Jenny and Johnny sitting on his lap for 15 dollars a pop.
So the manger is dead. Santa is dead. The Budweiser Clydesdales, as clever an aspirational ad campaign as was ever devised, have to be squeezed into the reality of driving to grandma’s Christmas eve in a cul-de-sac in the San Fernando Valley. What we are left with are presents and gathering, and if we blinker our eyes to the realities of the world, those are good enough.
Does this sound dyspeptic and curmudgeonly? Of course it does, because it is. Magic and belief are close siblings, and when you kill one you kill the other. And we will willingly kill them both in order to sell things, and that does not make me proud.
There is a layer of hope here, though. This is the only holiday predicated, at least in theory, on giving to others. It has at its core a charity and good heartedness. It’s just that we suck the soul out of every impulse toward goodness by tying it to legends we don’t believe in and rituals that have been overwhelmed by the desperate opportunism of the marketplace. Greed and frenzy scream loudly, while kindness and generosity whisper quietly with good hearts.
This is a good holiday. It may not be a “holy day” as the origins of the word would propose. But that’s only because of what we consider holy. There is no shame in the oft-repeated statement, “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.” Christmas is, sadly, no longer a religious holiday for most of us. But it can be and is a spiritual holiday. And that is holy in its own right if we abandon the sectarianism to which the notion of holiness is tied.
It may be naive, but I’d like to think that the gift of Jesus is to give us a holiday that we can detach from its origin story as needed, and attach to our better, broader spiritual impulses. What we need to do is detach from the venality and hypocrisy that have overwhelmed the season, and go back to the basic question of “What would Jesus do?” not “What would Jesus buy?” or “What would Jesus drive?” A special meal is not that different from a last supper, at least in its echoes. “Do this in remembrance of me”, though out of sequence in the Christian story, is not a false impulse in the breaking of bread and sharing of drink. Loaves and fishes is a fair metaphor for honest giving, and we echo the story of Lazarus when we raise in our hearts the memory of those who have passed and with whom we’ve shared Christmases past.
Does this distort? Yes. But it also affirms. And affirmation may be the most we can hope for at this odd time in the course of civilization. Christmas is based in our human goodness. We cannot let it be debased by our more venal impulses. Hold the family close, weep for those who come to mind who are no longer with us, and to the extent possible turn the hands and heart to acts of charity. And, in the best way of which you are capable, teach the children well.
I hope that your Christmas is a good one, and that in the feast of your togetherness you will find a way to drop a crumb of goodness to someone who is living more in the darkness than the light. We are all in this together. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.