The purpose of this series of essays has been venting a lifetime of pent-up frustrations about how Christmas is celebrated. I've complained about Santa in the manger, carols during Advent, capitalist exploitation of a religious holiday, and my favorite rant of them all, harmonizing the Nativity stories of Matthew and Luke to put both wise men and shepherds in Bethlehem. It's been fun, and I'm probably not done yet; but this morning, home from school with a chest cold, I find myself wondering if maybe I haven't gone a little too far in my curmudgeonly grumbling.
Because, quite honestly, Christmas has never been anything but a mash-up.
One of the first "shocking" revelations one discovers when delving into the history of Christmas is that Jesus was, if one takes the gospel of Luke seriously, probably born in the spring or summer, because the shepherds were out in the fields with their flocks. (During the winter, they keep them in the barns at night, which would mean even less room for a baby to be born--but that's a different rant.) Setting aside the 99.9% certainty that Luke's (and Matthew's, too) Nativity story is fiction, let's ask the question of how Jesus's birthday got moved to a date suspiciously close to the Winter Solstice.
The most frequent explanation for this is an effort to shift religious focus away from Saturnalia, the Roman solstice revels that featured carousing, drunkenness, and sacrificial gladiatorial combat. As the Christian God began to supplant the Roman pantheon throughout the empire, social conservatism (a hallmark of both Judaism and Christianity) frowned upon the gluttonous feasting of pagan holidays. However, Saturnalia was commonly celebrated from December 17-23, so perhaps Christmas was seen by Christians as a time for revelers to come back to church and repent of the excesses of the previous week--not unlike the way Ash Wednesday comes after the Carnival of Mardi Gras in modern New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro. Whatever the rationale, it's clear the early church was capitalizing on an already existing festival and seeking to reinterpret it through Christian eyes.
It also makes sense that, despite the teachings of both the Hebrew and Greek scriptures, these leaders respected the ebb and flow of seasonal rhythms, and felt the need to program church holidays that corresponded with solstices and equinoxes. Thus Christmas joins the cavalcade of winter holidays celebrating the return of the sun as the shortened days begin to lengthen once more. In John's gospel, Jesus calls himself "the Light of the World," so it makes perfect sense to celebrate his birth right after the winter solstice.
The point I'm making is that from its very beginnings, Christmas was grafted onto other celebrations. And while the intent may have been to supplant the carousing that typified pagan solstice rites, this effort failed miserably. During the Puritan revolt that was Britain's true Reformation, Christmas was banned precisely because of the wanton drinking with which it was associated. It took the Victorian shift toward enshrining family values to render it the mostly benign (set aside for a moment the chilling abomination of Black Friday riots), child-friendly season it is today.
The religious holiday has, in fact, always functioned in uneasy alliance with the very human desire to party hearty at the solstice. Many of our most treasured Christmas traditions have come from seasonal pagan revels: Christmas trees, caroling, nog, wassail, feasting, gift-giving, yule logs. Much that we consider part of the religious side of Christmas has been lifted from these ancient ways of celebrating the return of the sun.
Excess has always been a part of the festival, then, as has the practice of blending traditions. Realizing this, is it any wonder Christmas has become such a jangling mash-up of disparate ideals and practices?
For many years, I concluded my Advent arguments for sanity by reading Dr. Seuss's "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" from the pulpit. My congregations tolerated this because, I expect, they had walked through all the stages of Christmas frustration with me, and they knew how it would end: with their Grinchy pastor scratching his head because "it came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes or bags!" Yes, for all his puritanical efforts to purge the day of its commercial excesses, the Grinch is startled to learn that all the sound and fury grew out of something deeper, a sense of hope that united all the revelers in song, even knowing that all their careful preparations had been stripped away while they slept.
I conclude this essay with a story I heard from a superannuated (British Methodist for "retired") pastor, Rev. Benjamin Ohre, one Christmas Eve when I was in England. It was his explanation of why, no matter how loud and obnoxious American tourists might be, how aggressive American culture might be, or how hegemonic American foreign policy might be, he never engaged in America-bashing.
During World War II, Benjamin Ohre was captured and imprisoned by Japanese forces. In the prison camp were also Australian and American troops. From time to time, the Red Cross would deliver care packages for the soldiers. One of those deliveries coincided with Christmas. In an effort to divide the prisoners, the Japanese commandant delivered the entire care package to the Americans in the camp, expecting this would create resentment among the other prisoners. But then word got around that every other prisoner was invited to the American barracks. When they came, they found all the contents of the care package laid out on the bunks of the American troops, and were invited to walk through the barracks, taking something--a chocolate bar, a pack of cigarettes, some other luxury item--as a gift for themselves. The commandant's strategy had backfired: rather than divide the camp along national lines, it had united them in their common humanity. And that, for Benjamin Ohre, was the best Christmas ever.
Christmas is a mélange of traditions, many of them excessive and divisive. At its best, though, Christmas can be a time that brings people together, celebrating the truth that, however dark the season, light always triumphs in the end.