Parishioners at my church were asked for Advent reflections, which are being emailed around each morning as we march toward Christmas. The following is my contribution for week three, and in the internet-driven and slightly self-indulgent desire to log every piece of writing published in any way, no matter how tiny, I am posting it here.
We’ve entered the season of paradoxes. It’s the time of year when we celebrate everything shutting down, the long grey trek before springtime renewal. And though in the South all of our reactions to a potential change in temperature are mostly gestural, the leaves still turn. The change still happens. It’s the time of year when we bring a green tree inside our house and light it up to compensate for the growing darkness outside; it’s the time of year when we celebrate nature’s impending hibernation by talking about a baby being born in a barn; it’s the time of year when we pretend an obese lush breaks into our houses to give presents to our children. It’s beloved but absurd, holy but chintzy, overwhelmed with sacredness and alcohol, equal parts childish greedy joy and adulthood’s cultivated disappointment, an annual season of overdoing it in every direction. And this excess of meaning is embedded within the Christmas holiday itself; it both means too much and not enough. It’s spiritual and materialistic, pagan and Christian. And it annually tests our capacity for ambivalence and contradiction.
And I personally am not looking forward to it. This year has already outdone itself in the paradox department, as far as I am concerned. We live in a Bizarro World, where friends you know and love behave in ways totally antithetical to human decency. Where a third of the population isn’t paying attention and the other third has lost its ability to discern good from evil, even in the most cartoonish of forms. This fall I’ve made a harvest of being appalled at my fellow man, and now look at my overflowing cornucopia: rage, disappointment, vague loss of faith in our shared decency, doubt at my ability to effectuate change. These ingredients don’t make much of a meal, or make me much fun to be around.
And yet, the paradox of society — of living in semi-steady cordiality with large groups of people who annoy you to no end — must continue. How do I live through not just the paradox of changing seasons but the paradox of this particular season? How do I meet the seasonal obligation to love everyone with my whole mind and my whole heart and not yell at them like the traffic I think they are? Aren’t these people the least in the kingdom of heaven? Or is that me?
I can recognize the oncoming paradox of our shared existence, but that doesn’t make it any easier to live through. But live through it I must, because the days are getting shorter no matter how I feel about them. Days are like that. We’re all about to be stuck inside this winter darkness together. Who’s going to plug in the lights?
In hindsight, my contribution seems a little strained, overdetermined with unseen expository baggage. But rather than re-write it for this blog post, I’m just going to riff a little more, try to aerate the waters a bit.
One of the guiding texts of this small bit, and of my thoughts about Christmas these past few years, has been Adam Gopnik’s book Winter: Five Windows on the Season. It’s a collection of speeches he gave for the 2011 Massey Lectures put on by the CBC.
The guiding light here is of course the lecture on Christmas, where Gopnik details its modern transformation over the past 150 years. Before reading this book, and generally before having children, I was steadily growing to despise Christmas. I won’t list the reasons. They were not particularly original; feel free to supply your own. This dam of cynicism was broken first by children, whose enthusiasm is irrepressible and contagious. Their enthusiasm is not just for the annual raining down of presents but also for the high theatricality of the whole season. To them, Thanksgiving is fine, family and a big meal and a TV parade, but Christmas is fun. It accrues excitement as it moves along, like a giant snowball of wonder, and the theatricality pervades every aspect of their lives. This moves in contradistinction to my own holiday feeling that Thanksgiving is the grown-up holiday, the logical, rational, mature holiday. If we can dispense with the grade-school Puritan Thanksgiving origin myth and culinarily outmoded turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce, then Thanksgiving is great. A couple of days to stop time and attempt to appreciate one’s historically absurd first-world bounty. No prayers, no religion to fight about, above all no gifts to contaminate the symbolism, just a shared meal, a brief respite of community.
(Of course, if we really want to improve Thanksgiving, we should introduce some restrictions: no stuffing, no travel, and your nuclear family must eat with strangers. No extended sub-family reunions, and you must make the meal with these strangers. The main problem with Thanksgiving, as with all holidays, is the encrusting of tradition, which always kills the germ of fun in the end.)
But what Gopnik’s book taught me was how the children were onto something, namely that Christmas feels fun to them in part because it’s such an emotional and symbolic mess. Gopnik unpacks the mess: Santa is a clear descendent of the Saturn figure in Saturnalia festivals from ancient Rome; cultures throughout history (especially in cold climates) marked the winter solstice with trees and lights; our modern conception of Santa Claus primarily derives from Thomas Nast cartoons. Coincidentally, and interesting given our current historical situation, Gopnik points out that the Nast cartoons of Santa were quite similar to his caricatures of Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall infamy. So, our contemporary notion of Santa is also at the same time a caricature of unrestrained capitalistic corruption. Stick that in your war on Christmas.
The other bit that bothers me about Christmas is the desperate yoking together of the Christian birth of Jesus narrative with the elf-driven night of debauchery. (One might call this the fundamental bipolar quality of our contemporary Christmas.) This yoking together manifests itself via the relentless literalization of Jesus, which begins with Christmas and reaches its apotheosis with Easter, with people acting out the Stations of the Cross, and passion plays, and extreme, Mel Gibson-style sadistic descriptions of violence. Forget the presents under the tree; this is the childish part of Christmas, this blind heedless baby talk. At times it feels like everyone needs to go back to school: the surface stuff is not what the Bible is about, or not only what the Bible is about. It’s like a quality quiche: the good stuff is what’s on the inside. There are layers of meaning, for pete’s sake. Getting caught up in the literal surface details, in the quality of the hay in the manger, in aspects that are completely unverifiable in terms of history, misses the point. Perhaps my Unitarian slip is showing too forcefully here, but God talk makes me queasy.
My other main beef with Christianity — you’ll have noticed by now that I am not a deep religious thinker — is the relentless Protestant emphasis on belief. So much time is spent trying to coerce people into believing all of this stuff. What about the old-fashioned utilitarian value of showing up and doing good? Or just actively avoiding doing bad? Let’s save fewer souls and fill more sandbags.
Anyway, that’s the religious disposition I was coming from when writing this bit, moving away from hating Christmas by recognizing its culturally mongrel and incoherent nature. And then, of course, the Disaster occurred, and you see the result. About that Disaster, I don’t have anything else yet to say, nothing worth printing at least. I’m still looking for someone to plug in the lights, or hoping to acquire the ability to see in the dark.
I’m not sure if any of this rambling has clarified my Advent reflection. But nonetheless it feels good to blog about it. Worth remembering, that: blog’s an ugly word but a good feeling.