Joseph Bottum, (not simply) having a wonderful Christmastime
Dec 24, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 15 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
I saw an inflatable reindeer this December, out on the snow of a suburban lawn. And, of course, beside it were a candy cane, a Santa, and a sleigh: eight-foot-high vinyl blowups of the secularized action figures of the winter holiday that dare not speak its name. Brightly colored, their heads tilting in ironic self-comment as they slowly deflated in the December cold, they were silly, showy, and weirdly over-sized—cheesy almost beyond belief, framed by the hundreds of Christmas lights tacked to the house. And I loved them, smiling as I drove past.
They made me happy, in fact, for the rest of the afternoon. I don’t know, maybe there’s some way to derive satisfaction from feeling superior to such displays: illuminations of that tribe, homo suburbus, in all its anthropological peculiarity. One could easily imagine a New Yorker piece on the topic—circa, say, 1979—devoted to the Christmas folkways of the middle class and written with wry wonder and vast confidence in the author’s higher social and aesthetic sensibilities.
But I liked that inflated reindeer precisely because it was so extravagantly silly and peculiar, so over-the-top. And why not? There’s something far more Christmasy, something much more accurately responding to the season, in those inflated lawn ornaments than in the tasteful and delicate Christmas gestures, set on the mantel, in the houses of those who would sneer at that poor reindeer.
Of course, maybe it’s just me. I have a soft spot for all the junk of Christmas. I enjoy the sweaters knit with Christmas trees, the mugs with snowflakes, the mistletoe, the holly—those little cocktail napkins badly printed with “Merry Christmas” in red and green. The overflowing of ornaments, and the angel on top of the tree, and the Nutcracker nutcrackers, and the Dickensian characters, and the sugar-plum fairies. Santa Claus hats and ties with candy canes dancing on them and elves, God help us. Elves.
Forget the people running around decrying the commercialization of Christmas. They’re not wrong, exactly, but the complaint is an old one: Open any newspaper from the 1940s, and you’ll find, somewhere in December, an editorial moaning about how commercial the holiday has become. But what all that is, really, is a last bit of Puritanism, a final remnant of the religious feeling that wanted to strip the altars and clear the world of decorations that might draw the eye away from God. Christmas, as we practice it, has always reflected an older world—a medieval world, a time of festivals.
Under all the tacky Christmas detritus—under the colored bulbs and the plastic garlands and the scented candles and the fake holly stems—there lies the pulsing heart of the holiday: a child, the hope of the world, born in a cattle shed. Turn that Puritan thought around: All the mess of Christmas does not need to be understood as a distraction from the divine but as homage to it. We’re gilding something already golden, yes, but that’s what festivals do. They pour out a wild, crazy street fair on top of a holy day, in honor of that holiness.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the way we celebrate Christmas emerges from how we experience the theology of Christmas. In the midst of winter, God offered his greatest gift, like a fire lit in a cold world, and Christians responded with a desire for bright colors and wild decorations and extravagance in the darkest days of the year.
Without the church, without the structure given by the liturgical calendar that understands Advent as a time of penance and charity, the holiday can easily lose its center and drift off into meaningless self-indulgence. But if you have the church’s calendar, if you have the actual Christ child, at the center of the holiday, why not accept the rest as the gift that it is?
You’re not going to win against it all, anyway. So just surrender to the wacky roar of the Christmas season and let it talk to you about the human response to God. The awful modern Christmas songs in elevators, and the salesgirls in elf outfits, and the wrappings, and the trees. The lights and the ornaments and the cards. Those awful Hallmark cards, stuffing the mailbox every December. Or, worse, the family photos with everyone crammed into Christmas clothes and even the unhappy dog with a red bow around his neck.
Just surrender to it and let it make you happy. Like that inflatable reindeer, out on a Christmas lawn. Dancer, I think he’s supposed to be. Or maybe Prancer. Donner or Blitzen. Something Christmasy, anyway. Something wonderfully silly, born from the deep heart of the season.