Joseph Bottum embraces Christmas clamor
Dec 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 16 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
The trouble with Christmas is that it would consume the whole world if it could—or subsume, maybe, like an amoeba. Left to its own devices, Christmas would wrap itself around the universe and digest it whole.
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In other words, Christmas doesn’t want to come pussyfooting around toward the middle of December, in the diffident, slightly apologetic way of modern religion—waving its pseudopods as though to say, “Well, yes, it is rather old-fashioned, but the elderly parishioners like it, and it does have a kind of modern meaning, if one stops to think about it.” Christmas wants to stomp in and take over the calendar, and if everything as far back as Halloween gets shoved into a corner as a result, well, that’s just fine with Christmas. It’s the bigfoot at the party. Any party it can find.
Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July: Most holidays are a kind of reaching back, calling up the past just so we can catch a whiff of it—like those peculiar watermelon-rind pickles and candied crab apples my grandmother used to put out for winter celebrations, the faint scent of summer come again in the cold. Not that any of us ever actually eats them, but then their esculence is not the point. They serve a symbolic function and, having served, wend their way toward the garbage disposal. Happily, I always like to think, although I admit I could be wrong.
Anyway, Christmas isn’t like that. It’s not a tame holiday (as C.S. Lewis would have said). It may be domestic, but it sure ain’t domesticated. Christmas roars like a wildfire, or a Dickens character, as it sweeps through the stores, leaving in its ashy wake those aisles of snowflake sweaters and Nutcracker nutcrackers and gimcrack ornaments and plastic trees. Christmas took over my dining-room table the day after Thanksgiving, with Advent candles and boxes of cards and logjams of wrapping-paper rolls and stacked spindles of ribbon. Someday we’ll be able to eat there again, but not, I suspect, till it’s actually, you know, Christmas.
Christmas wants my living room, as well, and what Christmas wants, Christmas gets: the tree, the presents, the crèches with their trains of animals grown now so elaborate they resemble nothing so much as the day Noah decided it was time to unload the ark. Christmas wants the front lawn and the front porch, too. Christmas wants the streets and the storefronts, and it will even take the lampposts if you let it. Christmas will act all sophisticated—demure and tastefully understated—if that’s the only way an aesthete or a snob will let it get a foothold. But Christmas doesn’t mind a little earthiness, either.
In fact, Christmas probably prefers the earthiness. The Magi came to that manger and knelt before it—masters of high intellectual pursuits, bringing expensive gifts. And more power to them. But the first to arrive at the cattle shed were the poor shepherds, and it was to those shepherds that the angels sang. The more wild our celebrations are, the more strange, the more tinselly and greened with plastic garlands, the more incarnadined with holly berries and frosted with snowmen—the more authentic it is. Christmas is at its truest the more it is more. Always and ever more.
It’s not just snobs who sneer at the vulgar wildness of the season. The deeply religious, too, issue their annual complaints about the commercializing of Christmas and the secular pseudo-religiosity to which our peculiar church-state jurisprudence in this country has forced us. And through it all, those sincere and serious Christians bemoan what they perceive as the disappearance of Christ, the reason for the holiday, from the holiday that bears his name. Like Flannery O’Connor’s sad and hilarious “Church of Christ Without Christ” in her novel Wise Blood, we’re trying to live within the orbit of Christianity without the center that gives it meaning.
I know what they mean, and I sympathize with their impulse. But those serious Christian commentators are wrong in their way—as wrong, really, as the aesthetes and snobs. From its early days, absorbing pagan winter festivals, Christmas has always been a hungry thing, devouring the world around it. Yes, our seasonal practices are odd these days: commercialized and secularized and vulgar and plastic. And yet, like a medieval festival, our practices still reflect the event from which they sprang. Theology drives psychology: The way we feel the season comes from the way it began.
And the way it continues. I don’t want less of that feeling. I want more. And fortunately, Christmas is happy to oblige.
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