Towards a Unified Theory of Christmas
Santa Rosa, Calif.
Dec. 24, 2002
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For some time now I've been working towards a unified theory of Christmas,
something that could not only make me feel really good about the synthesis of all the
new and old traditions that blend together to make up modern Christmas,
but even make me feel comfortable explaining it to my children (and anyone else
who seems, in the words of Cindy Lou Who, "kerbobbled" by the whole experience).
As I mentioned to Em the other night, there are at least two threads of old traditions
that have blended to bake up the trappings of our modern Christmas:
a pagan winter celebration of lights (where we get the Christmas tree, the Yule log,
the feasting, the lights, and lot of strange carols) and
the Christan tradition, celebrating the (otherwise undated) birth of Jesus
(from where we get the nativity, the wisemen, the star, the angels, the gift-giving, and
of course, the name).
But now there is at least a third Christmas, the one that -- unless you're a Druid or a devout Christian --
you probably spend the most time and emotional investment on: a worldwide celebration of shopping
and gift giving. It certainly rose out of the other two, but what's wrong with acknowledging that
it has taken on a life of it own? We thrive on it. As much as we grumble about crowds and the retail industry spends one-third of
its year selling Christmas, and the related revenues make up half its annual income.
So, given that this third Christmas supports our economy, and it's where we spend a great deal of
our time and emotion, why do we denigrate it? How often do we pretend to be disgusted by the "crass
commercialization" of Christmas while thumbing through the Sunday circulars? We bemoan the crowds
at malls, but worry for the future of a shopping center where they are thin. We decry the need
to spend hundreds of dollars on childrens' toys, but cheer the consumer confidence that keeps our
economy from double-dipping.
I think we enjoy this one the most; so why do we feel so guilty about it? I was prompted to wonder
about this when I saw in Bangkok earlier this month large neon displays that unashamedly wished us
a "Merry Xmas!" There was no ill-will in excising the Christ from the name,
since for Buddhists, Jesus Christ doesn't play too large a role in their holiday. It was an honest
acknowledgment that the modern holiday is about trees and lights, wrapped gifts and stuffed
stockings. As a Christian, the holiday for me has to include meaning about the birth of Jesus, the promise
he brings to the world, the story of his life. But it doesn't have to mean that to everyone,
including the Thais.
Beyond the economic need for Christmas, it seems to satisfy another deeper
psychological need. For the medieval pagans, the darkness and cold were true enemies. The
yule celebration offered some hope that the worst was over, and they were on their way back
towards balmy summer evenings with their long twilights. Darkness and cold aren't nearly so
daunting in our electrified, central-heating world. A more serious enemy is the frenetic pace
of daily life, and the endless errands and obligations. At Christmastime, these build to a worrying
peak -- just as the cold and dark did for our ancestors. But by Christmas Eve, the worst is over.
What hasn't been bought, won't be. We can let go and relax, like our ancient forebears did, knowing
that calmer times lie ahead. For us, as it was for them, it's a season of renewal and hope. At least until
the white sales of January.