Friday, December 08, 2006

humbugs of the world unite!

An interesting little article in Christianity Today highlights the return of "Christmas" among retailers this year. (Frankly, I hadn't noticed a difference, but maybe that's because I still have to do my shopping.) Perhaps more interesting are the last couple of paragraphs:

Those who engage in combat to remind others of "the reason for the season" would do well to remember that the Christmas season as such has only existed for about a century and a half. The 1,500-year-old Christian season that precedes December 25 is Advent, a time of fasting, penitence, and somber waiting. Protestants who eschew Advent because of an association with Rome have precedent for doing so. But the Reformers, Puritans, colonial Baptists, and others who gave rise to modern evangelicalism either passed Christmas Day with a simple worship service, or strongly opposed such a "popish" observance.

But please, the next time you're in Wal-Mart and the clerk wishes you "Merry Christmas," don't get an angry look in your eye, poke your finger into the clerk's chest, and say, "It's Advent! Christmas isn't until December 25!" That would be really annoying.
I'm reminded of a book I read (can't recall the title) a couple of years ago, about the history of Christmas celebration. It highlighted the way in which commercialism went hand-in-hand with the shift to the family-centered holiday that we know today. Back in the days of serfs and lords, the season was a time to celebrate the harvest and enjoy the newly-brewed alcohol and newly-slaughtered meat. Agricultural life naturally slowed down in the winter, so people had more free time, and it was part of a good lord's responsibility to his underlings to give them a chance to share in what they'd produced. In the wake of the industrial revolution and associated urbanization, the system broke down. Nameless, faceless employees still saw job prospects suffer in the winter months, but their relationship to the wealthy had become more detached. In place of the more congenial celebrations of an earlier time, roving bands would barge into the rich neighborhoods, demanding handouts. (Sort of like trick-or-treating for adults, but louder and scarier.) Needless to say, the upper classes weren't happy with these new holiday traditions.

The book goes on to explain how the season was re-shaped into a more friendly, less class-conscious occasion. It looks at literary evidence, like Dickens's A Christmas Carol, where the lead poor guy and the lead rich guy (who didn't start life that way) are both white-collar. The closest Scrooge comes to the truly indigent is when he is solicited for a charitable donation by noblemen, who are themselves even richer than he is. And this marks one of the shifts, as the idea of the well-off giving charitably moves from the arena of direct contact to that of giving to an organization. Another shift in giving patterns focused the giving on parents to children--still paternalistic, but it redirected the exchange to a more socially palatable setting. This is where commercialism came into play, because obviously children already had ready access to their parents' kitchens. Now, it had to be about the novelty of the gifts they would buy for them. The book also looks at "The Night before Christmas" (I don't think that was the actual name of the poem--"A Visit from St. Nicholas," maybe?), which replaces the night-time visit of obnoxious workers with that of a cute little elf (notice that at this stage, he was little and non-threatening), who gives gifts instead of taking from those he visits. Now everyone could be on the receiving end of the Christmas spirit (consumption, not giving). And of course, he quickly became a commercial icon.

Anyway, the shift took Christmas celebration from something more akin to Mardi Gras, and made it about charitable donations, family, and of course shopping. I thought it was a very interesting take on the season, and I think it highlights the complexity involved. Can we de-commercialize Christmas and still keep it a prominent holiday in our society? And if so, what kind would it be? Back to something like its raucous ancestor? One thing the book notes is that there's always been some kind of religious observance involved, but it tends to exist on the fringes. It's not what really gets people going, and if that's all there was, it wouldn't be much of a holiday in the scope of society as a whole. Is it possible to redeem Christmas without taking it apart? Do we want it purified as a churchly event, if that means it becomes irrelevant to the rest of society?

In a sense, the questions run along the lines of New Calendar vs. Old Calendar. When you boil it down, the only thing that's significantly gained (in my opinion) by following the New Calendar is the opportunity to celebrate Christmas with everyone else around us. Assuming, of course, that that is a gain. Which do we prefer? keeping Nativity separate from the "corrupt" holiday that Christmas has become (and taking advantage of post-Christmas sales to boot), or engaging with our culture, to sanctify the holiday where it stands (perhaps in the same way that we got Dec 25 in the first place, as an existing holiday that was suitably close to Theophany)? I'm not sure I have a good answer.

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