Tuesday, December 20, 2005

True Meaning of Christmas?!? Bah Humbug!

I’m sick of hearing about the True Meaning of Christmas.


I recognize that I have a non-traditional take on some of these things.  My diatribe on Thanksgiving (Nov. 16) was generally well-received, but I don’t think any of the things I complained about will change very much.  Certainly not enough to notice.

So I write this with a degree of resignation, not seriously thinking that what I have to say will affect the world at large a whole lot.  But then, that isn’t the point.  I don’t write these things for the general population.  I write them for you.  I can’t be sure how many people are reading this blog, but I can be sure that there’s practically nobody here that I don’t personally know, which means I’m among friends as I do this.  Maybe it will mean something to you, as you have meant something to me.


The Christmas bustle starts sometime in October, since Thanksgiving, as previously mentioned, is not a marketing holiday.  In fact, Thanksgiving is only used by retailers (other than grocery stores, bless them) as a convenient marker for the kickoff of the Rumble in the Aisles, the massive Friday-after-Turkey discount extravaganza that never fails to get Orlando on the map for largest number of people arrested at WalMart.  Click the link if you didn’t hear about this.  There’s even video.

This type of behavior is exactly what the religious types among us bemoan at the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.  It’s a Christmas sale, for crying out loud.  Peace on Earth, people.  But no.  The struggle to get that one more thing seems to drown out the Reason for the Season, and that leads to an unbelievable amount of hand-wringing and sanctimonious preaching from the devout that the Real Meaning of Christmas Has Been Forgotten.  Woe be unto us!

Let’s deal with the reason for the season then, just to get it out of the way.  Christmas, as you might expect if you’ve ever looked at the word, has to do with Christ.  It is, in fact, the Mass of Christ, the celebration of the birth of the Savior of Mankind into the world.  I won’t retell the story, because if you don’t know it, even if you are Jewish, then you’ve lived your whole life on Mars.  Yes, I am fully aware that Christ was not born in December.  I am also, being a Classical Civ major, more than usually quick to remind trivia buffs that the Christmas celebration is in December because of a desire to quash the observance of the feast of the winter solstice, celebrated variously to herald the death and rebirth of Mithras (Sol Invicta!) or, among the Romans, to celebrate the feast of the Saturnalia, both festivals being filled with bacchanalian revelry.

Email chain letters notwithstanding, the candy cane was not invented to help us remember the blood of Christ on a shepherd’s crook, nor is the Christmas tree a Christian symbol of the resurrected Lord (this would be a lot more convincing at Easter, wouldn’t it?), nor is the song the Twelve Days of Christmas some sort of backmasked tribute to the Baby Jesus.  Sometimes candy is just candy.

But debunking all this mythology doesn’t change the fact that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ.  This event really doesn’t need any trappings, boxes or bags to make it important.  The birth of God is going to be significant even if we don’t choose to celebrate it starting three months early.

I once had a discussion with a friend of mine who is a borderline agnostic (raised one religion, now regularly attends no church, but is pretty sure there’s a God).  We were discussing the foreknowledge of God, and how we could be free to choose our own path in this life if there was an omniscient being who already knew what we were going to do.  It occurred to me that if God were not omniscient, if He were not in complete command of the situation, if He were not able to make all things – all things – work together for good for them that believe, that I would have no interest in worshipping Him.  What kind of God is surprised, or even occasionally outmaneuvered?  Wouldn’t you want your God to be better than you are?

Man, I sure would.

Fortunately, God is actually God, and that means that He’s got things pretty well in hand, whatever we do to rain death and destruction and misery down on ourselves.  This would include the birth of His Son, I think.  There is no way He is surprised that the events surrounding His Son’s condescension have spawned a monthlong marketing bonanza that makes the heathen feasts that used to mark the end of the year look like a ladies cotillion.  This has not caught God off guard.  He is still God, and He is still running things.

And He’s smarter than we think.

Yes, we hear from the pulpit over and over how we’ve lost the Spirit of the Season, that Santa Claus has replaced the babe in the manger, how we concern ourselves far more with Decking the Halls than with having an occasional Silent Night to contemplate the birth that makes the holiday happen in the first place.  But do we?

Here’s a line at WalMart at 11pm the week of Christmas.  There are enormous carts filled with magical – truly, folks, magical – goodies of every type and description.  It’s late and it’s a work day and everyone is tired, including the cashier.  Someone fumbles with her purse and the change goes spilling across the floor like candy from a broken jar.  The woman tiredly reaches down and starts chasing the glittering coins, but she isn’t alone.  Everyone in line is on the floor with her, smiling, scooping copper and zinc back into her purse.  Except one man, who reaches across while she’s down there, zips his card through the reader, punches in his PIN, winks at the cashier, and puts the small sacks of her goodies into her cart.  Bends down and scrabbles on the floor with the rest of us.  When the woman stands up her bill is paid and no one will own up to having done it.  The cashier wishes her a Merry Christmas and out the door she goes, bewildered and grateful and tearful.  As are we all.

Tell me you’re going to see that in March.

Here’s something else.  The line is longish, and especially after something like that, people get to talking.  I ask the man in front of me “so, what you got there?”  He smiles and says “my mother has been complaining about her feet the last couple of months, saying that they’re always cold.  So I got this whirlpool-style foot massager that heats the water.”  “That ought to handle it,” I say.  “Yep.  I think it will.”  He goes on to show me, as we shuffle forward, a half-dozen other items in the cart, one for his little girl, some for his twin boys, a couple of little candies for his wife.  It occurs to me, a little at a time, the way the sun rises, that his $230 basket of gifts contains not one thing – not one thing – for himself.  We’ve talked for 15 minutes and he hasn’t said a word about himself.  I don’t even know his name.

There are perhaps 20 people in this line, and there are 4 of these lines in this store, and there are 3700 Wal Marts in the US.  And every single cart is filled with things for people other than the ones doing the buying.  Every purchase is a gift.

I’m sure this happens in August, too.  On some other planet.

If giving to others is the forgetting of oneself, and if the forgetting of oneself is the path to finding oneself, if the surest path to God is the caring for others, then somehow, miracle of miracles, God has contrived it so that the entire hedonistic season points men back to Him.

I like giving gifts.  I spend months planning them.  I like buying things.  I spend as freely as I possibly can, and I’m here to encourage you to do the same.  Don’t be stupid.  But do go all the way.  Give what you truly wish to give and let January deal with the fallout.  Giving with your heart is never – it is NEVER – a bad idea.  If someone nags you about it, smile, be polite, and don’t pay them any attention.  All the preaching and the moralizing probably has its place, too, but honestly, more often than not (and I am, myself, a fairly religious fellow) it seems like the preachers are telling us to stop having fun because they are worried that if they don’t personally put a stop to all this getting and spending that God will be unable to do His thing.  

Wouldn’t you prefer a God that didn’t much need your help?

Well, good news.  You have one.

Merry Christmas.