Sometime when you get a chance, go back and look at newspapers from the 1940s, the 1930s or even the 1920s. Somewhere on the editorial pages in December, you’ll find the obligatory op-ed of the season — the one about how sad it is that Christmas has become so commercialized. The one about how, in our greedy materialism, we’ve lost sight of the true significance of Christmas: the Christ child, born in a lowly cattle shed.
That’s not to say the complaint was wrong in those days, nor is it wrong in these days, as far as that goes. It’s just to say that we’ve been hearing worries about the loss of the meaning of Christmas for a long, long time, and still the thing goes lumbering on: our titanic holiday, our wild season, our profligate indulgence — our festival.
In truth, Christmas has always been something that would devour the world, if allowed. How could it not? The intersection of God and history — the Christian claim that on Christmas, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us — is such an enormous idea that it was bound to colonize and conquer everything near it. Our experience of Christmas theology was almost predetermined to build into our Christmas psychology. In the midst of a cold, dark season, you see, God gave us the gift of salvation, descending like a flame, and we responded much as you might expect — with a preference for bright colors, with a mad celebration, a raging fire of extravagance.
The old Puritans — our Pilgrim mothers and fathers — hated it, naturally. They recognized the pagan elements that had been absorbed and repurposed by the Christmas season: the mistletoe and the holly, the Christmas trees and the winter solstice, even Santa. They mistrusted the carnival atmosphere of the holiday, recognizing that it might lead to illicit sexual relations or, at the very least, dancing. Most of all, they hated the piling on of carols and decoration and poetry and merriment — all the medieval stuff they thought had covered up and obscured the truth of Christ.
It’s hard to say they were completely mistaken, given the direction our modern Christmases have taken. There’s something deeply puritanical in the modern war on Christmas, as though what the attackers really want is to drain the red from Christmas ribbons and the green from Christmas trees, erasing any hint of meaning for it all. Nevertheless, the stripped down, secularized version of the holiday is something we’ve all surrendered to, in one way or another. We accept the “Happy Holidays” vagueness and all the festive but carefully meaningless accents of the season. Candy canes and silly reindeer, starless trees and wordless carols, jingled bells and jangled snowflakes.
We suffer jangled nerves as well, I expect, with the crazed pursuit of joy in a season that has lost the conditions for its own meaning. Like all medieval festivals, Christmas can easily overwhelm its own Christianity. If you want to keep Christmas, go to church. Pattern your days on the penitential time of Advent. Follow the liturgical calendar. Understand that down at the greeny heart of the holiday lies the holy day — and only that can give the season meaning.
Yet if you’ve got the meaning, if you understand and feel and rejoice in the central fact of the mad thing, then why not appreciate all the rest of it? Why not join in? The thing about a festival — the thing the medievals intuitively grasped and the Puritans grimly missed — is that it need not be understood as an obscuring or degradation of the religious impulse at its center. A festival can be, instead, an homage to the religious meaning of the day, a celebration of its wonder. It can reflect, in other words, the behavior of people who know that they believe and are joyous in their belief.
Give in to the season. Accept the festival. Surrender to the mad disorder of it all. On one side of us stand our modern pro-Christian Puritans, who want to abolish Christmas because they think it obscures Christianity. On the other side are our modern anti-Christian Puritans, who want to abolish Christmas because they think it promotes Christianity. To both of them — haters of wild celebration and haters of messy festival — what can we in the happy middle do but respond with a laugh while we put up our Christmas decorations, buy our Christmas presents, sing our Christmas carols, go to our Christmas parties and shiver our way to midnight Christmas services?
Come on, people. Join the season. Wish one another Merry Christmas. Sing “Hark, the Herald Angels” and “Joy to the World.” Set the star atop the tree. Laugh and drink and celebrate the news that a child was born and laid upon a manger. Support your neighborhood reindeer.
Joseph Bottum is the author most recently of “Wise Guy,” this year’s best-selling Christmas e-book Kindle Single for Amazon.
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
The young drop coverage to avoid higher premiums