With December now well underway, the advent season, which will run to the 25th day of the month, is in full swing. For those who may have forgotten (or perhaps never knew), the month of December is marked by two events of particular importance. The first is the official start of winter (on or about December 22, depending on the juxtaposition of the moon and our planet). It (winter) usually arrives without much fanfare, having been preceded in most parts of the country by at least one of the nasty storms that will continue until mid-March or so.
The second event of note that occurs every December is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ by Christians of just about every stripe. (A few denominations observe the day in January because of a slightly altered view of the lunar calendar.) That date seems to have been set for celebratory purposes as far back as the reign of Constantine sometime in the fourth century.
The holiday has evolved over the years, but until recently it was primarily a religious observance, marked by worship and family fellowship. The giving of token gifts as a means of commemorating Christ’s birth developed early on in recognition of the scriptural story of the babe’s birth in a manger in the little town of Bethlehem, where the mother’s husband, Joseph, was forced to seek shelter for his very pregnant wife. There, amidst barnyard animals, Mary delivered her first-born, who was promptly visited by shepherds and “wise men” who were guided to the site by a giant star that pointed its rays to the manger. (Much of the story is mythical, of course—for all but the most fundamentalist believers—but, as with much of the lore of most religions, it serves its purpose.)
The three “wise men” had been told (as the story goes) that a great king would be born in that very town, and they brought the babe gifts (gold, frankincense and myrrh, says the Gospel of Matthew) in an apparent attempt to acknowledge the child’s presumed royalty. And so, the first Christmas gifts were for the newborn child.
In the centuries that followed, the holiday went through various stages of recognition. For most of the first thousand years, it was celebrated with a modicum of festivities, including token gift-giving by loved ones to their kin.
With the split in the Church in the late 1500’s, the Protestant denominations began to regard the holiday with disdain (some even considering it a “pagan” festival). Throughout the 1600’s, Christmas was actually outlawed in England and throughout the American colonies.
Its appeal slowly revived, however, so that by the eighteenth century, it had been “reborn” (pardon the awkwardly obvious pun) with a newly resurrected (again, my apologies) Saint Nicholas who, in the New World, soon became Santa Claus.
Still, even in Chareles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” the classic tale of the miserly Scrooge who is visited by three ghosts who revive his joyous appreciation of the spirit of Christmas, the holiday is depicted as one that focuses on the spiritual/religious significance of the day. Dickens’ portrayal of the Cratchit family honors the original purpose of the holiday, with Tiny Tim’s classic line, “God bless us, everyone,” intoning not a need for gifts but a joy in the religious significance of Christ’s life.
When, then, did the Christmas spirit devolve to the monstrosity the holiday has become? Christmas American-style is an obscenely capitalistic orgy that begins earlier every year. (This year, the first Christmas ads appeared on TV right after Halloween, thereby stretching the commercialization of the holiday to a full eight weeks. “Only 50 shopping days left ‘til Xmas,” was the tag on one ad, for high-priced jewelry, no less.)
The “big” Christmas movie five years ago, “The Polar Express” has now become a “classic.” It is a celebration of the spirit of … you guessed it, Santa Claus, with not even a passing nod to any religious observance. The children in the tale are a bunch of kids who have lost their faith in Santa, i.e. they aren’t so sure he really exists. Is the story intended to be an allegory of the question of God’s existence? Not hardly. The actual depiction of Santa’s workshop is more like a giant toy factory, with Santa hailed for his materialistic value (exemplified by his award of the first present to the story’s hero child).
And so is the holiday celebrated in every nook and cranny of blue states and red. Buy gifts to give, make out lists of gifts you want, spend money you don’t yet have on credit cards that you can’t afford to maintain. Increase your indebtedness in the spirit of Christmas, which is a spirit of buying, spending and consuming.
“Shop until you drop,” has replaced “’Tis the season to be jolly.” And why should this bastardization surprise us? Thanksgiving, that most cherished of our secular holidays, has now become a mini-Fourth of July, with nearly as much patriotic fervor, even though the original holiday was celebrated by loyal British subjects in the earliest settlements of colonial North America.
The recent Macy’s Day Thanksgiving parade was full of Red, White and Blue, in an apparent attempt to convince us all that the one thing we are most thankful for is our great country. What would Miles Standish have thought of that development?
But nowhere is American excess in greater evidence than in the new millennium’s version of Christmas. It is now far more important to the country’s economic vitality than it is to its spiritual identification. The holiday has become part of the orgy of excess that begins with Thanksgiving and runs through Super Bowl Sunday, which falls at the beginning of February.
Eat hearty. Buy. Drink plenty. Buy some more. Celebrate America’s richness. And buy some more.
God forgive us, everyone.