Sunday, December 31, 2006


Before Christmas I happened to read a little editorial piece in the local DE paper in which the columnist claimed he was glad to be considered "a Grinch" and that his main gripe with Christmas is that no one seems to know for sure what they are celebrating. He backed this up by talking about how the Gospels and Paul's Epistles make no mention of Christ's birth as a day to be commemorated. He also pointed out that at least some of the imagery of Christmas derives from pagan customs -- for instance the date of December 25th itself.

All that of course is well-known and clearly has little relation to the holiday itself which, because it is largely a folk custom that got endorsed by institutions, both religious and secular, has no use for consistency. Which is why the cries of "commercialized Christmas" ring false to me -- as do cries that Christmas, as a religious -- specifically Christian -- celebration, should not be endorsed by stores and other secular, non-denominational entities. Christmas has no one meaning or purpose -- unlike Thanksgiving, it isn't even patriotic in some dimly perceived way. Of all holidays it's the one that might be called the most Eurocentric, in that it reaches back into the customs of the northern countries while coupling them with imagery derived from the Semitic birth of Christ and the Italian tradition of Biblical iconography. And even though that Eurocentrism might be under attack in some quarters it's still simply a fact that the majority of those who live and work in the U.S. come from origins in Europe, as does the basis of this country as a country.

Even so, when I think of Christmas it's as an American phenomenon, and it's one that has so many layers that it's worth celebrating for that reason alone. Very few events or occasions are so laden with associations, with input from all kinds of sources. For me as a child, Christmas began as simply a special, unreal time: a tree was brought into the house and prettified, people spoke meaningfully of snow even if no snow was to be seen, particular kinds of music were present, everyone was around the house more than usual, people were visited, people visited, uncomfortable clothes were worn at various times, great new things were discovered beneath the tree and much eager anticipation led up to "the day" when it would happen again. In school, the time-off before and after Christmas were considered islands of serenity, undisturbed by the quotidian school year. And, because I attended a Catholic school, Christmas had a holy meaning as well: the great story of a miraculous baby, of a lowly birth, of a heroic life to come. I can remember in high school -- when the Church's view of the world began to seem more and more unreal -- still being moved by "the ancient yuletide carols." That music was simply a part of childhood awe -- whether of one's parents or of Santa Claus or of some intangible quality of promise in humanity that Jesus spoke to.

But I also grew up in the '60s when some "TV classics" were being aired. The 1951 version of Dickens' A Christmas Carol that I first tried to watch through snowy reception (let it snow, indeed) that my father struggled with rabbit-ears in an attempt to clarify, became a mainstay, not only because its sentimentality suits the season, but because it created a sense of continuity in Christmas -- "at this time of the rolling year" -- past, present and to come. Each year one watches it is to feel that force of time, of what has changed and what has not. Then there were the new, made for TV specials: Mr. Magoo's version of A Christmas Carol, which I also first watched with my parents before the age of 10, had very lively and affecting songs added to the familiar tale; Charlie Brown's Christmas with that unforgettable jazz piano score and Linus' simple reading of the nativity story as one might hear it read in school -- and of course "the Charlie Brown Christmas tree" -- versions of which I seem to have purchased myself over the years; Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which created an imaginative fable out of the old chestnut; Santa Claus is Coming to Town, which did the same for that song -- and which inspired me to sit up one Christmas eve spinning extemporary explanations about Santa for my younger brothers; How the Grinch Stole Chrismas, which finally animated Dr. Seuss -- with Boris Karloff no less! -- involving my favorite author and best-known horror movie star, and so on.

Those images became a part of the annual ritual of Christmas which, though it slipped away in my twenties, came back with a vengeance when it was my daughter's turn to experience Christmas as what it seems to be, to me, most emphatically: a family holiday -- which means it entails whatever traditions cause a family to share the same host of Christmases past, present and to come. The "secular" meaning is therefore the richest meaning because it's based on what brings people together. The reaching out aspect of the more religious side of it can be expressed simply in the visits and/or gifts to those otherwise neglected -- which can certainly encompass charitable acts of all kinds -- but it isn't the celebration of Christ's sacrifice (however much the Church always wants to keep that uppermost) that resonates in the season: it's the birth of the child. So, in keeping with Christmas as my parents' conceived of it, Christmas, for me, is for the children, the time at which they become the stars of the show. Though I suppose that, as we age and there are fewer actual children present, it becomes the time to think again about the children we once were, with, maybe, some retention of whatever it was that we found wonderful in the pageantry of the holidaze.

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