Living in the Chihuahuan desert of the American Southwest (where the arrival of Winter is not always obvious) one must look for the local signs of the holiday season’s approach. We do have some trees with actual leaves that transition into Fall colors as the weather gets colder (though this year we were still in the 70’s past Thanksgiving). Sometimes we get a dash of snow or rain. Sometimes. Christmas lights go up, of course, along with a selection of nativity scenes in yards and windows. Around here the most unique feature may be the modernized electric version of the traditional “luminarias” (or farolitos) that are strung across the rooftops of adobe houses and shopping centers (the more traditional and temporary — and therefore more “authentic” — squat paper bags of sand and a single votive candle are mostly reserved for Christmas Eve itself). Folks might stock up on the fresh crop of locally-harvested pecans for their holiday baking, and perhaps choose to attend one of the seasonal vocal concerts or theatrical performances that pack the local performance spaces.
This year a buddy of mine worked with a downtown business group, the city, and our local electric utility, to string up lights along the three newly-rennovated blocks of downtown. The lights are “choreographed” to music played on a special FM station set up by the utility. So as you drive down Main Street, you can get the full effect of the show. It’s actually rather charming. I’ve driven this lighted route several times now. It has brought me pleasure. I’ve noticed that a couple of the songs in the (rather limited) rotation have a distinctly evangelical Christian message. One song in particular — by what sounds like a Christian “boy band” — proclaims (in a rather chastising manner) that it’s not a “Holiday”, but a celebration about Jesus!.
As I’ve listened to the lyrics in a lot of the Christmas music (in concerts and on the radio) I have thought to myself: what a shame. What a shame that all of this accumulated output of human creativity that marks the music, the theater, the decorations and the tone of this mid-winter holiday had to be built upon this one religious story of a desert-living couple and a miraculous baby in a holy land.
I’ve had thoughts similar to this before. Once, after reading a good book about the history of Norse mythology (including its eventual replacement by Middle-Eastern monotheism), it occurred to me that the Norse gods were much more interesting (and relatable) personalities than the distant monotheistic Yahweh of the Bible. But the fact is that our Christmas is Christian because of the vagaries of history. For whatever reasons, the Bible story was the one that “stuck”, and then it stuck around long enough to become a cultural artifact around which human artistic production naturally attached itself, until we had the accretion that is our modern Christmas.
Of course, there are counter-celebrations: The Winter Solstice and Kwanza, for example (Hanukah I don’t think would qualify in this instance, for obvious reasons). But that’s about it. Unless you count the commercial and secular sects of “Christmasianity” (what I’m calling the entirety of this central cultural event). These more secular facets always stir up a certain segment of Christianity that is annually miffed about these perceived free-riders on THEIR celebration of the God-made-man-in-a-manger celebration. But, then, the pagans (the few, the hardy that remain) are miffed that THEIR mid-winter celebration was co-opted by the Roman church all those years ago!
For years I have taken a certain piquant pleasure in the handful of surviving pre-Christian symbols that are embedded in the Jesus birthday party. I find it a rather bracing testament to the persistence of our most basic human impulses toward celebration and community that even a religion as aggressive as monotheism has had to accommodate the practices of the pagan peoples it absorbed. In this way, culture is like natural selection in that it (at least under ideal circumstances) retains the best products of evolution even as it continues to select new (and beneficial) innovations.
(I say “under ideal circumstances” because natural selection can only build upon what already exists, which in practical terms means that not all traits that are reserved are optimal. In short, in evolution “good enough” is the functional equivalent of “perfect”. And so we upright humans retain the marks of our bacterial past, or the body-plan that helped our ancient lobe-finned great-great-grandfishes locomote, or a hairy primate cling to her branch-y bed).
And so Christianity — having not so much displaced the earlier belief systems as subsumed them — becomes the newly grown tree around which the vines of art then grow.
This does not mean — by any stretch — that this one religion was the best possible one, or even the most inspiring, but by a certain point Christianity (and Islam, it’s paternal twin, as well as Buddhism and Hinduism) had become widespread enough to provide a common narrative vocabulary upon which artists could build. In this way it’s not unlike the way in which Facebook has become the dominant social media platform. This doesn’t mean that Facebook is necessarily — again — the best possible solution to this need for human sociability to find expression in a digital domain (it certainly has its dark and bothersome aspects), but it has become so dominant — in a field that requires dominance to exist — that Facebook has become THE platform around which we gather. For now.
Art, being a form of communication, relies for its effectiveness on a shared set of reference points (to which the creative human can add novelty and surprise). And so the familiar story of the baby Jesus is told and retold, abstracted, refracted, secularized, commercialized and even defiled, but the nativity narrative itself — through such use — becomes even more firmly entrenched in the culture. It becomes “locked” in the same way that the first technological innovation to dominate becomes “locked”, and all subsequent developments must be built upon what came before, warts and all (technology, like nature, is constrained from spontaneously creating completely novel enterprises). So when it comes to the many overtly religious threads that have been woven into our Christmas tapestry, one question becomes: how would we replace all of the songs and traditions with new (less religious) ones, without have to “un-weave the rug” as it were, and start from scratch?
And so the Christian part of Christmas is, for all practical purposes, a permanent fixture of my society. But to be clear — this is not because it necessarily deserves to be so. On that score, Christians could afford a touch of humility, and keep their complaints that “Jesus is the reason for the season” a bit more to themselves. For what they fail to see is that even the Christian themes of Christmas are built upon earlier myths and celebrations so that we all are part owners of these celebrations in the deep, dark, mid-Winter, be we Pagan or Jew, Evangelical or Humanist. And I, for one, think it is a good thing that Christmas (as we tend to celebrate it) has so many angles from which it can be viewed and enjoyed!
So there is actually no “missing” Christ to be “put back into Christmas” (he is there to stay). The “battle for Christmas” is just a silly idea rooted in a hubristic ignorance of the realities of a history that moves on with what it’s got to work with (just like the path of evolution that re-worked the body plan of an ancient fish to give us these upright bodies that we can drape with ugly Christmas sweaters)!
I might just as well start a campaign to put the “Fisch” back in Fischmas. Hey. That’s not a bad idea!
One final thought: as I listened to a rendition of the “Hallelujah Chorus” on the radio today, I realized that our faculties of inspiration seems to require a belief in something greater — much greater — than our “selves”. We humans appear to need some things to be sacred, or magical, or hopeful, so much so that we are capable of leaving our old gods behind to embrace the newest ones (or ONE). If we look at it that way, it turns out to be the gods that change, not the festivals. So perhaps we can take comfort from the realization that though the sign (or symbol) over the door might change, the “human church” never will.
So I wish you a lovely Solstice. I hope you have wonderful memories of a warm Hanukah, or that you enjoyed a festive Kwanza. And of course I wish you a Merry Christmas (whether you love the story of the baby Jesus or just enjoy all of the lights and the friends and the food). This is a festival that belongs to all of us, because, well, evolution has made us all members of the church of the human being. And whichever denomination of that church you happen to identify with, we are all still bound together in this great adventure of existence.