Sunday, December 16, 2012

Christmas in Hell

One assignment that my students seem to enjoy quite a bit is describing "their own private hell." I am proud to announce that only occasionally do I figure into that equation. And while most of their examples are remarkably entertaining, perhaps my favorite kind is the "hell of ironic punishments." For example, Homer Simpson loves donuts. Thus, his hell would be having to eat donuts for all of eternity without ever being able to stop (the show actually used this in an episode but Homer never grew tired of it so he got kicked out of hell). As for me, I think my ironic punishment would be having to celebrate Christmas every day of the year while being forced to be jolly and sing carols in August. One song that they would play over and over again would be Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmas", with one line repeating; "Really having a wonderful Christmas time... Really having a wonderful Christmas time." Oh, they already do that in the song? Never mind then. At any rate, in my home town there really is a store called "Christmas Everyday." I believe the names of the owners are Jezebel and Beelzebub, but I could be wrong. There is one thing that the anti-Christmas atheist and I have in common: neither of us wishes to have Christmas dictated to us by Christmas commercialism. The truth is the battle is rather annoying on both sides. On the one hand you have people who want to refer to Christmas trees as Festival Trees, and on the other you have people carting out their Christmas lights in October. On one side you have people demanding that equal attention be afforded the Winter Solstice, and on the other, you have people going around saying that the antidote to this is to have people arbitrarily declaring Merry Christmas as soon as Thanksgiving is over.

In my opinion, both of these views are contributing to the diminishment of the Christmas spirit. Yes, I know, the intention of the former is better than the latter, but both, I would argue, amount to the same thing. I too dislike the fact that people are more inclined to denounce a creche rather than condemn a strip club, but how does it help the cause of Christmas to simply associate it with the rest of the chaos and tumult of the commercial season? The secular season of Christmas begins with that magnificent ode to thankfulness known as Black Friday. We then move into December, wherein it is not uncommon to see parents punching and/or scratching the other's eyes out (whichever the case be) in order to vouchsafe for their child something about as worthwhile as a Furby or a Tickle Me Elmo. After observing such barbarism, I don't blame the father of the great George Costanza for preferring Festivus to this kind of mania.

Part of the irony of all of this is the fact that the first Christmas was incredibly spartan and austere. Those mean conditions in that primitive barn (known loosely as a cave), were anything but commercially promising. There were no beautiful Christmas lights, or a thousand marching Santas saying Merry Christmas in November with giant candy canes, or even those richly adorned Christmas trees with felt snow surrounding them. Nor was there (mercifully) a radio station that played only Christmas music starting the day after Halloween. It was simply the occasion of a couple who were desperately seeking somewhere-anywhere- to give birth to a child. If we fail to understand this basic truth, the whole spirit of the Christmas season will be lost. The circumstances of the first Christmas should inspire in us, as it did in Mary and Joseph, a marvelous contemplation; a silence which is truly pregnant with the presence of God. The light of this season comes not from a manufactured mall setting, but rather from the light of the world. Indeed, all of the appetite that we still have for celebrating with song, dance, food and family, proceeds directly from the heart of that little cave. He is the light without which no subsequent light is possible. Discard the baby, and expect the rest to follow.

From the Church's perspective, the purpose of Advent is to create a season wherein there is a kind anticipatory space- a "pregnant pause" if you will- so that one can begin to look forward to (which is in essence the meaning of the word Advent) the entirety of the Christmas season. However, the world does everything in reverse. It front loads pleasure, and attempts to obliterate anything which would interfere with its program of instant gratification (my brother-in-law calls it the "cult of immediacy"). The Church, on the other hand, truly understands the rhythm and order of happiness, which is to say that the most pleasurable things in life require a necessary build-up. For example, no matter how good the chorus of a song might be, without a satisfactory verse that builds up nicely towards it, the chorus will eventually become cloying. And that is precisely what the world is all about. In an age of choruses, we are destined to be starved of any real opportunity to "look forward" to anything. My greatest fear is that we will attempt to solve this ache, not by recognizing the wisdom and foresight of a season of preparation, but by upping the dosage of the same thing- until at last, like in hell, we have killed the very thing we were trying desperately to save. This is why I say that the store "Christmas Everyday" is straight out of the bowels of hell, because it matches quite accurately the psychology of the abyss. Its philosophy essentially goes something like this; 'let's filch out all of the merry-making from the season we can, and when we're done dispose of the body.'

In this sense then, the champion of saying "Merry Christmas" is not all that different from those who most recently put up that anti-Christmas billboard in New York City; a sign which informs us to "Keep the Merry" and "Dump the Myth". Both parties are in a sense promoting the same kind of disconnect. In the case of the atheist, he is telling us to be "merry" for no reason, while the one who declares that they want to hear a proliferations of "Merry Christmas'" wants us to celebrate because it reminds them of a happier and more gentle time (i.e for sentimental reasons). And while, again, the latter is certainly more sympathetic, neither one truly promotes Christmas anymore than wearing a giant American flag sweat shirt promotes patriotism. The question is if Advent isn't important, nor the season of Christmas itself, then why not just start saying Merry Christmas everyday, or better yet, why don't we just say Happy Halloween in the middle of August, or "Happy 4th of July" on June 28th? Sound arbitrary? It is.

Some may argue that I am being too much of a Grinch, and that it is fine to gorge one's self on the season even when it is not yet the season. This kind of logic reminds of those who say that Valentine's Day should be every day. First of all, that is an extremely exhausting thought, and secondly, it may be true up to a point, but my guess is the one who expresses this "Valentines everyday" approach is probably the last one to celebrate it any day. We are human beings, and while animals don't need calendars, we do. Just as time orients us- so also the seasons and feast days allow us the opportunity to enjoy each one in their proper order with the appropriate focus (as opposed to the maddening suggestion that we should celebrate all things at all times). So let us celebrate the impending season as it was attended, not in the spirit of Veruca Salt, but in the spirit of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose anticipation must have been filled with an incredible sense of longing, and whose jubilation- no doubt- went on for days and days after the actual Nativity of her Son.