Some Christmas Stuff

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. This isn’t very exciting, really. I’m not the least bit religious anymore, and even when I was, Advent always seemed like a bit of a cop-out in liturgical season terms. It didn’t really mean anything. Catholicism is great for long, drawn out seasons with overarching themes and pageantry and color coding that add some amusement to the child-dragged-to-church experience. Lent has all its ashes and solemnity and there’s some badass stuff at the end with the crucifixion and all. Easter is festive and cheery and if the songs are boring, well, at least it ends with Corpus Christi, an observation always notable (to me, at least) for having a neat-sounding name and nothing else whatsoever going for it. And then there are those vast swaths of ordinary time, which make you feel a little bit cool, if only because “ordinary time” means the rest of the time is interesting, vivacious time.

But Advent? Just kind of sits there. In elementary school we’d learn that it was about waiting, commemorating the pre-Jesus hope for a messiah and the modern hope for a second coming and blah blah blah. What Advent was, you realized quickly, was what they called “before Christmas” when you were in church. It involved a confusing wreath and calendars that I understand usually have chocolate in them. My family’s calenders just had dopey watercolor pictures behind little doors. This may be the root of my disinterest.

The time leading up to Christmas is certainly a thing, important to child Siobhan and current Siobhan and even the few years in the middle there where indolent, snappy teenage Siobhan hated Christmas, because hating Christmas certainly requires as much of your attention as liking it, if not more. The pre-Christmas stuff just doesn’t lend itself to the religious end of things. All the songs and stories and observances are about the day in question, not about an arbitrary four weeks and a bit leading up. All I can bring to mind about the religious significance of Advent is that the pink candle is, for some reason, the third one you light, not the fourth, which I always found deeply confusing.

The lead-up to Christmas belongs to, yes, the commercial end of thing, but also the lauds of Christmas. The best part of Christmas, if we’re honest, and the only part that’s in any way endangered by modern culture. Whatever the ratings people at Fox News say, no one will ever forget that Jesus is the reason for the season. It’s in the name. If you’re Christian even the least little bit (or your mother brings you), you’ll be in church on Christmas. If you’re even passing familiar with western culture as a whole, you know perfectly well that Christmas is Jesus’s birthday. Hindu and Jewish and atheist families that nonetheless have a tree and a glowing Santa in the yard know why there’s a Christmas. The loss of the religious aspect of Christmas is the little moral panic that couldn’t, and I’d like to hear the end of it, please.

But we are losing our celebrations. Carolers are a rare sight. I went once when I was a kid, me, my brother, and a neighbor with his dad’s piano book of Christmas carols. We got some cookies and a dollar apiece. But I’ve never once found a caroler outside my door. And there’s the Yule log and gingerbread and telling our little siblings that for an hour at midnight all the animals can talk on Christmas Eve… Those are the bits that are going away, and those are the bits I’d mourn. Christmas is a huge, screaming big deal, and I’m all for keeping the parts that are actually important.

Important why? Well, a couple reasons. One is that we are a people who dwell in a temperate zone, and when the thick of winter descends upon us, we go a little nuts. We all know now that the sun is a big mass of plasma we rotate around, but something in the primitive part of our brains still panics and fears it might be angry with us and run away forever. We surround ourselves with lights and food and people and we shut out the winter and do what we can to bring summer back. It’s a psychological coping mechanism. You can point out that the observation of Jesus’s birthday came and trampled all over Prechristian rituals and of course it did, on one level, but the fact is that if you live far enough north, you have to do something while the world goes black around you, so everyone was going to be celebrating anyway. Have the Green Man or have baby Jesus. Have both. As long as you’ve got lots of candles lit (or lots of blinky multicolored lights) and some eggnog. Because eggnog is good, damn it.

Christmas is a particular huge, screaming deal in the U.S. Everyone likes them some Christmas, but it’s mostly a modern decision to make it the be-all and the end0all of holidays. We often forget while enjoying the second greatest Christmas story ever that there’s an early sign that Scrooge may not be all bad at the beginning of A Christmas Carol. He gives Bob the whole day off. That wasn’t always a universal truth. Christmas has achieved its heights of defining our holiday culture only in the last few hundred years.

In America, at least, I have a guess at the reason. Here you were in your new home. It was getting around to holiday time. It was winter, and besides, everyone needs their local huge, loud, ridiculous party to blow off steam and be a nice, boring, respectable goodman the rest of the time. Only here the trouble arose. Your hometown celebrated with great vim and excitement St. Spiggensmith’s day, commemorating the occasion when the placid monk transformed into a grayhound and bit the devil’s scrotum. Your neighbor, however, hails from an entirely different bit of old country, and for his family, there’s nothing so important as St. Brythylwyth, virgin and martyr, gnawed to death by annoyed ferrets for spurning the advances of a local pagan king. And you can’t even get a nice, rowdy Spiggensmith vs. Bythylwyth rivalry going, since the guy down the street is for some inscrutable reason from a town where they hold festivities of note for St. Fie, warrior king and recreational dulcimerist.

But you know what everyone does? Jesus’s b-day. Everyone likes Christmas. And if everyone piles their Christmas traditions on top of each other, if you light luminaria along the walkway and hang tinsel on a pine tree and eat mincemeat and put popcorn on strings and hold a pageant and make gingerbread, then you’ve got a pretty good holiday.

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~ by badandfierce on November 29, 2010.

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