Monday, December 22, 2008

Holly Jolly Christmas

I remember loving Christmas as a kid.

(And, no, even southeastern Pennsylvania isn't this balmy in December; this is my family's back porch, Kennett Square, PA, circa 1966. That's my sister Shrew in the coolie hat. I'm in there somewhere.)

I didn't get it, of course. We were Christianus gregarius, common or garden-variety Presbyterians, whose primary object of devotion (as far as grade-school me could determine) was the money everybody put in the beautiful brass plates with the red velvet in the bottoms on Sunday morning. Sure, I remember stuff about this "God" guy and some "Jesus" mook, but the real magilla was when the organ rose to a swelling throb and the neatly-suited ushers came by and passed the lushly heavy metal plates full of lovely money. We passed it along with a fervent hush, the grave men bore it to the altar where we worshipped it with song and prayer.

Church was all about the cash, baby.

But every December we did have a cool change in the decor. We got pine and holly, candles and swags and creches. We trolled the ancient carols, the only Jesus songs I could sing along to, I mean, shit, what second grader can remember the tune to Old Winchester? We heard the story about how the shepherds were watching flocks, angels were heard on high, Baby Jesus hung with the ox and the ass and Three Kings turned up, the Star shone and the multitude of the Heavenly Host proclaimed Peace on Earth, Goodwill towards Men.But of course, all of that paled alongside the lovely, lovely Stuff. Shining lights, pretty music, jolly Santas beaming the promise of Christmas Day loot. Food; mountains and oceans and prairies of tucker, all converging on the things that a little boy enjoys: a full belly, hands full of unearned loot, days full of freedom from the drudgery of schoolroom and full of parents free from work and obligation.

Plus, let's face it: kids of the Sixties had the Most Kick-ass Christmas TV Evah. From Rudolph (1964) through Charlie Brown (1965) to the Grinch (1966), my elementary school years were lit up with the Yuletide glow from the cathode ray tube. If you couldn't feel Christmassy listening to Linus explain the holiday by quoting the Gospel of Luke...well, you were just a scroogy old Scrooge.

The glow of that childhood affection for all things Wenceslausy remained with me a long, long time. Christmas for single servicemen, for example, has a kind of rosy second-hand warmth to it.You get to feel like you're standing guard while the families celebrate, and you get sentimental about phone calls and letters from home far away. My first marriage made Christmas very pleasant and painless; enjoying the kid happiness of my in-laws while remaining free to celebrate by flying off to Baja, or skiing Yellowstone in the winter...

It is only slowly that the grinding commerce and gaudy sentimentality began to wear down my affection for the holiday. Watching my own child, as Godless as I was but with less churching, enjoy the same worldy greed that I enjoyed helped remind me that what was "special" to me was what came from Christmas, not what went into it. Adulthood freed me from dependence on the largesse of parents and Santas. With a skeptical and independent mind I couldn't help noting that the written documents fail to support the tradition of a winter Nativity, or of the supposed trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, or pretty much any of the rest of the traditional version of Luke that I remembered from Linus' Christmas speech or from Sunday School Christmas stories.

The Christmas story is a wonderful one, as is so much of the story of Jesus' life and work. I hope it's true, I wish it might be, as I wish that Jesus could live in the hearts of so many of His believers who hate and reject others in His name, who believe that if they kill them all God will recognize his own, whose acts make a mockery of faith and a terror of religion. But I have no reason to believe that, contrary to much of what I see and hear, that celebrating a God and the birth a Savior whose believers are no better (and in many cases worse) than other men and women is something to be cherished. Mojo is considerably more practical than I am: she likes the lights and she likes the trees and she likes the presents and the family togetherness and the music and the vacation and the general "Christmassyness" of December. She has no problem picking out the "holiday" elements and simply ignoring the religious foundations. If anyone is sapping the foundations of Fortress Christian Christmas it is she - Bill O'Reilly really needs to know about her, the godless wench.

I am simply an atheist, a pagan. I'm not fighting a War on Christmas; I'm in neutral Holland, placidly reading about an event that touches me not a whit.

For I cannot embrace a religious holiday without the religion. For me the slogan is correct for all its triteness: Christ IS the reason for the season. If I cannot accept Him then I feel more honest and respectful celebrating Zappadan or Festivus or the rebirth of the Great God by celebrating Sol Invictus.

I feel hypocritical, when I think about it, decorating trees and singing carols. The trees and the lights ARE lovely, and the music is glorious. But at bottom I am unmoved. I love my family, and I love enjoying Christmastime with them. But keeping Christmas in my heart?

So this year I will enjoy the family gathering around the tree and the wrapping and the lights and the faith of my mother-in-law and the Santa-worship of my son. But inside I will only raise a silent glass of Talisker to Frank, and Mithras, and the returning Sun. An end to winter cold and the return of Spring and life I can celebrate: a religious festival that is not my religion?

I cannot.

But I can enjoy some delightful Christmas snark with you, though. So here, with the holiday toast of the contentedly godless, is Ebenezer Blackadder in Baldrick's Posing Pouch from "Blackadder's Christmas Carol":Noel!


Red Sand said...

I don't even have the collection plate memories to lean on, although my formerly-catholic mother did try a little at Christmas.

DH and I had this very conversation a few weeks ago. I do try to pull on the beauty of the music (most of it), and the hope behind some of the traditions, while being fundamentally unable to connect to the so-called reason for the season. I'd be just as happy, if not happier, declaring it solstice season or mid-winter festival. A time for family, friends, and community to pull together in sharing, warmth, and light.

I find the commercialism and yearning towards gifts too close to my sugar and caffeine addictions for comfort - the seemingly overwhelming need for 'things' scares me a bit. I'm trying to re-discover the wonder and magic that held my captive as a child and I suspect that it'll return with Future Kiddo.

On the upside, watching my little niece stare at our tree on silence for a full five minutes while she took in each ornament and light individually made the effort worthwhile for the first time in a long time. There was definitely wonder in her eyes, and everyone deserves a bit of wonder.

atomic mama said...

Blackadder! Best. show. ever.

Charles Gittings said...

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of you FDC...

And to all our pals from Intel Dump too.



Aviator47 said...

Best wishes to all. Back from a busy trip to the States, and once again where Christmas is not a commercial venture. Will attend Church, where the plate is rarely passed and spend time with friends enjoying each other.

Speaking of commercialism, several years ago, we noted that small, decorative wooden stables and mangers were sold everywhere in Bethlehem. Since mangers in Christ's time were typically stone, and animals typically kept in stone buildings or caves, I teased my Israeli friend about this serious lapse in the Israeli's normal adherence to historical accuracy. His response, "Historical accuracy is important. So is business. Westerners want their impression of the stable and manger, and that's what we sell. They are souvenirs, not historical artifacts. Historians don't buy these souvenirs, nor do they sell them." Then, realizing I was pulling his leg, he burst into laughter.

Again, best wishes to all. We shall drink to friends this season.

Ardy & Al

FDChief said...

RS: I recall that wonder, and therein lies my residual affection for the season.

AM: Black, his gloves of finest mole!

Charles: and the best of a hopeful 2009 to you, my friend.

Al & Ardy: Reminds me of the supposed Roman slingstones the huckesters touted at Masada. The Legio X Fretensis would have had to have been bigger than the entire Soviet Army in 1945 to fire all those bullets...

A holiday glass to you and yours, compa

Lisa said...

Charles: Best wishes for the New Year!

Chief: I understand, it does seem foolish to participate in a scene within which one cannot reside.

As a child, I shared in your sense of wonderment, Trees and tinsel, and Charlie Brown Christmas and all of it was wonderful. I confess, it all led up to the climax of the presents. It never occurred to me to wonder why I was getting them. (A Mini-Madoff?) But holidays are great for stimulating the imagination.

To me, Christmas is a kid's thing. I mean, if you believe these things, Jesus was born nearer April anyway, and I'm a literalist.

Without the lights, Winter would be quite dreary, eh? "Jesus is the Reason for the Season" is so much bunk for most. It is a stressed out time of grubbing for needless items.