Is Christmas Dead Yet?

(Minutes before this posting, I read Erick Erickson’s for today on “Why December 25th?”  Though Mr. Erickson’s argument is entirely different in detail, the reader will find that its thrust is identical to mine.)

December 25 isn’t really a celebration of the winter solstice: our would-be neo-pagan brethren are as misinformed about that as about their pot-smoking messiah-by-plebiscite.  The winter solstice comes slightly earlier (and several thousand years ago, it would have come right before the 25th, for Earth wobbles faintly on her axis).  What the original pagans were celebrating was not the shortest day of the year—why on earth would they celebrate the disappearance of warmth, light, and life?  They weren’t progressives, after all.  No, the day we now call Christmas was a time of festivity and hope arranged on the first lengthening day since the long-ago summer solstice.  These folk, living close to nature as they did, knew precisely where the sun was rising and setting.  They had indeed marked (in most such cultures) the precise location of those points where the great golden god appeared and disappeared at his farthest retreat south.  I shall always remember the distinct peaks that formed a kind of notch when seen from the highest of the Indian mounds at Etowah, Georgia.  I’m sure the great mound was constructed just where it was to provide a perfect view of the notched horizon during some critical solar event.

Christian missionaries knew that the hope offered by their faith was what the pagans had sought vainly, time out of mind, from the physical universe.  A new year of longer days, importing another spring and summer and fall harvest, is but an occasion for the body to cheat death a few more months.  Sooner or later, the flesh’s sun sets for good.  When the spirit is reborn, however, its light shines forever.  Sun-worshipers understood the allegory well, and they were won over in droves to the god whose warmth came from within and never cooled.

That the medieval romance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight occurs at Christmastime is no accident.  The eponymous Green Knight, of course, is a pagan fertility figure, verdant from head to toe and capable of regeneration even when his head is lopped off.  The unknown story-teller transformed him into an emissary of spiritual wisdom just as the Christian faith had transformed the sun’s return into a hope in the soul’s eternal life.  Christianity did not “steal” these allegorical reference points, as is claimed by pompous, ignorant fools: it fulfilled them in a manner that satisfied the deep thirst unslaked in earlier ages by even the gentlest weather and seasons of the most bounteous plenty.  The sun, then, was the object of this thirst, this longing?  The sun?  What did a pagan ever know of the sun, other than that its warmth was implicit in every chance he had to survive?  In anthropomorphizing the sun’s movements to become those of a sometimes-benign Olympian, our simple forebear was groping after a higher power that would understand his fear and his yearning.  Our great ball of hydrogen and helium is not this personage.  The only god who saves occasionally drapes Himself in clouds and stars and cataracts partially and briefly to unlock in us an admiration of His endless majesty.

Those medieval missionaries knew as we do not, I must conclude, that the child-like hearts of their unlettered listeners had drawn as close to God as they could through mythic metaphors of the unspeakable.  Was Christmas, perhaps, more alive in the souls of the Cherokees’ ancestors atop the Etowah Mounds than it is today among those who call themselves faithful?  I heard Bill O’Reilly utter a remark last week that a great many American Christians (as they confidently style themselves) would fully endorse.  It was made à propos of the rather silly Duck Dynasty brouhaha, and it went something like this: “I’ve written a book about Jesus, and I can tell you that he would never have said anything hurtful about anyone.”  This is where we’ve arrived: Jesus as a paragon of PC correctness—a model of sensitivity.  Verily, we might as well celebrate the winter solstice, for our souls have turned to blocks of ice.

The eternity of the soul is woven from a fabric of disdain for and transcendence of the hungers and passions of the flesh.  The saved man is a man who dives into a raging river or plunges into a dark cave to reach a child crying for help.  He is a man who confesses, “I did this,” rather than lie his way free when an acknowledged failure will end his job or ruin his career.  He is a man who remains faithful to his wife even when she becomes bedridden for years due to a dreadful disease.  He is a man who smiles and shakes his head when another takes credit for his brilliant achievement rather than running to the courts and screaming to the press.  People don’t understand him.  He seems alternately a coward and a careless dreadnought, a fool and an abstracted sage, a pliant sapling and a gnarled oak.  He lives in this body and this world, but not for them.  One is the mere conveyance of his spirit, the other the setting in which his spirit’s mettle is tested.

Men of this caliber do not live to copulate like dumb animals of the field—either with other men or with women.  They certainly do not allow their sexual passions to draw them into behavior whose example would subvert the family’s natural context for rearing children and renewing society for another generation; or, if they must absolutely have sensual stimulation of a perversely sterile rather than a fertile sort, they do not clamor to have their conduct made public and demand the punishment of those who oppose them.  To say that the soul of the clamorer, the exhibitionist, the exotic sensualist, seems not to be destined for supra-terrestrial ends by no means strikes me as an extravagant statement… speaking for myself.

But to others among us, clearly, Christ is He Who Makes No One Feel Bad.  If you marry two women, lying to both, He will not “judge” you.  If you cheat your customers but put a little extra in the plate on Sunday, He understands your act of contrition and accepts it.  If you steal another’s work and falsify documents to secure your worldly advancement, He sees how much you need the lift after a rough childhood.  Heck, He’ll probably let you get away with murder—as long as you don’t sully it with words that hurt your victim’s feelings.

If I catch my little son playing with poison, will I not send him to his room after a good tongue-lashing?  If you catch your little daughter lighting a match on the rug under her toy stove, will you not reduce her to tears with rebuke?  God forbid that we answer such behavior with a pat on the back!  What does love care about “hurt feelings”?  Love, which wants life and health and growth for its object, will hurt feelings all day long if it can thereby bend ruinous behavior in another direction.  Love is a father, a mother, who cries, “No—stop!” to keep a child from stepping over the edge.

But we must not say hurtful words, because they are un-Christian.  Mr. O’Reilly has written a book, so he should know.

The commercialism of this season I have learned, with time, how to stomach.  It is the inanity of “true believers”, rather, which has just about convinced me that Christmas is dead.

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