December 23, 2005
Santa 1, Jesus 0
Over the years, I would occasionally include a photocopy of the article in a Christmas (Xmas?) card. I finally hand-typed a shortened version of it, but I still can't figure out how to create a link of the text file from my hard drive to Blogger. Christ. So, here in its (edited) entirety is:
The True Meaning of Xmas
A few minutes before the end of "A Charlie Brown Christmas", the barely animated classic that's broadcast around this time every year to (1) decry the commercialization of Christmas, or (2) sell Dolly Madison snack cakes, Linus announces, "I know what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown" and takes the stage to tell the rest of us. "Lights please," he says. Then: "And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field....." The passage is a pretty familiar one out of the Gospel of Saint Luke--"the angel of the Lord" bringing "tidings of great joy"--but there's something especially moving about this calm, wobbly, Linus-y reading. If you've seen it as many times as I have, you can probably do the voice in your head:
"For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
"And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill towards men."
When Linus finished--"That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown"--the show is over, thematically. Linus has obviously gotten Christmas "right"--his is the only suggestion that isn't vigorously undercut, either by its own crassness or by the various wilting, gagging, or "AUUUGGHH!"ing responses of the everyman Charlie Brown. There's still some plot business to wrap up, a carol to be sung in the falling snow, maybe one last Dolly Madison commercial. But the message has been delivered, the meaning of Christmas explained: it's all about Christ. Cue the promo for "Frosty the Snowman."
But hold it. Back up. What exactly did that meaning mean? In context of course it was a gentle scolding, of a kind we're accustomed to hearing at this time of year. All our lives we've been told there's something wrong with Christmas as we commonly celebrate it, that we're "missing the whole point," defiling the authentic religious Christmas with our glitzy secular trimmings. The rebuke has been delivered so many times that it's becoming part of the ritual. Every year Christmas is conceded to belong to God, and every year it's filched, exploited, and returned after a time, slightly crumpled, by shamefaced ordinary people. Quiet "reminders" like Linus's are designed to make us feel once again the small, almost pleasurable spasm of helpless guilt that's very, very close to the heart of religious sentiment. We know we're abusing Christmas, but--we can't help it. We're only human. Father, forgive us. We'll never, ever, ever--well, actually, we will do it again. Same time next year. But we'll feel just as horrible about it, really.
I don't know of any other holiday in which the officially sanctioned meaning and the popular celebration diverge so much. Some holidays are felt to mean exactly what they're supposed to mean. On the Fourth of July we get good and drunk and loud about our independence. On Thanksgiving even those of us who don't know who or what to thank manage to feel a sort of intransitive thankfulness. Other holidays have only their official, public meanings--they're acknowledged by everyone to be privately meaningless. On Memorial Day we barbecue. On Washington's Birthday we have sales.
But Christmas isn't like that. The fact that the season and some of its symbols are exploited for gain doesn't reduce Christmas to a retail tie-in. It's hard to imagine it being switched to a Monday for the sake of a three-day weekend. For many if not most people, Christmas still means more than any other day of the year. But does it have to mean what it's supposed to mean or else nothing at all? Is it a choice between the meaning that believing Christians like Linus insist upon and meaninglessness?
I don't think so. I think Christmas has become something better--or anyway more deeply coherent, more universal, more important--than a celebration of the nativity of Christ. And the strange thing is, I think everyone knows it.
The guardians of orthodoxy have been worrying aloud for some time that Christmas is getting away from them. That's the real point of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and a thousand other sermonettes. That Christmas is changing. That its 'true" meaning, if not quite forgotten, is now so grossly and cheesily papered over with alien "commercial" themes that nobody thinks of it anymore, at least not without being prompted. That people have been so thoroughly distracted and inflamed by false values that they're actually beginning to celebrate a false holiday.
Call it Xmas.
Once undoubtedly a respectable abbreviation--the X representing the Greek capital letter khi, initial of Khristos (Christ, the Anointed)--Xmas may have acquired its bad odor from a faint association with secularism (X could also stand, if you like, for a blank or unknown quantity, even a negation) or with commercial expediency (X fits better on signs). In any case, Xmas is now one of those words with the sneer already in it. It's the name for everything that's cheap, superficial, and kitschy about Christmas--one finger electronic organ tunes, video Yule logs, Slim Whitman in a stocking cap--the sinister "materialistic" Christmas everybody's always denouncing. Xmas is at best a secular corruption, at worst a black mass. It's doubtful that anything good has ever been said about it by anyone.
And yet Xmas has a maddening, weedlike vigor. Religious sentiments must be laboriously cultivated at year's end, but Xmas springs up out of every unintended cranny, spreads everywhere, overruns everything. Including the sacred. It can't be stamped out. Tell us to shun "commercialization," and we will nod like sheep. But tell us, even from the pulpit, to turn away from Santa Claus and we will be scandalized. Tell us to stop making ourselves cozy, spoiling our children, getting misty over old movies, and you will lose every one of us. Xmas may be unsanctioned, it may be false--it may be demonically false--but it remains dear to our silly hearts.
Dearer--more meaningful--than the "authentic" Christmas it's gradually replacing.
Christmas is about what we have long aspired to be; Xmas is about what we are. In trading the one for the other, you could say we traded down. But I have no regrets. I've kept Christmas in many a drafty church, with the aspirations soaring to the highest cross vaults, but I can never remember a time when I wasn't relieved to get home. Home for Xmas. Isn't there a cheesy song.....?
Let me get my music.
And after that we'll do "Sleigh Ride."
Merry fucking xmas to all!!!