The Reason for the Season: bah humbug and take your nativity miniatures with you.

To be honest, and as a disclaimer, I haven't been bothered all that much by anything that I've seen or heard thus far in the Christmas season.

In fact, the one Christmas-themed event I've attended so far was quite lovely: a group of friends from a dance club (no, not that kind of dance club, the other kind) decided to sing some carols at a local seniors' care center. Other than the fact that we had near-blizzard conditions and a bunch of cancellations due to illness/H1N1 paranoia, it was a wonderful evening and we're hoping to go back before Christmas. My conclusion (after some discussion at the end of the evening with my dance partner) is that you can't be a truly post-modern cynic until your grandparents are all deceased.

Disclaimer given, let me say: bah humbug.

I like The Santa Clause because I like Tim Allen, and because I like what could be called "fairy-tales." The mythos of Santa Clause and his north pole is bizarre, but like so many other surreal facets of popular legend it makes for good storytelling. (I defy any of my readers to deny that the movie is such. If one needs further introduction to Tim Allen before making such judgement, see his other Joe Pasquin/Disney collaboration: Jungle 2 Jungle.)

Christmas with the Kranks, however, is not good storytelling. While I must profess ignorance of the John Grisham novel it's based on, the film falls dreadfully short of both good storytelling and thoughtfulness. Unless I'm seriously overestimating the sobriety of the film's message, it may well have been the worst Christmas message I've ever heard: "do not tinker with, disrupt, or otherwise modify your American Traditional Family Christmas. If you do, you are an enemy of all that is good and pure, a despicable wretch, and shall not be getting any of this year's Christmas baking."
It's not so much the fact that the story restricts our hero's freedom (freedom is, after all, highly overrated in cinematic plotlines) as the way he is coerced into changing his Christmas plans: to be a good person, the film seems to say, one must participate in all of the silly little ceremonies of Christmas for the simple reason that it's what you've always done. Christmas, it seems, is most remarkable in that it's the time of year when you do the same things you did the year before. To do otherwise brings great disappointment in co-workers, retail clerks, adult children, and those annoying neighbors you never really worry about disappointing anyway. The kick in the pants is that the film's plot hinges on a Loki-esque Santa Clause making things work out in spite of last-minute changes, and I can't help feeling as he flies away in his taxicab (I wish I were making this up) that I've been fooled into believing that the whole thing wasn't a satire. (The last time I saw the film, I asked my then-girlfriend if she thought it was serious, and she glared at me and accused me of participating in the hero's "selfish" and "mean" sentiments regarding holiday tradition.)

If the malaise of modern Christmas sentiment were limited to Christmas With the Kranks, I would probably be able to cope. It's not.

It's not a new phenomenon, either. Here's an excerpt from "Herodotus'" account of the ancient practices of the woe-begotten inhabitants of Niatirb:

In the middle of winter when fogs and rains most abound they have a great festival which they call Exmas , and for fifty days they prepare for it in the fashion I shall describe. First of all, every citizen is obliged to send to each of his friends and relations a square piece of hard paper stamped with a picture, which in their speech is called an Exmas-card . But the pictures represent birds sitting on branches, or trees with a dark green prickly leaf, or else men in such garments as the Niatirbians believe that their ancestors wore two hundred years ago riding in coaches such as their ancestors used, or houses with snow on their roofs. And the Niatirbians are unwilling to say what these pictures have to do with the festival, guarding (as I suppose) some sacred mystery. And because all men must send these cards the market-place is filled with the crowd of those buying them, so that there is great labour and weariness.
(Read the whole "lost chapter" here)

It's not even the commercialism of Christmas that has me in a fluster. (Though I cannot deny that it bothers me when I see the "Christmas" lottery ticket commercials...) It's the uncritical and uncaring attitude with which we treat the imagery and ceremony. Ceremony is good, I say without apology, so long as you recognize it as such. As soon as Christmas becomes "right" by means of a self-justifying and circular logic ("Christmas has always been right!") then it isn't right at all, it's wrong.

I read this comment in an old AP story (preserved here) about controversy surrounding advertising for The Nativity Story during a Christmas fair:
"The last time I checked, the first six letters of Christmas still spell out Christ," said Paul Braoudakis, spokesman for the Barrington, Ill.-based Willow Creek Association, a group of more than 11,000 churches of various denominations. "It's tantamount to celebrating Lincoln's birthday without talking about Abraham Lincoln."

The problem with Mr. Braoudakis' argument is that, last I checked, people don't really talk about Lincoln on Lincoln's birthday... and if they did, when was the last time you met someone who actually new anything important about Lincoln? (Do kids South of the 49th even memorize the Gettysburg Address anymore? How many people on the street actually know what the Gettysburg Address was? A quick scan of Youtube uploads puts it in range of "hopeful, but don't bet money on anything.")

Thus, when I see the billboards that advertise the "Reason for the Season," my response is now "are you sure that preachy billboard advertising isn't the reason for the season?"

Jean Baudrillard wrote about the nature of simulation and imitation in the modern world, and I think what he has to say about manufacturing (and technology, and sex, etc.) applies just as well to things like Christmas carols and nativity scenes. Ask yourself: at what point does a "Precious Moments" nativity scene change from "cute" to "idolatrous"?

There's an argument floating around about Anne Geddes and the "perfect baby" Idealism of Pro-Choice. If Geddes can dehumanize infants and make them into symbols of our desire to control and manipulate the body, what does a near-pastiche of an already-kitschy holiday ornament do to our understanding of "the true meaning of Christmas"?

The nativity is an interesting story with great significance for liturgical ceremony. Beyond that... well, doesn't it basically become a consumable?

Baudrillard (apologies to those who actually read his stuff, I'm giving the condensation of wikipedia-level thought here) talks about "simulacra" in the following manner: In the modern world of industrial power, we have original, one-of-a-kind objects, and copies of those objects, and mass-produced replicas of those objects. In the post-modern world of ideological power, we have ideas of objects (often as portrayed on our televisions), and then we have mass-produced reproductions of those non-existent originals. In the post-modern world of simulacra, we don't buy the 2010 Dodge Charger because we recognize the "utility" of 425BHP on the asphalt; we buy it because we saw the 1969 Charger in the Dukes of Hazzard.

Likewise, the nativity miniatures have come to mean less about the story of advent and more about having a physical manifestation of the idea of a physical object that you've always associated with the idea of Christmas decorating. "What child is this?" Sorry, Virginia, that's not a child--it's a bit of porcelain. In the case of the Precious Moments set in the picture above... I'm not even sure what those things are supposed to represent. Granted, some nativity sets are handsomely made, but that's not the point either, is it? My grandmother (bless her dear heart) used to sew stuffed nativity sets out of bits of printed fabric she found at fabricland; the figures were barely recognizable ("which of these rustic-looking but mostly featureless men is the boy's real father? Test results on tomorrow's Inside Poorly-Designed-Nativity-Scene True Story!") and even if the rest of them did stand up, the Christ-Child was usually too bulky to fit into the stuffed "manger." My Grandmother made dozens of these abominable things. (I really need to find one and put up a picture to illustrate.)

I wish that I could say that my Grandmother's heart was in the right place, but to be honest I'm not sure that it was. The best that can be said of the situation was that I thought of her every time I saw the stuff in the Christmas decorations box. (Maybe that's enough, but it's a special case, because she's my Grandma. Precious Moments inc., what's your excuse?)

Christmas carols are a not-altogether-different case. I have a friend who recounts playing Christmas musical specials with a traveling group of Pentecostals (I'd recount the name, but for fear of incriminating the guilty) and spotting old ladies raising their hands in worship to "Silver Bells." It's not that Christmas Carols are bad, nor that we're bad to sing songs about Christmas (however far-fetched and unlikely the set-up: whoever wrote "Away in a Manger" must not have believed the "fully God, fully Man" doctrine, because no "fully human" child would be awakened by lowing cattle without some kind of crying) but that we sing them for the sake of singing them.

In a liturgical sense, that's not so bad--you need something to sing, so you sing what's fit for the time of year. In an A-carolling we will go sense, it's quite lovely--you get together with friends and spread a bit of goodwill to your neighbours. In a mid-afternoon filler on the radio sense, it's horrible. "the Little Drummer Boy" is a wonderful piece of music when you are able to give it attention and due thought; as the soundtrack to a soccer-mom's road-rage it becomes something less than wonderful and more than a bit frightening. (Not saying that there's no chance for a good song on the radio to change your day or even save your soul, just that too often it won't.) We shouldn't have carols for the same reasons we have red and green decorations and tinsel.

To conclude (because this is getting to be a really long post) here's a bit of a counter-argument in the form of a (dramatized) discussion I had with my dance partner after our trip to the seniors' care center:

He: Don't you think that our reasons for popular Christmas music are a bit too... "sentimental?" I mean, all tied up with fond memories of Christmases past, but without any real meaning from the songs themselves.

She: "what's so bad about that? I probably only like most of my favourite songs because of some memory--people I heard them with, things I was doing when I heard them, things like that."

He: "Isn't that kind of... shallow, though? That songs are only as meaningful as the associations we have with them because of random coincidence?"

She: "If it's a good association, with a good song, then I don't think it's shallow at all. 'Deeper' songs make deeper connections for us."

He: "Okay, but doesn't that make Christmas carols about as meaningful for us as 'The Yellow Submarine' is for hippies?"

She: "Is that so bad?"

He: "Well... Maybe it isn't as bad as I used to think it was."

More thoughts on bumhugs:
Michael isn't big on Idolatry
An interesting look at Focus on the Family's ideology (Thanks Michael)
Advent Conspiracy (thanks again to Michael)
(Warning: less-than-serious and occasionally dreadful) War on the War on Christmas
Go Ahead, Wish Me a Merry Christmas! (Yes, this is a real website. Apparently this is a problem in some places.)
Thoughts on the Gap's Christmas advertising
Garrison Keillor on Christmas Revisionism


naomi said...

I think if we focussed as much on showing love in ways that are meaningful & special to people as you just did on the shallowness/commercialism of Christmas that you would not have had to write this blog ;)
Maybe that was not the most loving way to say it but I do love you brother & hope some extra joy & peace cracks through in spite of the shallowness you find in the season!

Jack said...

Indeed, but if we put 1/10th of the effort into those truly great things that we put into the ridiculous "Xmas rush" every year, we would be even further ahead, and I wouldn't have to write anything *ever.*


Naomi said...

Yes true that we should focus on the great things! But I guess I thought that the greatest thing mankind could do was love God, and show His love to others... So you do still need to write a blog because it is an excellent vehicle to carry God's love! We don't have to be involved in the ridiculous things of the world... just the ridiculous things of God!
Maybe I have been in the North too long? While I do still see materialism manifested, I don't really see this "Xmas rush" you speak of. In this culture it is just another holiday that happens to be really meaningful to some people, and a really nice break from routine to brighten the darkest time of the year (literally). Now we could let it be "just another holiday", or we could be opportunistic in regards to what people associate with the holiday. Regardless of whether or not people believe in it or agree with it, they can't help but think of it, so we can springboard off the foundation laid by our forefathers that allows us to tap into unique ways to show the love of Jesus on these pagan holidays! :D
Now to go put up some more lights to shine in the dark ;)

Michael said...

Thanks for all the links Jack! I'm humbled, especially when you're putting much more effort into your posts than I into mine.