Putting the "X" back in "Xmas"
Or: Have trod, have trod, have trod....
Alright, since somebody started this, let's try the history lesson one more time.
American history, anyway. As I've said before, the Puritans didn't like Christmas at all, and they knew how to denounce it in ways that would make Bill O'Reilly pop a vein:
"Into what stupendous height of more than pagan impiety...have we not now degenerated! [Christmas out to be] rather a day of mourning than rejoicing, [not a time spent in] amorous mixt, voluptuous, unchristian, that I say not pagan, dancing, to God's, to Christ's dishonour, religion's scandal, charities' shipwracke and sinne's advantage."A proper history of Christmas in America would take note of the fact the Santa Claus myth in America, and the taming of the holiday, had everything to do with Clement Clarke Moore, and nothing whatsoever to do with religion. (Read the poem again, and aside from the word "Christmas," I defy you to find any reference to religion in it).
There lives a dearest freshness deep down things....
I can appreciate the impulse to "inject religion" (i.e., Christianity) into Christmas (what other religion does it have to do with?), but this would certainly be the result:
A few sentences in, they began interrupting me with questions. “Where’s Galilee? Who’s Herod? What’s Myrrh?” I deferred the questions to my wife. She made a beeline for Wikipedia. When my children asked why Jesus appeared to have two fathers – God and Joseph – I couldn’t help thinking of the old controversy over school libraries carrying books about kids with gay parents. By the time I had finished trying to explain the visit from the Magi, I was seriously regretting this. Far from providing context, I had confused them.I'm wondering which translation he used, to begin with. Probably one trying to stay as faithful to the KJV as possible. But the reference to things like "myrrh" is the least of the problems here. The major problem is: this is like trying to teach your kids something about European culture by reading them "The Waste Land."
Religion is a shot through with two major themes: meaning, and belonging. The irony of the ending to "The Waste Land" is the Sanskrit prayer: Shantih shantih shantih. Eliot explains it is the equivalent to "the peace that passes all understanding," but a foreign language prayer (well, it is Indo-European, so there is that root) from a foreign (to Europeans) religion in an English-language poem is not designed to promote peace of the soul, but simply to pass well beyond understanding, along with the rest of the poem. It suits the context, in other words, but its a poor place to start a conversation about either religion or European culture.
One could shift to the more overtly Christian poems such as the "Four Quartets." But there again, without the context of notions of "sin" and "redemption," or even "Christ" and "visions," the attempt at explanation breaks down simply because you have no frame of reference to work from. I know as an English teacher that works like "Paradise Lost" or "The Dream of the Rood," or even the references to Cain in "Beowulf", make little sense to students not raised in a Christian church, even though they've lived their whole lives in an ostensibly "Christian" environment. Adam, Eve, Eden, the flood of Noah, David and Goliath, the two Nativity stories: none of these are cultural touchstones for the entire generation, or the generations coming up, if indeed they ever were. And there's nothing wrong with that.
The irony of putting the "Christ" back in "Christmas" is that, first it ignores the other end of the word, which was a Puritanical objection: it is just shortening of the word "Mass," which the Puritans rejected as too Roman Catholic (and if you think the anti-Papist strain in American culture is dead, then you need to get out more. 500 years after Luther, it's alive and kicking.) The other irony is that the "X" was never meant to be the English letter, but the Greek chi, or the first letter in the Greek version of "Christ." Hard to put back in something that never left.
Or was never there in the first place; the Puritans were right, after all. The observance of Christmas has never had much to do with Christianity, and always had much to do with local culture. (and if you're going to tell me it was all stolen from the pagans, just stop it. Right now.) If you want to observe a religious holiday, God be with you. But try to find a Christian church open on Christmas Day (yes, another of my hobby horses), even if Christmas is on a Sunday. The holiday has become almost exclusively a secular affair. Few Christian churches will put a tree in their worship space; some may decorate the Advent wreath with greenery. Most will put up a nativity scene (especially funny in light of the fact most Protestant churches despise the Roman and Orthodox practice of picturing saints and using icons and other religious images of people. Protestants will make allowances for a very Anglo Jesus, but all but the staunchest Protestant congregations include a nativity of some sort on their grounds, if not in their worship space).
So can we enjoy Christmas as a secular holiday? How can we not? Can we observe it as a Christian holiday? Be my guest. I'll join you. But inject it into someone's holiday who has no context for it whatsoever?