Thursday, December 27, 2012

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?

Bah!  Humbug!



  1. Rmj, I keep Advent, which is my favorite season of the church year. My husband and I attend a Christmas Eve service. My church does not have a Christmas day service, because people stopped coming. We have a healthy attendance at the three services on Christmas Eve, one in the chapel at a retirement home here in town. On Christmas day we are with family. I'm sorry, but please tell me what is wrong with this picture?

    Perhaps, it is to be regretted that people don't show up on Christmas day, but a family gathering is a good thing, too. I like the present arrangement for services, which I find better than former times when the only alternatives were a late night service on the Eve or a service on Christmas day, which involved an attempt to cram all the activities into one day when young children are involved.

  2. Even on Scrooge's Christmas Day, not everyone is squeezed into the church. The streets Scrooge walks are full of people, some of them merchants; and not all of them in the church he enters for the service on the holy day.

    The thing about worship services is: they aren't mandatory. But you underline precisely what the holiday is, and why many churches don't have services, even if 12/25 is a Sunday:

    Xmas is a time for family.

    Nothing wrong with that, either. My Xmas services (when I held them) were intimate affairs, and in the right setting, wonderful. With the wrong crowd, however, they were barely tolerable. I experienced both sides of that. Either way, it's a matter of being with family, and when I wasn't, it wasn't much fun.

    So even if they have a service and you don't go, it's not even a minor sin. Xmas is many things now. A religious observance. A family observance. A personal observance. A secular release from work and the daily grind.

    Whatever way you keep it (or leave it alone), may it bring peace and joy to you.

  3. If Christ is in your life during the rest of the year, then Christ will be there with you in the Christmas season. :-)

    We received a strange ecard this year from a very nice person, but the card really ticked me off. What about this Christmas greeting? Sorry to blogwhore, but it's the easiest way....

  4. Sherri4:56 PM

    Our (Episcopal) church has three Christmas Eve services (4,7, and 10 pm) and a Christmas Day service. The Christmas Day service is lightly attended (about 30 people or so), but not everyone is able to be with family on Christmas. Our previous church in California had a similar schedule.

    Different Episcopal churches vary in how strict they are about not letting Christmas bleed over into Advent.

    1. Our attendance was down to three elders, who did not go out at night. The service at the retirement complex is at 2:00 pm, which makes it possible for them to attend.

      Our Episcopal church is rather strict about keeping Advent.

  5. I can appreciate the impulse to "inject religion" (i.e., Christianity) into Christmas (what other religion does it have to do with?)

    But that's the rub: what other religion does Christmas have to do with? For many of us, the unsettling part of our otherwise secular society's very public and in your face celebration of Christmas is not that people insist on putting Christ into it, but that, as secular as Christmas is (note that I don't say "has become"), you just cannot put a religion other than Christianity or the common-denominator secular religion of "Christmasism" (e.g. the "religion" espoused by "The Night Before Christmas" where Christmas exists as its own cultural touchstone ... perhaps not exactly Christian but not compatible with other faiths) into it (although many people try).

    Christmas may not be a Christian holiday per se, but neither is it a truly interfaith holiday in the sense of Thanksgiving. The very public and nearly compulsory celebration of Christmas becomes a once a year exercise in establishing a religion: either Christianity ("what other religion does it have to do with?") or a form of French-style laicity ... ironically given their Francophobia, this is really what the "war on Christmas" crowd seems to want to establish -- how actually Christian is the "Christianity" of the "bring God back into society" crowd. And what happens to those of us who accept neither the quasi-established form of Christianity or quasi-established secularism: where do we fall?

    Actually, at some level, while I understand your objections to shallow claims of pagan origins for Christmas, the observance that the "war on Christmas" crowd actually seems to want is really pagan, isn't it? The religion they want our society to adopt, where people must pay lip-service to a particular belief in the divinity of Jesus and a particular set of moral codes in order to be considered full fledged members of society, is really not much different than the public religion expected of Romans: it just substitutes Jesus for Caesar. And given what the Christian Bible actually says about rendering unto Caesar vs. God, it's quite ironic, isn't it?

  6. Alberich--

    You are exactly right, though I'd never given the "war on Christmas" crowd enough attention to consider it.

    If you follow Mimi's link above, you'll find a report of an "e-card" which insists, quite didactically, that "Merry Christmas" be the only phrase allowed in December, despite Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby and 50+ years of alternatives like "Happy Holidays," which even I, growing up in Protestant East Texas (albeit with the only synagogue for miles around) learned was meant to include people who didn't observe Christmas. Odd how society has grown less tolerant than my small Texas town was in my childhood.

    I'm not sure where this impulse comes from, but it is nothing less than Roman: pay lip service to our gods, and all will be well with you. OTOH, that's the primary reason I insist this is not a "Christian society," and never has been or will be. I"m not sure, all over again, such a thing is even possible.


  7. Windhorse9:40 AM

    Alberich: Christmas may not be a Christian holiday per se, but neither is it a truly interfaith holiday in the sense of Thanksgiving.

    While this may be true, I don't think it is strictly true anymore or at least for long. Custom and crass commercialism have created Christmas as a kind of civil holiday wherein we are all urged to buy gifts for one another and spend the day with family. Over the years I've met both Jewish and Muslim friends who celebrate Christmas by buying gifts for their children. That's about as interfaith as it gets.

  8. Alberich has a point, though. I've been to inter-faith Thanksgiving services where rabbis were welcome and participated (it was very enlightening, too).

    You don't do that at Xmas. And even the most secular people might put a manger scene under the tree, or, as in the example that prompted this post, try to inject religion back into the holiday.

    We are, after all, constantly exhorted to recover the "true meaning of Xmas," and put the "'Christ' back in Xmas" and so on and so forth. The battle over whether Xmas is strictly secular or even partly religious goes on, and some of those not within the Xian circles must feel excluded, even as others embrace the gift giving and feasting portions alone.

  9. I missed this one but I'd suspect Amanda Marcotte just wanted to crank out one of her anti-Christian posts, she's written so many of them I think it constitutes her going on auto-pile-it. Actually, you could say that about most of the atheist scribblers. It's a good sign someone has nothing to say or anything to think.

    There's way too much scribbling going on, very little writing.