by Maclin Horton
I think I was in my early teens when I first read A Christmas Carol. To read it is, for most people, I believe and hope, to be delighted by it, and I was. Among its many pleasures for me was the deep Englishness of its details. I didn’t think of it that way; if I thought about England at that age it was only as the country from whose clutches our War of Independence had freed us. But I was obscurely charmed by certain features of the story and the language of its telling, and I later realized that they had in common this strongly English flavor. What other country could produce a name like “Ebenezer Scrooge”?
Consider this exchange:
“Nephew!” returned the uncle sternly, “keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.”
“Keep it!” repeated Scrooge’s nephew. “But you don’t keep it.”
“To keep Christmas” was one of those little kernels of Englishness that I liked. I don’t recall ever finding it in actual use in the United States. It carries a threefold suggestion: to observe and to respect, as in “to keep the Sabbath;” to retain possession, as in “to keep the change;” to continue, as in “to keep on keepin’ on.”
As a culture, as a society, we have in all those senses lost Christmas. From Bob Cratchit’s point of view, secular America is Scrooge: “you don’t keep it.” It’s not that the American Christmas has non-Christian features; it has done for as long as it has been identifiably American, and few of us objected very much. You can even see something of the tendency in A Christmas Carol,in which the actual religious observation is decidedly in the background, obscured by the customs surrounding it. By the middle of the twentieth century at least, there were fairly widespread complaints about the secularization of the holiday, provoking admonitions to “keep Christ in Christmas.” But if there was a certain tension, there was also a foundation of respect and acceptance from both the Christian and secular sides.
By the end of the century the tension had grown into opposition, with lawsuits demanding that baby Jesus be driven from the courthouse lawn in every little town, and, from the other side, accusations that the secular world was waging a “war on Christmas.” Such rhetoric was often exaggerated, but the phenomenon was real. The pressure to refrain from mentioning the actual Christian center of the holiday was extended to the word “Christmas” itself.
This pressure was not, as is often charged, imaginary. I think it was around twenty years ago that I began to notice that coworkers and acquaintances were uncomfortable saying “Merry Christmas” to one another. The easy exchange of the old familiar greeting was now a little awkward, touched with concern that it might be a faux pas. Those of progressive tendency carefully, sometimes ostentatiously, said “Happy Holidays,” and others became defiant about “Merry Christmas.” A custom that involves such awkwardness, even belligerence, is ceasing to be a custom.
Now there is little public place for Christmas proper. The word itself is disfavored, rarely heard in the omnipresent advertising meant to profit from it. Somewhere around the time when the “war on Christmas” began to appear in the news I wrote a little science-fiction story in which citizens of a not-too-distant-future global civilization called Burbia observe a winter festival called Holiday. I thought this an amusing jab at the anti-Christmas types, but it very quickly became obsolete, because that particular aspect of the future soon became the present.
Christians of course, and obviously, still celebrate Christmas as they always have. But as an element of public shared culture—of “community,” a word people seem to use more and more as it is found less and less—its place has been usurped by the hollowed-out Holiday, in a substitution that makes me think of that profound cinematic work Invasion of the Body Snatchers. (I’m thinking of the 1958 original; I have not seen any of the remakes.)
Almost as much as its displacement of Christmas, the emptiness of Holiday depresses. It is an unreal holiday, without definite identity or reference. It celebrates no particular event or person, only vague warm feelings produced by words such as “love” and “peace,” and by symbols which are not true symbols but mere associations which derive their vanishing power from Christmas Past. The perennial attempt to make it a solstice festival, as the sophomores have been telling us for a century or two it really is, doesn’t seem to get much purchase. To make your solstice festival really take hold of people you probably need some gods, some scary gods of the old school who mean business when they come to eat the sun.
Every year Catholics (and other Christians who have a connection to the liturgical year) are reminded that most of the “holiday season” is actually Advent, and properly observed not with festivities but with restraint, preferably with some penitence. We even lecture each other about it, and there’s no need for me to give that lecture again. It is a time of silence and expectation, and with the cultural diminishment of Christianity we need what it teaches us even more. The noisy Holiday encourages a very worldly anticipation and disappoints it, at least once one is old enough that the quasi-supernatural nimbus provided by Santa Claus and the promise of new toys has lost some, or most, or all, of its enchantment. (“Christmas is for the children”—what a terrible confession that is.) What is left of Holiday after the twenty-fifth? On the twenty-sixth, or soon thereafter, the casting out of the stripped tree, the removal of the decorations, then a steady diminishment, with perhaps a last manic resurgence of fun on New Year’s Eve, and then January, and the gray round of everyday life.
So let Holiday go, as far as that’s possible. Without the Nativity at its core, it’s not the thing you once loved. It’s tempting to become something of a Scrooge as regards Holiday—well, it’s tempting to me at least; you may be a nicer person than I am. Anyway much of it is enjoyable and harmless and there’s no need to be puritanical about it. But in Advent we have the anti-Holiday: an anticipation with something very real and lasting as its object, a consummation which will not grow stale. To keep Advent is to turn away at least briefly from Holiday, and to take a step toward keeping Christmas: marking it, retaining it, continuing in it.
To read more articles like this one,
subscribe to The Lamp here.