Thursday, December 26, 2013

Holiday Greetings

Happy Yuletide, whatever holiday(s) you celebrate! The twelve days of Christmas have just begun, since Christmastide in the Western tradition encompasses December 25 to January 6.

At this time of year, much grumbling comes from some quarters about the so-called “war on Christmas,” by which the viewers-with-alarm usually seem to mean the greeting of “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” and a lack of Nativity scenes in public places. Far more interesting than attacks on these straw targets is the historical “battle” discussed in one of my favorite nonfiction books, THE BATTLE FOR CHRISTMAS, by Stephen Nissenbaum. The REAL old-fashioned Christmas would have looked to us like a mash-up of Halloween, Mardi Gras, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Eve. It’s not surprising the Puritans tried to ban it. The family-centered holiday we think of as “traditional” was invented in the nineteenth century. And as soon as Christmas began to turn into a celebration focused on children, people started worrying about its hazards of materialism and greed. Nissenbaum’s book explores the push and pull between groups who wanted to expand the season and those who wanted to restrict it and between the old “carnival” holiday and the domestic one we’re familiar with, as well as between the commercial and the family-centered.

More than fifty years ago, C. S. Lewis remarked that "Christmas" actually referred to three different things: A religious holiday, a secular festival, and "the commercial racket." Things haven't changed much!

This week I came across a thought-provoking passage in FOR ALL GOD’S WORTH, a book on worship by one of my favorite nonfiction authors, New Testament scholar N. T. Wright. He covers many topics whose immediate relevance to the topic of worship isn’t immediately obvious, including this statement about Christmas in his introduction: In reaction to the popular culture nostalgic holiday with its images of “candles and carols and firelight and happy children,” he says, “Christmas is not a reminder that the world is really quite a nice old place. It reminds us that the world is a shockingly bad old place, where wickedness flourishes unchecked. . . . Christmas is God lighting a candle, and you don’t light a candle in a room that’s already full of sunlight. You light a candle in a room that’s so murky that the candle, when lit, reveals just how bad things really are.” Imagine THAT on a greeting card. Wright continues, “Christmas, then, is not a dream, a moment of escapism. Christmas is the reality, which shows up the rest of ‘reality’.”

Best wishes to all—see you next year.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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