Thursday, December 24, 2020

Xmas Musings

I've just read a recent book about Dorothy Sayers, SUBVERSIVE, by Crystal Downing. One theme to which the author frequently alludes is the concept of living by an exchange model, an expectation of behaving certain ways to get equivalent value in return. For instance, Downing emphasizes that Sayers cautioned against the mind-set that doing good deeds guarantees one will "go to Heaven" or even enjoy prosperity in life. At the current season, this idea reminded me of Christmas gifts, naturally. We often speak of "exchanging presents" or having a gift exchange at an office party. Ideally, we'd give presents that reflect our awareness of what the recipient really wants, without any consideration of what we might receive from that person. In practice, our gift-giving is often constrained not only by what we can afford but by the anticipated size and monetary value of the present we expect the recipient to give us. If we spend a lot more in giving than the other person spends on us, we might feel miffed at the discrepancy or embarrassed at having put the other person in an awkward spot. Conversely, not spending enough on a gift may distress us because we fear the recipient will think we're stingy, or we might even feel guilty about not giving what we "should."

This subject reminds me of two short essays C. S. Lewis wrote about Christmas as celebrated in Britain in his time. You can read them here:

What Christmas Means to Me

Xmas and Christmas

In "What Christmas Means to Me" (a sappy title I seriously doubt Lewis chose himself), he distinguishes three things called "Christmas": The first is the religious festival. The second, a secular holiday devoted to merrymaking, "has complex historical connections with the first" and, in mid-twentieth-century England as in our contemporary culture, is joyfully celebrated by millions of people who don't practice Christianity in any other way. The third phenomenon, which Lewis says "is unfortunately everyone's business," he calls "the commercial racket." Note that this article was first published in 1957! Here's where the topic of gift exchange comes in. He laments the modern pressure to give presents or at least send cards to everybody we know, a custom he maintains "has been forced upon us by the shopkeepers." Not only is this obligation exhausting and a hindrance to the "ordinary and necessary shopping" we still can't avoid, "Most of it is involuntary." While I think "most" is an exaggeration, Lewis amusingly summarizes the hapless shopper's plight thus: "The modern rule is that anyone can force you to give him a present by sending you a quite unprovoked present of his own."

"Xmas and Christmas," a witty piece of satire, bears the subtitle "A Lost Chapter from Herodotus." It purports to be the classical historian's report of strange winter customs in the fogbound island nation of Niatirb. The writer describes the sending of "Exmas-cards" bearing pictures that seem to have no discernible connection to the festival supposedly being celebrated, such as birds on prickly tree branches. There's a funny description of the citizens' reactions to receiving cards or gifts from anyone they haven't already gifted: "They beat their breasts and wail and utter curses against the sender; and, having sufficiently lamented their misfortune, they put on their boots again and go out into the fog and rain. . . ." Herodotus concludes that Exmas and "Crissmas" can't possibly be the same holiday, because surely millions of people wouldn't undergo those ordeals in honor of a God they don't believe in.

This essay's description of the illustrations on "Exmas-cards," including "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," highlights the way our images of a "traditional Christmas" often owe more to art, literature, and the media than to firsthand experience. Those idyllic snow scenes, for instance, and the songs about sleigh rides. If anyone in the modern U.S. goes on a sleigh ride around the holidays, it's most likely a staged event, not a spontaneous family outing. As for songs such as "Winter Wonderland," "Let It Snow," and "White Christmas" (rescued from banality only by its seldom-sung prologue, which frames the singer as a Los Angeles resident nostalgic for the northeast winters of his childhood), a considerable percentage of the American population sees white Christmases only in the movies. In the popular imagination, though, December is supposed to conform to the standard described by TV Tropes in this entry:

Dreaming of a White Christmas

As the page explains, "Unless a work of fiction takes place in a tropical or arid setting, or in the Southern Hemisphere, it will always snow in winter. . . . The snow will be there to look 'pretty'. It does not melt or turn slushy, nor is it ever coated with dirt or litter. It is never accompanied by freezing winds or icy rains." While our family lived in San Diego at some points during my husband's Navy career, we could tell when it was winter (aside from chilly nights and increased rain) because the distant hills turned green rather than brown. Growing up in Norfolk, Virginia, I seldom experienced snow in December as a child. We got it mainly in January. My late stepmother, a native of the coastal region of North Carolina, loved snow and always hoped for a white Christmas. Considering her birthplace, I doubt she ever saw snow at Christmas during her entire early life. Yet the ideal derived from fiction, movies, and songs shaped her vision of how the winter holidays were "supposed" to look.

Merry Christmas, white or green, to all who celebrate it!

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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