Because I believe in recycling (and revising, constantly revising)…
I am reposting my contemplation of our Christmas holiday from last year:
How often have we heard that we’ve lost the true spirit of Christmas in this society?
In one sense, we have. Because if we traveled back to 17th century England, we’d find a very different Christmas. That Christmas would be something like a combination of Mardi Gras and New Year’s Eve, with a little “Trick or Treat” thrown in the mix.
The Puritans outlawed that Christmas, but their measures didn’t last. The Pilgrims, when they came to America, tried again and failed again. In the darkest time of the year, when minds turn to depression and doubt, people felt the need to celebrate. But by the 1820s, the celebration had grown even wilder–in New York city, the riotous event could spark some real riots.
We should not be surprised at this history of Christmas. After all, the holiday comes from pagan Rome, from Saturnalia, which was held during the Winter Solstice. When the Christians came into power, they simply substituted their own holiday for the pagan observance. But though they changed the name, the party remained.
Obviously, over the years, our Christmases became quieter, more family-oriented. Some attribute this change to Charles Dickens’ 1868 tour of America. It’s believed that his public readings, in which he performed the entire text of A Christmas Carol, helped to promote a different view of the holiday.
Like the rehabilitated Scoorge, we became more generous during Christmas. But as a result of our gift-giving, Christmas developed into a commercial enterprise.
So was there a time in American history when we focused more on the Christian story of Jesus’ birth? I’m not sure.
Though I was raised in a very Christian community, the Christmases of my youth, with their department store Santas and Rudolphs, were as commercially-oriented as the Christmases of today. Every October, my sister and I waited, in eager anticipation, for the arrival of the Sears & Roebuck Christmas catalog. What I hear today is what I heard as a child: we’ve lost the true meaning of Christmas.
Maybe we have: Christmas past was a celebration of life in the waning light of the Winter Solstice. It was about the paradox of new birth amid the barrenness of winter. It was about hope in the face of doubt.
Illumined by our electric lights, both indoors and out, we can ignore the threat of darkness. But we lose so much richness in the bargain.
Charlie Brown has been trying to get us to change the way we think about Christmas for decades now—but without much luck. Such shifts must be a natural evolution. Christmas is a ritual and that ritual will change as we change.
When we become less materialistic, Christmas will become less materialistic. Perhaps then we can recognize—we can feel—the spiritual truth of an event that comes in the dead of winter, yet is a gateway to the life of spring.
That Christmas will not only rejoice in illumination, but also embrace darkness. That Christmas will be both a wild celebration and a quiet contemplation. Aren’t our rituals often a means of balancing? A means of creating psychic balance through outward display and action?
Though I enjoy this time of year…
…the way we now observe Christmas certainly doesn’t seem to create much balance.