Different kinds of Christians do Christmas in their different ways, and fights naturally break out among opposing predilection groups. There is the group who cannot bear to see Christmas decorations in stores before Thanksgiving. A smaller, and proportionately angrier, group object to Christmas being celebrated before the liturgical season of Advent has run its course. Most Christians who offend against the latter group are non-magisterial Protestants who have never heard of Advent. WAUS, the radio station of an Adventist university, is amongst the invincibly ignorant. It has been playing Christmas carols all day and through the night since the day after Thanksgiving. As a paid-up member of WAUS, I think I have now heard “In the Bleak Midwinter,” “Little Drummer Boy,” and “Adeste Fideles” in English and in Latin, at least forty times in the past fortnight. As a Catholic, I am, as St. Paul put it, without excuse: I love it and turn the volume up for Miss Rossetti’s poetry. The dog turns impatiently in the backseat, awaiting his walk while I catch the last verse of “In Dulce Jubilo.” WAUS and its Adventist audience share my detestation for the mournful dirge, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
“In Dulce Jubilo” is amongst the least unacceptable of my Christmas tastes. There are English Catholics (I have not encountered their counterparts amongst the Americans) who will not apply the attribute “carol” to any song written after 1475. All the Christmas traditions developed since around 1800 are under anathema for hardcore members of this group. Even by these stringent standards, “In Dulce Jubilo” passes muster.
The same cannot be said for my Christmas decor. While my friends have been posting photos of their homemade Advent wreaths with the right number of candles lit, I have diligently recovered my electric Christmas tree from the basement and plugged it in. Sinking still farther, I have purchased a majestic wreath and hung it on the front door. My only regret is that the wonderful smell of berries, fir, and pinecones is being offered outside, not perfuming the house. For those who celebrate Advent and Christmas with more propriety, I might as well be hanging up a statue of the Emperor Nero and publicly offering incense to it.
The two flashpoints in the Christian “Christmas wars” are the tree and Santa Claus. Europeans, or Germans, are probably responsible for the tree (and for my “Woodland Berry Wreath”). The Belgians, the Dutch, and the French believe they know better than to call the Boxer of Nicaea “Santa.” The only overlap between the “real” Nicholas, who punched Arius on the nose, and the protagonist of “The Night Before Christmas” is that both champions are heavy-weights. Doubtless the last three Catholics in the Low Countries celebrated the Feast of St. Nicholas properly, giving their children chocolates out of a wooden clog before returning to their austere Advent preparations.
A hardback illustrated version of “The Night Before Christmas” somehow made its way into my parents’ home, and Clement C. Moore’s poem was thus the first exercise in epic I encountered. I knew the story to be a fiction, and was puzzled by other children who, encouraged by their parents as I was not, professed to “believe in Santa Claus.” It was a cause of wonderment to me that Laura and Mary Ingalls, eminently sensible and real girls, truly believed that Santa Claus flew out to reward them in whatever prairie or forest their dug-out or log cabin was set down. For those wonderfully naïve little girls, Santa Claus was a symbol not of the commercial debasement of Christmas but of the real meaning of their faith in punishment and reward. A hundred years later, as I celebrated Christmas in Manhattan, the tree decked with blue glass baubles and stretching to the ceiling of our little apartment was the only potent religious symbol Christmas afforded. For those of us who have made our way to the Stable from far beyond the Church, the tree and the nineteenth-century sky-travelling “Santa Claus” were lights illuminating the way, like the Star for the Magi.
The custom of the ancient Scottish University of Aberdeen is to erect a large tree on the quad in the weeks before Christmas. It can be seen from the windows of the upper room of the Catholic chaplaincy on the High Street. Perhaps it caught the chaplain’s eye, and added fuel to the fire of his fury, as he devoted his homily to denouncing the entirety of the world’s preparation for Christmas. The entire congregation sat rigid with embarrassment as he pointed out the window and issued his anathemas against the tree, the purchasing and giving of gifts to our loved ones, Christmas parties, mince-pies, mulled wine, the lot. “We are not waiting for Christmas,” the priest thundered. “Advent is not a build-up to Christmas!” We wondered what strange thing would come out of his mouth next. “We are expecting the end of the world!” While “the world” celebrated in anticipation of the “fake, commercial Christmas,” we happy remnant, his congregation, were to spend the season thinking of the Last Judgment and the end of time.
Though the natural riposte is to think, “Never say anything completely counter-intuitive in a sermon,” the chaplain had a point. Anyone who has spent the Christmas season travelling among the sickbeds of parents and relatives, whilst surrounded by photographic images of unreal Christmases celebrated only by models and actors, knows how hard the “commercial Christmas” is on those who have no means for it. Though it is true that there is nothing wrong or “commercial” about people giving each other gifts, still the advertisers’ Christmas leaves very many people out in the cold.
And yet I took an odd thing away from my childhood Christmas in a Churchless family that in fact only rarely even thought to dignify the occasion with a tree. I found it impossible to imagine that any event as majestic as this great day, on which there were a wealth of presents to give and to unwrap for ourselves, could have a future beyond it. The build-up of present-buying through the cold weeks of December, the visits to Toys “R” Us, seemed to lead to the last day in the history of the world. How could there be anything beyond “that Day” of splendor? Even in the fallen, pagan, and concupiscent imagination of a child, Christmas was a little Eschaton. The day of new toys bore a greater wealth of eschatological meaning than it will ever carry for the most zealous Christian believer, at least until we regain our childhood in the world to come.
Francesca Aran Murphy is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. She is writing a fortnightly blog on religion.
Photo by Justin Brendel.