The Bishop's Wife shows the difference between what we want and what we truly need for Christmas.
Twenty years ago, in 2002, I spent my Christmas under the crescent. I had been in Andijan, Uzbekistan just four months, working as a Peace Corps volunteer, when December came and the tinsel trees started appearing all over town. This surprised me. I knew there were a few Russians in the region, but they were such a small minority that I was expecting no public festivities. As it turned out, the people of Uzbekistan had embraced a few Christmas traditions, but most were confused when I explained that Christmas was a Christian feast. They regarded it as the Western New Year, and erected their “New Year’s trees” without the least idea that the shining stars on top had anything to do with Jesus.
Uzbeks did certainly understand that Christmas was a major celebration in the West. They’d seen it in the movies. My school asked me to organize a Western-style Christmas party, and I agreed, on condition that I be permitted to tell the real story of Christmas. “Many people here seem a bit confused about Christmas,” I said. “I want the students to know what we’re really celebrating.”
The school readily agreed. Quite obviously, they just viewed the party as an interesting cultural experience, as well as a chance to showcase their new American teacher. (It had already been made clear to me that I was a status symbol, offered as a kind of diplomatic gesture to the Lyceum most attended by the sons of corrupt local officials. My presence there was important to many people; my pedagogy and faith were matters of indifference.) Trying to make the most of the opportunity, I spent weeks testing cookie recipes, making ornaments, and even creating a piñata out of paper mâché for the students to break.
My Uzbek was still less than fluent, so I accepted another teacher’s offer to translate my narrative. But I understood most of what he said, so when we got to the manger scene I was startled to hear my colleague explaining to our eager audience that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was born in a bank.
In retrospect, his confusion was at least comprehensible. Bankers were respected people in Andijan, and a sleek, towering bank was far and away the most impressive building in town. If a high-quality maternity ward was not available, a bank seemed to him like the next best place to welcome a divine dignitary.
Naturally, I could not leave the students with mental image of God Incarnate, lying in a pile of money, come to save us from bear markets. I stopped my translator and offered a correction. He stared incredulously as I repeated myself twice. “A barn?” he asked? “Are you serious? Like with hay and animals? You are sure?”
“Actually, we just tend to imagine it was a barn,” I explained, “because what the Bible really says is that Mary wrapped the baby up and put him in a manger. You know, the thing in a barn where the animal feed goes.”
Giggling a bit, he translated. The room roared with laughter.
Holly Jolly Christmas Wars
I think back on this memory each Christmas, and not only because it helps me to appreciate the magnitude of God’s condescension to fallen man. It helps me, too, to reflect on what it means to live in a Christian society. Even if we consider “post-Christian” a more apt term, the fact remains that Americans know that Jesus was laid in a manger, whether or not they believe it. A public school probably would not have allowed me to tell the story, but if I’d told it, no one would have laughed. The story is written into our cultural DNA. It’s worth reflecting on the significance of that, as our society vociferously debates “Christian nationalism” and the place of faith in a pluralistic society.
Christmas has long been the favorite time of year for fighting about civil religion. We fight about appropriate greetings, “holiday trees,” Advent, Santa Claus, and suitable settings for sacred carols. Some of these fights are truly exasperating. Years ago, when I was first cutting my teeth in right-wing media, I remember being quite fed up with the recurring annual fight over the Starbucks Christmas cup, which morphed from a silly squabble over cups into a nasty, sprawling meta-debate about which side was truly ruining the spirit of the season, by throwing tantrums over cups. Had I the authority of Mrs. Claus, I would have sent everyone involved to their rooms without cocoa.
There are, however, real complexities in the Christmas debates, mirroring broader discussions about civil religion. In the Christmas wars, too, one can find both “integrationists” (who want Christmas to be celebrated openly in the public square) and “separationists” (who think that Christmas, as a religious feast, should be celebrated mostly in churches and private homes). It’s hard to predict where a particular person will fall, based on their political views or religious convictions. Many unbelievers are eager to maintain Christmas as a kind of secular celebration of love and cheerfulness. Many believers, on the other side, resist this, worrying that the distinctively Christian character of their great feast might get lost in the tinsel and treacly angel stories. The politics of this festival are complicated too. Traditionalists debate the relative merits of protecting and promoting Christmas, while progressives struggle to decide whether they’d prefer to co-opt Christmas or cancel it.
All of this is especially difficult in America, because we do have a Christmas culture of our own, but as a rule it tends to be theology-lite. Indeed, the American embrace of secular Christmas probably played a large role in persuading my Central Asian friends that Christmas was a beautiful, godless holiday, traditionally celebrated with cookies and shiny trees. That’s what they saw in the movies. There are certainly exceptions, like A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Americans can also take credit for a few popular hymns such as Hark the Herald Angels Sing (composed by Charles Wesley in 1739), and of course for ‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime, originally written in the Huron tongue by a French Jesuit missionary. In general though, our favorite sacred carols come from England, France, or Germany, while the secular ones are overwhelmingly ours. Never mind that there’s no room at the inn! We Americans prefer to spend our holidays rockin’ around the Christmas tree, and when an American songwriter does try to follow the star, she might just end up cursing the world with the worst Christmas carol ever written.
This has long created discomfort for the devout, who, in this country at least, have always had mixed feelings about public Christmas. The Puritans loathed it; in colonial Massachusetts, people could be fined for having a cup of cheer. Christmas was not officially declared a Federal holiday in this nation until 1870. Modern traditionalists, apart from Jehovah’s Witnesses, seem to have reconciled themselves to Christmas festivities of some sort, but it is not at all uncommon for them to shun the public festival. Every Christmas, I hear much lamentation about the “commercialism” of The Season. I’ve known many traditionalists to refuse party invitations before the 25th (as a violation of Advent’s properly penitential character), and of course shun the secular Santa Claus as a vulgar commercial gimmick. Today, many Catholic, traditionalist parents have replaced the Santa of Christmas Eve with the old European custom of filling their children’s shoes on December 6, in honor of the feast of St. Nicholas. It’s a curious trend, because shoe-filling has never been a widely practiced American custom. But for some people, that’s probably part of the point. Old-world Christmas, at least in our minds, is more properly focused on the Son of God.
The Weary World Rejoices
I am a firm supporter of public Christmas. I think it is healthy to have a cup of cheer with our compatriots and neighbors. Nevertheless, I have real sympathies with the sort of cranky traditionalist I described above. He isn’t necessarily joyless. He just wants to celebrate the birth of his Lord around the manger, not sipping cocktails with the Rat Pack, or crooning about hula hoops in the company of badly-animated rodents. This is particularly understandable, because much American Christmas lore does feel schlocky, sentimental, and shallow. It’s very natural for people of faith to look back with some longing at cultures where the public festival reflected the full significance of this feast in a more complete and integrated way. Also, it is perfectly fitting to immerse ourselves in Christmas music, art, and customs from all times and places. Medieval Germans, Victorian Brits, and 21st-century Americans all celebrate the same baby, and Christmas is a wonderful time to revel in the glories of Christendom across the ages. I too now fill my children’s shoes on December 6, because this has become customary in my American Catholic community, and why shouldn’t it be? I also think, however, that it is healthy to find ways to participate in the American public festival. American Christians can do this without compromising ourselves, precisely because people in this country, unlike my Uzbek students, do know about the baby in the manger. They do not laugh.
Whether or not it is told explicitly, the original Christmas story is stamped all over America’s holiday classics, and those themes still have resonance for Americans. The Jesus-shaped hole in secular Christmas stories is so enormous that it can be hard to understand how anyone fails to see it. Perhaps the schlocky sentimentality functions as a kind of smoke screen, defusing people’s critical instincts.
Our beloved, ostensibly-secular Christmas classics mostly revolve around the same basic story: a wretched soul, oppressed by vice and worldly care, must be rescued by means of an unmerited, transcendent remedy, which restores his ability to love and grow in virtue. Whether the protagonist is the Grinch, Ebenezer Scrooge, Jack Skellington, or George Bailey, these stories all affirm that “the world” is not enough, and that fallen humans require help from “outside” to fulfill even their natural potentialities. Does anyone know of a religion that teaches things like that?
Christmas stories and songs are also packed with reminders of the moral goodness of believing in fantastic things that cannot be seen, nor proven. This is the message of almost all Santa-based stories, from The Polar Express to Miracle on 34th Street, which is why I often urge traditionalists to moderate their distaste for the American Santa. For Americans, he is essentially faith personified, and yet they like him. This cup of eggnog is more than half full.
The emptiness of modern life can be a heavy burden. It’s tempting to set it down sometimes, which is why people with prejudices against religion are often willing to drop their guard at Christmas, acknowledging more openly their desire for spiritual nourishment. Understanding that, Christians should welcome public Christmas, even at the risk of cheapening it a little. If Christ was willing to break bread with prostitutes and tax collectors, he’s probably willing to share a tacky yard display with Rudoph.
Of course, it is best for this to be a cheerful festival, not an occasion for picking fights. In a free country, public festivals are opt-in, not mandatory. No one should be forced to say “Merry Christmas.” But in any case, it is not necessary for Christians to fight the secularists for Christmas, because it is already ours. You must literally fly to the other side of the planet to find a place where people do not, on some deep level, understand this.
A New Great Awakening
That leads us to a further question that is particularly worth pondering in the depths of December. Is Christmas merely a nostalgic season, in which unbelievers look back sentimentally on Christendom’s past glories? Or is this the season when our weary world remembers its Judeo-Christian origin, and acknowledges its desire to return to those roots?
I choose to believe the latter. Maybe I’ve watched too many Hallmark movies. But every year, when Americans follow the ghost of Christmases Past back through Whoville, Bedford Falls, and the ballads of Irving Berlin, I think back on that room full of guffawing students, and I feel new hope for American society. We have not truly reached the Second Coming of William Butler Yeats’ terrifying poem. The falcon does still hear the falconer, at least a little. The rocking cradle still offers some protection.
In a classic Christmas film, the demoralized protagonist generally needs an intervention of some sort to recover his better self. In the end though, he is not remade so much as reminded of things he already knows, and of the tremendous worth of blessings he has already received. So it might be for our own society. So, have yourselves a merry little Christmas now.