(A bauble left behind after the dismantling of our tree)
Yesterday, on the 18th of January, while I was on my walk, I noticed a decorated Christmas tree framed in a window. Somehow it unsettled me to see it.
Just a few weeks ago coloured lights blinked, flashed and tinkled everywhere. Saccarine tunes filled public spaces. Now the usual canned antiseptic music has returned to retail stores, and most of the lights and tinsel are gone from homes; out of sight and out of mind. Only a few hold-outs persist. Do they want to cling to the idea of Christmas, or are they just waiting for motivation to take everything down?
It's mid January and the orgy of consumption, sentimentality, Santa Claus, reindeers, and unmet expectations of Christmas celebrations have run their course. Christmas is back in its box (mostly) until next time.
I look forward to Christmas and I'm usually a little sad when it has passed. Perhaps this is why some people leave their Christmas trees in the window long after the tinsel and lights have been removed from public places and jingly ditties have disappeared from retail precincts.
You may think what we now experience as Christmas is a long standing tradition going back centuries. If so, you would be mistaken. Christmas, as it is now celebrated in the secular west is mostly a twentieth century phenomenon.
(Christmas market in Leipzig Germany.)
It began with the import of the idea of decorated fir trees from nineteenth century Germany by Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert. Christmas trees, as we know them today, were soon to be found in homes throughout Britain as a popular monarch set the fashion for her subjects. Although his predecessor, St Nikolaus, has long been a feature of European Christmases, the jolly red Santa Claus took off in a 1930s marketing campaign by the Coca Cola company. Bing Crosby and other crooners got in on the act with “White Christmas”, “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer”, “Santa Claus is coming to Town”, and “I'll be Home for Christmas”. And so, the trappings of Christmas most of us are so familiar with and cling to, are the creations of an advertising company.
This year, as every year, there was another Christmas narrative that struggled for traction. Awe, wonder and joy don't attach themselves so easily these days (if they ever did) to the Christian story of God's appearance among us. Out moded, old fashioned, and swamped by a different gospel; the gospel of human self-centredness and materialism; they have been pushed to the margins. Move on . . . nothing to see here.
Many Christian carols are centuries old, and singing them can still bring goose bumps aplenty, but only a few survive in popular culture. Two thousand years of Christian heritage successfully airbrushed out of our western culture. Replaced by . . . what?
Interesting question. One you can answer yourself in whichever way you fancy.
Although its use irritates me, 'Holiday' season is a much more inclusive label for what used to be called Christmas time; reflects our cultural diversity and our need to apologise for our own culture. Never mind that other cultures do not do apologise for themselves and are not asking us to do it either. But I digress . . .
Christmas celebrations as we know them may be a recent tradition in the west, but nevertheless they look as if they are here to stay. People look forward to Christmas: Food, family and festivities, flavoured with sentimentality, immersed in gifts, and layered with schmalz.
And how good is all of that?
Good it is . . . as long as all the pieces lock together and the foundations are strong.
Most of us in the West seem to be ok for food, and plenty of it, at Christmas. Even the destitute have meals laid on for them by volunteers. Family? Well, that can be a little more problematic.
Christmas gatherings can be challenging for well adjusted, balanced, nurturing and functional families. For emotionally dysfunctional and abusive families they can be a horror story. Old wounds that fester, fallout from past and present abuse, and unrealistic expectations mean big business for counsellors throughout the Christmas season.
Is it true that absence of secure, authentic, loving relationships can be compensated for by a mountain of gifts and discarded wrapping paper on Christmas day? When sentimentality and unmet needs come face to face with reality, it is often not a pretty sight. But I wonder, is reality what we are looking for at Christmas time? Or are we looking to Christmas to escape, for a time, from reality?
Is that what Christmas has become for us? A highly choreographed set of gestures, coloured lights, sentimental music, orgies of eating, drinking and gift giving; all working to distract us from our disappointments and the lonely unmet expectations of our lives?
I don't know. . . It's just a thought.
I do know that Christmas can be more than an escape from reality; a superficial festival of lights, music, decorated trees and gifts. Instead it can point the way out of a struggle with meaninglessness. Looking beyond the tinsel, Christmas can be a reminder that we count for something; that others do too, and that joy and wonder will never be obselete.
What happened to Christmas?
Maybe the better question might be:
“What has happened to us?”