Monday, December 14, 2015

Keeping the Mass in Christmas

It's that time of year again, that festive season when people become outraged over red cups and shout angrily about the War on Christmas.
I'd like to address a couple of these idiosyncrasies, if I may, from the point of view of someone who cries a little bit every time an article headline in The Onion hits a little too close to the truth.
First: that all-too-familiar battle, "Happy Holidays" vs "Merry Christmas". First of all, let's get one thing straight. If someone came up to me on the street right now and said "Merry Christmas," he/she would be factually incorrect. It's not Christmas. It's Advent. Advent is one of those periods on the church calendar that most churchgoers (Catholics and Episcopalians excepted) have completely forgotten exists. Advent is the solemn and reflective period before the joy-of-hope-fulfilled that is Christmas, which officially begins on December 25th and lasts for 12 days (hence the song). It is most definitely not Christmas right now. (How would you feel if, already in April, I was wishing you a happy Independence Day?)
From a more secular point of view, at the moment we exist in that nebulous and uncertain period of the year in between Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year - all of which, I might mention, are known as "holidays" - and thus a broader greeting such as "happy holidays" or "happy holiday season" is perfectly acceptable, as well as being factually true. We don't say "happy holidays" because we hate Christmas. We say it because we love Thanksgiving and New Years Eve.
Second: keeping the Christ in Christmas. I wonder why no one ever seems upset that we don't keep the Mass in Christmas (a good long mass, starting early, with lots of standing and sitting and mumbling). But emphasizing the Christian tradition over the pagan one isn't historically accurate. Christmas is a mash-up of pagan traditions (cf. Saturnalia) and Christian values. We celebrate the birth of Christ as the actualizing of hope in a time of darkness (midwinter), but the idea of light vs dark is far older. The tradition of bringing a tree indoors and bedecking it with candles (later, a string of electric lights) is a pagan ritual, not a Christian one. Same goes for having a huge feast with your extended family, a demonstration of the wealth of love and the hope that winter will someday end and your depleted stores will be replenished. In fact, many early Christians didn't celebrate Christmas at all. Anyone who wants to keep Christ in Christmas to the detriment of everything else that has become part of the Christmas tradition had better avoid getting a tree, or cooking a ham, or decorating the house with lights, or even gift-giving... that tradition used to be tied to end-of-the-year blessings. Also, American Christmas carols. Pretty much the lot of them are secular in their content.
Third: anyone who fights over aspects of the Christmas season is completely missing the point of the Christmas season. Go have a hot chocolate in a red cup and relax.