I have been thinking a bit about American holiday traditions and what we celebrate these days. Now, I know many of you grew up thinking Christmas was about Jesus away in a manger, but I want to tell you there is a different reality for many in America. Personally, growing up Christmas was about Santa Claus and getting stuff. Later in life - after that horrible day when you find out that "he isn't real" you expect expensive presents from your parents. Of course you join in the whole Santa conspiracy from the top end of the ladder enjoying the delight of the younger cousins and kids in the family. This year after seeing that almost all the cartoons on television were about Rudolph, Frosty and Satan Claus I realized that something has really shifted in our celebrations and holidays. In many ways, Christmas is about celebrating nothing. What do I mean?
Some of you may very well know that our word "holiday" derives from the Old English haligdæg, from halig "holy" + dæg "day." In other words, a holiday was a holiday set aside for observance and celebration of something. Usually holidays are created by people for the remembering of important or sacred events. This pretty much carries throughout all cultures where people set aside time to remember important things from their histories. We still observe this concept pretty much today, but something strange is happening with Christmas. For all the Christians reading this post, this really will not apply. For believers in Christ still celebrate advent and incarnation...although on the awkward day of December 25th (for a short history of this go here). Yet for many others Christmas comes once a year to celebrate something for sure...namely, CHRISTMAS!!!
In other words, many now celebrate a holiday to celebrate the holiday. Something has slipped out of the event somehow. We celebrate the holiday itself rather than something sacred or of importance to remember. So what do we really celebrate? Well, my cynical answer would be the percentage of consumer spending and the propping of our "way of life" and economic engine. We spend and buy and go into debt for the sake of our friends and loved ones while it keeps our economy purring along. But that answer is too simplistic for me in light of sociological realities. I don't want to get into taking back Christmas for Jesus arguments here - we can do this in our own families if we fight the demon in the red suit, but I do want to look at the nature of Christmas celebration without Christ's advent central.
What is celebrated?
Perhaps the easiest way to see what we celebrate is to observe the expectations, affections and movings of your soul. What comes to mind when Christmas is looked forward to? I would guess for many Americans it would be seeing friends, family, and giving and receiving material things. From the view of advertising and attitudes I have observed in children, I would say most are excited about "what they are getting for Christmas." So it seems to me that celebrating Christmas is not the setting apart of a "holy day" but rather a celebration of contemporary values supplemented by exciting children's mythologies like Rudolph guiding a slay and made up magic to fill the emptiness of our souls.
Now, most of this you will say is just plain good fun. I agree - Christmas was and is really fun for me and our family. Yet I am just reminded of the emptying of this holiday - it is a mere rejoicing in what we already like, rather than remembering something important or sacred which defines and marks us as a people. Of course, this may be indicative of what America is - a common set of "holy" days may be forever removed as we simply no longer have a central story of cultural cohesion.
I am thankful we still have some common holidays like July 4th, where we celebrate the creation of our republic, days set aside to remember our fallen soldiers and the freedom they secured, we even have days for presidents and civil right leaders. I thank God for these. But for the Christmas season most of the center is gone in public discourse but is still echoed when we sing some carols in which theology sneaks back in. It sort of both humors me up and fills me with sorrow to hear about my daughters "winter party" in our local public school. I thought what will be left for us to celebrate "together" as a broad public in America - maybe that it is cold, dark and it some parts snows.
I love the diversity of God's creation, the earth and all its peoples. We love parts of many cultures in the world in which we have participated. Yet the great chink in the diversity movements splendor is that it offers no way of unity within the beauty of diversity. It only separates and multiplies us out into ever smaller groups - each needing its own day during the darkest time of the year. Perhaps we will all agree on peace of earth and good will to men - but we dare not ask or care or look into the origin of that phrase or the ontology of of that goodness. This would lead us back towards the holy...which large segments of western culture simply do not want during our holidays.