I’d like to offer a theory: Christmas is not about the birth of Jesus Christ.
Maybe this is beyond obvious. Nevertheless, every December of every year, the whole world comes together to gripe about the decadence and commercialization of the American Christmas tradition. They hold hands and clamor in perfect harmony to stop the runaway Christmas Carousel. To stop the lines, lights, and senseless hysteria. They tell us to return to the true meaning of Christmas— whatever that may mean.
As I’ve said, I don’t believe Jesus is the reason for the season, and as a cultural fact, I don’t think others truly believe that he is either. Even among the professed. He may have given the holiday a name and a good heave-ho, but through the years Christmas has become much, much more than a birthday party for the King of the Jews. Especially for heathens like me.
I would even respectfully disagree with those who try to salvage the Christmas mission by saying that it celebrates certain magnanimous ideals, Christian and otherwise. I believe in the ideals, sure, but really regardless of the calendar, and I can’t help thinking that these are secondary phenomena in the great big bloom that is Christmas.
What then, do I suppose, is the meaning of Christmas?
Answer: so far as I can tell, the meaning of Christmas is the perpetuation of the Christmas myth— a cluttered and candlelit, ever-burgeoning Christmas myth. Does this definition sound cyclical? It is. The Christmas Season is nostalgia for nostalgia; a way for reckoning and evaluating the passage of Time, twisting it into comprehensible year-long cycles. Christmas is akin to that phenomenon of non-Western cultures anthropologists have called “the dreaming.” The dreaming is, for those peoples that live by its mythology, a time before Time, in which great godlike ancestors set the precedent for all actions that were to follow, whether that means fishing or fellatio.
For me, this is comparable to the Christmas Myth.
As far as my six-year-old imagination was concerned, Silent Night and Jingle Bells (and all the other carols we love and butcher) dated back to the birth of Christ, perhaps further— back to the birth of Time. Ask me outright and I knew better, but I still believed it in my heart of hearts. Human history seemed like one long, dark corridor lit only by the candle of Christmas. Christmas is a world created outside of Time; literally, a Winter Wonderland populated by elves, santas, rudolphs, frosties; stockings, jingle bells and tannenbaums; egg nog and steaming cider, gingerbread houses, nutcrackers and sugarplum fairies, glowing little fairy lights, token Hannekah tributes, Coke-swilling polar bears, and bearded wise men circling plastic jesi. Oh, and let’s not forget: what would Christmas be without Nisse, the irascible Scandinavian Christmas Gnome. The Winter Wonderland remains a heart-warming snowglobe sealed off from human history, ever to endure.
And try to guess the spiritual custodians of this Ice Palace. Like it or not, it is the segments of society that Christmas Critics and Puritans are the first to decry: television, the American marketplace, and— even— the lower classes. Were it not for the rent-a-santas, the excesses of red-and-green, the overblown Holiday Bliss, the rerun sitcom tearjerkers about the plight of the poor and hungry, I would not even know it was That Time of Year. If we waited for the tasteful to celebrate, with their zoning-approved electric candles on the windowpane, we would never get a decent Christmas off the ground. Turn to the working class neighborhoods, with black santas riding toilets and Mickey-and-Goofy nativity scenes, and you shall know that Christmastime is here.
When I need a quick shot of holiday cheer, I stroll through the mall, with a free cup of spiced cider, letting the hyperreality of Christmas soak through my sweater. Snow is falling inside the mall (actually fan-blown suds, but what’s the difference, in effect) . Frankincense and myrrh sideswipe the senses. I walk through the underground Septa Transit Museum and witness model trains wheezing in and out of little cotton-covered hills, in miniature towns that exist nowhere outside of Christmasland. In the Gallery Mall, parents scramble. Kids carry on and sob and scream bloody murder on Santa’s knee, as the flashbulb pops and others giggle at the kid’s hysterics. Stores rake in millions from the end-year holiday glut of stressed superdads wrestling over talking dolls, but so what? It is a holiday afterall, and holidays cannot be celebrated sensibly. The lines suck, but Christmas is a gift-giving ritual, and so supercedes practical expenditures and classical economics. The department stores may know where and when to come in; or how to exploit it to the last. But I can still enjoy the hysteria. I can appreciate Christmas for tricky, different reasons.
Their motivations aside, these people are the keepers of the flame. Strawbridge’s Clothier, here in Philadelphia, just proves my point. Every year— free to the public— it opens up a walk-through animatronic recreation of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. Forty moving mannequins, about nipple high, amid the orange “streetlights” illuminating fiberglass workups of Victorian London, with the occasional seasonal employee reading off lines in the draping, unmistakeable tone of a tourguide, with all its unnecessary projection.
I realized on my first visit to Strawbridge’s: forget the wise men and the holy manger— this is the quintessential Christmas Story. The ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Those Yet to Come lead Ebenezer Scrooge through Christmas as though through rooms in his house. Time becomes simultaneous for Scrooge, so that he can measure himself against it. It is no coincidence that New Year’s comes on the heels of Christmas season, that after reflecting on Time we come upon Redemption. The Spirits twist Time and Christmas into comprehensible cycles— and only then does Ebenezer understand the Scrooge he has become.
And compounding the Christmas myth, we do the same every year ourselves through reading, watching, or listening to the Christmas Carol, in an Eternal Return. We— or at least I— know the lines by heart: “Then they had better do so, and decrease the surplus population…More of gravy than of grave about you…The Spirits did it all in one night!…” It is a story of Time and Redemption, kindled with all the Light/Dark, Cold/Warm, Old/Young dualisms that truly befit a Solstice Holiday. A Christmas Carol— like Christmas itself— like the ghost of Christmas Present— reappears in a hundred versions, a hundred manifestations, yet we watch them all— the Disney, the Muppet, the George C. Scott, the Technicolored Christmas Carols— and we never tire. We sigh with real nostalgia “ah, good old Fezziwig. A heart so pure.” We reel with regret when Ebenezer loses Belle for the love of money. And we soar and giggle deliciously when, after his sworn redemption, Ebenezer threatens to “double your salary.” I live for that moment.
This story is the archetypal plotline from which all other Christmas’s could follow. And strolling through Strawbridge’s, the irony is compounded infinitely. I can actually walk through the scenes, just as Scrooge does. I can peer into Fred’s dinner party, like a diorama, just as Scrooge does. Marley clangs and clammers in the blacklight and I tremble. Tiny Tim hobbles and I regret. Time becomes Space, in an all-encompassing Christmas hyperreality. And I can pause for fifteen minutes at the schoolboy scene— or however long it takes to reflect fully upon these mythic memoriesÉ “Tight as a drum… tight as a drum.” So not only is Dickens’ (notably secular) allegory my first candidate for The Christmas Story of Christmas Stories, Strawbridge’s wins the bid for The Christmas Ritual of all Christmas Rituals. Dwelling in the Christmas myth; this is what brought this spiel to form. Can you see how perfectly self-similar this all is? If not, that’s okay. This is really only one meaning among millions, really truly. One more take on the great solstice ritual of the Western Winter. See you next year.