Saturday 27 December 2008

Christmas- A Truly Inclusive Festival?

Every year I find myself debating the meaning of this annual festival.

We talk a lot of Christmas traditions and the meaning of Christmas. And I guess I've often myself been quite ambivalent about it.
It IS a social issue, yes.

Because a lot of 'Christians' decry that the meaning of Christmas is lost in all the glitz.
And equally, there are many in government and officialdom who like to downplay Christmas totally. Increasingly, office Christmas parties are not given official sanction by the civil service, local councils and other such bodies, on the grounds that it is an exclusive celebration, one celebrated by a SECTION of the community.

And I've come to the conclusion that everybody, me included, has actually missed the point.

What we now call Christmas, is not a religious celebration at all. It bears the name of a Christian festival, but that is no longer what is being celebrated. Society as a whole does not celebrate Christmas for religious reasons, it does not celebrate Christmas to celebrate the birth of Christ, the festivities involved, for most, do not even acknowledge that event.

What it has now become, is something very different.
It plays a role in our society as a whole.
And interestingly that role does have parallels to religious festivals in religions as a whole, but the parallels are probably more to be sought in harvest festivals and the like.

As far as the Christian festival goes, Christmas was never the most important event of the Christian year. Easter has always held that role. In fact, Christmas was never even a runner up. Pentecost held that position. Christmas was merely one of the events of the Christian calendar. The start of a new church year, commencing with advent. And the day itself was the start of a festival, one that went on to January 5th, Epiphany. And a month after, was another key event of the Christian year, Candlemas.

Whereas our secular Christmas is the key event of the year. And in a sense, it starts in earnest on the 1st of December. And it ends on New Year. Those are the dates when Christmas decorations tend to go up and come down.

And what do we actually celebrate?

Seemingly, our prosperity. The Christmas season is when we celebrate our productivity, or otherwise. We celebrate the fact our labours throughout the year entitle us to shut down for a bit, to close the offices, to get drunk, to buy presents for eachother out of the cash we've earned throughout the year.

Goodwill to all men; we've not done a bad job this year have we?

The Christmas story is not the nativity. It is Ebenezer Scrooge and his Christmas spirits. Our archetypal Christmas, is the one described by a Victorian writer, in a story in which the Goose, presents, carol singers and parties appear, but I'm pushed to remember if the birth of Christ features much in the Christmas tale by which we as a culture define Christmas.

The hero of the season, is Santa Claus, the venue, Lapland, it is not donkeys but reindeer that symbolise the magic of Christmas.

Everybody in the West celebrates it. And most probably do not think overmuch that it was in origin a Christian festival anymore than they're aware that Yule and Easter are in origin the names of pagan festivals.

Because they're not celebrating the birth of Christ. They're celebrating getting through another year.

There is much I dislike about the season, because it is in many ways, a festival of greed. Or can become so.
But I think perhaps the more ascetic Christmas we've seen this year has shown me that perhaps there is something very valuable about this festival. As a Catholic I've often protested against it, saying that it isn't an event that should be of importance; being born is no big deal, it's the being nailed to the cross bit we should honour.

But now I'm starting to see the value this festival has as the secular event it has become. The odd thing is, it doesn't offend members of non-christian cultures. Why should it? Nothing about it is Christian. It's embraced by the entire population of the agnostic, secular west, for whom Pentecost is just a word that explains a bank holiday and Easter is a day the religious go to Church and everyone else eats chocolate.

Hindus and Sikhs seem to embrace Christmas and put on their red Santa hats too, because what they're taking part in isn't that religious. And it gets even crazier when we worry about Christmas offending Muslims.
Well- this is the best bit- Muslims might get offended by Easter, because they don't accept the resurrection. They do, however, revere Jesus as the greatest prophet after Mohammed. Most Muslims would take offence at denigration of Jesus, not as much as a Christian might, but nevertheless they take him very seriously. So many devout Muslims living in countries where Christmas is celebrated FOR RELIGIOUS REASONS, will also observe it.
As a Muslim delegation pointed out to Birmingham city council.

We don't need to look at finding an acceptable multi-faith alternative, what we have is already essentially a multi-faith, secular festival.

It has become the annual end of year party of the globe. It is about mistletoe and wine, advent calendars, sweets, chocolates, Santa in his sleigh; It is about the snowman walking in the air, it is about everybody just putting down their tools and assessing the things that really matter.

I think it has taken it's place as being the chief festival of all the world, no matter what creed, or colour, or race.

It's a season of year when we all feel we've given enough to be able to create for a while the atmosphere in which we'd all like to live.
When we feel we can say 'Ah, never mind. It IS Christmas, after all.'

Peace on Earth, Goodwill to men.

Merry Christmas.


Anonymous said...

Perfect. You have nailed the idea. It's just the red coca-cola suit I don't like. That is a cool piece of writing, Crushed.

Anonymous said...

THis post is dead on. When I got married to my firsy wife, we choose to raise our children without religion. (We were both raised Catholic. At the time she was a "lapsed Catholic." I was and still am agnostic.) She asked me about Christmas. i said, "That's a universal holiday!" Of course we had Christmas and Santa, the works. I always said that when my kids were old enough they could decide themselves. My oldest recented was baptised a Protestant. My older son became Greek Othodox so he could get married in his wife's church. I don't think he'll be back at church. But I don't care. For one thing Joe, they are your age. THey can become fucking priests for all I care. I just couldn't ne a hyprocrit and make them grow up with the church thing that I hated.

But Christmas in all its glory and commerciualism - I love it. See the pic I posted with my granddaughter on Christmas Eve. I musta done something right.

But your post pit "on paper" my feeling perfectly. Bravo!

Anonymous said...

Yes! That is exactly what Christmas is. You've hit the nail right on the head. The holiday is not religious anymore, it's a celebration of surviving for another year. It's a festival of productivity. Not much difference from the harvest festivals really.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it's become a celebration of plenty.

Anonymous said...

I say Happy Saturnalia, live well for a few days, and await the return next year.

I also say "Bah! Humbug!" a lot. After all, the materialism of Christmastime has been a problem here, with people going into debts that they find difficult to get out of until it's time to buy presents the following year.

Perhaps the point is generosity of spirit?

Anonymous said...

Great post, Crushed. I find it odd that we need to pretend religious underpinnings to justify a celebration-- and isn't making it through another year celebration enough, as you say? When else would we all be able to feel okay drinking and sleeping and visiting a little more than usual guilt free?

Anonymous said...

I am not religious in the true sense of the word but I understand the significance of Christ's birth for those that are followers.
For me, I reflect on where I went wrong, and that includes not standing up for myself. 2009 promises to be a year where mongrel dogs in authority get whats coming to them.
Stay safe and happy :)

Anonymous said...

A really interesting post crushed. Real good points too.

I figure all societies need their shared cultural experiencees if they are to be a society, instead of several societies.

Maybe a winter festival called Christmas with a broad message about morals/values and a really fun time with on religious extras for those wh want em is a good fit for on of those shared experiences.

Maybe we can make an inclusive festival of lights, or something, out of Guy Fawkes night, Samhain, Halloween and Diwali. That would fit in well with so many traditions and religions.

Maybe we are already...

Anonymous said...

About 'A Christmas Carol'.

There is quite a lot of oblique reference to the Christian message really. If he had written a blatantly Christian story then a lot of readers might well have been turned off.

For example there are many references within the story to God's blessings, and the message straight out of Luke, 'Glory to God in the highest. Peace, goodwill towards men.' is a running theme throughout the stories as well.

Then of course Scrooge went to celebrate Christmas at Church as soon as he was dressed in the morning, and also Charles Dickens introduction to his group of Christmas Books, "Christmas comes but once a year - which is unhappily too true, for when it begins to stay with us the whole year round we shall make the earth a very different place."