November 23rd, 2021

xmas cats

No such thing as "a little Christmas," Mame

Christmas is not a single holiday. It is a collection of celebrations piled on top of each other. This is why Christmas tends to be so overwhelming. We think we have to participate in all the different things that Christmas is.

Christmas is, of course, a religious holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. This is of particular interest to Christians. But this is not the oldest celebration at this time of year.

Far older than the celebration of the birth of Christ, which dates from about the Fourth Century AD, is what we may call the Winter Blowout. This probably goes back to the Neolithic. It has had religious aspects to it from the beginning, but is at its core an agricultural festival. The work of growing, harvesting, and storing crops is over. There is leisure to be had. There is a lot of extra food and no need to hold back in its consumption until the winter weather closes in and we have to ration everything until the spring. The first brewing is ready for drinking, and there’s a lot of that. The herds need to be culled; any animals not intended to be fed over the winter need to be slaughtered and the meat smoked, cured – or eaten now. People who don’t taste fresh meat from one end of the year to the other now can chow down on rich food not available to them at any other time. This overconsumption and lack of routine gives way to a kind of rowdiness. Christmas/Yule/New Year is a time of disorder. Inversion rituals are celebrated in many cultures. The Winter Blowout is celebrated with special intensity in colder northern climes where winter is particularly depressing.

Along with the sense of social inversion comes a need to address the condition of the poor. In medieval times, the rich kept open house and the poor went wassailing about, eating and drinking freely from rich people’s tables. When the old agricultural society began to break up and town life and a money economy replaced it, the intrusion of the poor upon the rich took on a threatening aspect. This was addressed by re-inventing Christmas, and that in two different ways. One way was to emphasize Christmas as a season of charity, when direct aid to the poor could be given without having the poor show up at one’s door. Toys for Tots, Shoeboxes, the Salvation Army’s bell-ringers, Christmas baskets of food from churches, schools collecting winter coats, etc. etc. are all part of this celebration.

The other change from the old celebration in which the rich gave face-to-face aid to the poor was the modern domestic Christmas in which the giving of gifts is primarily within the family, and especially from the old to the young. Christmas became a domestic holiday, and “I’ll be home for Christmas” acquired profound meaning that hadn’t been so important before. There have even been occasions when churches canceled Sunday services when December 25 fell on a Sunday, because of a conviction among their congregants that Christmas was for family, not church – something that seems bizarre to this old preacher.

And the family gift-giving ritual begat the need for Christmas presents. These were to be things of more than ordinary use, or of special meaning. That prompted the industry of creating them and marketing them. And that gave us the commercial Christmas we all curse but feel we must participate in. "Christmas shopping" can be something like a feeding frenzy. Today, most merchants make their annual profit for the year at Christmas. The other eleven months they just hope to break even. So our capitalist society bombards everyone with the need to spend money – and not just on gifts, but on trips and cars and all kinds of other conspicuous consumption.

Finally, Christmas is an inspiration for a huge amount of art, music, and narrative. A competing mythology or folklore that renders the Holy Family irrelevant has proliferated. Santa Claus, Rudolph, Frosty, bells (silver or otherwise), a White Christmas, talking donkeys and Drummer Boys, Nutcrackers, school concerts, pantomimes (a feature more of British Christmas), caroling, TV specials and endless canned music dominate the season. Certain sports events have also successfully attached themselves to Christmas. Christmas cards and trees and wreaths and community displays and parades also add to the heterogeneous mass culture which is Christmas today.

So, at a minimum, “Christmas” is at least six different holidays all claiming one’s attention between Thanksgiving and New Year’s (Epiphany for the liturgigeeks): the observance of the birth of Jesus, the Winter Blowout, the festival of charity, the family holiday, the commercial climax of the year, and what we could call (tongue in cheek) Kitschmas. It officially lasts six weeks, and starts to build up to its launch even earlier than that. No wonder we’re all exhausted by the time January gets here.