Saturday, December 22, 2007

War on Christmas: The Advent Conspiracy

Well, its nearly Christmas, and I am currently in Canada (Kelowna, BC) and surrounded by snow. I'm taking a break from blogging over this holyday (sic) season, but before I go I want to hash out a few thoughts on the meaning of Christmas, which neatly continues my theme on cultural conspiracies.

These days there is something of a Christmas controversy going on, which according to Wikipedia (see link above) has actually been going on since the 17th century. However in recent years Political Correctness it has reared its ugly head and insisted we celebrate Christmas but just rename everything. So Christmas trees become "Holiday Trees" or "Family Trees" (excuse me whilst I puke), and we talk about the "Holiday Season" and wish each other "Happy Holidays". Actually, its all rather ironic since talking about a Holy-Day just brings us back to the non-secular aspects of the celebration.

Here in the UK it seems at last that some measure of common sense has materialised into the political scene: Trevor Phillips, chairman of the UK's Equality and Human Rights Commission, has condemned PC attempts to secularise Christmas, although I have been told by a source that this has upset at least one political figure.

In Blogdom, Peter Kirk reminds us of C S Lewis's response to the commercialisation of Christmas: "I send no cards and give no presents except to children", whilst Duncan reminds us of some current Christian approaches: Advent Conspiracy (more on that in a bit) and Just Christmas, a initiative which Morningside Baptist (Edinburgh) seems to be involved with.

To examine the more recent Christian approach to Christmas, lets look at closer detail at the Advent Conspiracy:

[AC] Advent Conspiracy from Jon Collins on Vimeo.

All well and good, but I can't help but feel that all this Christian Political Correctness on Christmas is actually missing the point as well. Surely children know something about Christmas, and what child, if asked to give their opinion of Christmas, would start talking about ethical issues and justice? For Christians especially then, there is great confusion concerning our response to this festive time, with issues such as how to celebrate the birth of Jesus, traditions of Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, pagan winter festivals, commercialisation and political correctness to deal with.

For me the problem stems from what I see to be a four-fold root to contemporary Christmas festivities. We have, in chronological order, a pagan winter festival (Yule in Northern Europe; see also Winter Solstice), the historical event of the birth of Jesus, the gift-giving tradition of Saint Nicholas (and the related cultural icon, Father Christmas), and the recent (mid 20th Century onwards) commercialisation of the above traditions.

The Christian response is usually to downplay the pagan aspect, somewhat reluctantly accept the Father Christmas figure, pay homage to Saint Nicholas (Santa Clause) in gift-giving, and go to church to celebrate the Nativity. Quite honestly, its an incoherent mess of traditions and culture. Further more, when a Christian is asked the true meaning of Christmas, they often respond along the lines of "its all about the birth of Jesus", which is rather odd as this doesn't often tie in with the associated festivities practiced by said Christian. Alternatively, they might respond, "its about peace, joy and love", which while sounding rather nice, is - to be honest - rather trite, and while its hard to disagree with, it loses the Christian perspective: many other religions could equally celebrate such virtues. While this is not a bad thing in and of itself, it may suggest we haven't yet got to the core of the meaning of Christmas. Now often, if pressed, a Christian will admit that the core meaning of Christmas is that Jesus came into the world to die for our sins. Indeed, that very message was preached at a church I attended this morning.

Died for our sins? I thought that was the meaning of Easter? Don't we celebrate the death of Jesus on Good Friday? And his Resurrection on Easter Sunday?

May I be bold and suggest that nothing I have mentioned thus far gets to the heart of the contemporary celebration we call Christmas. May I also suggest that the birth of Jesus-who-died-for-our-sins, or "peace on earth", is also not the true meaning of Christmas. Neither is it to be found exclusively in the altruistic gift-giving tradition of Saint Nicholas. So what is the meaning of Christmas?

I believe the clue to the meaning of this season is found in the British figure of Father Christmas: an ancient pagan figure who originally represented the coming of Spring. Later (6th Century AD), he became infused with the Saxon Father Time, or King Winter. Later still the Vikings infused into him the tradition of Odin, who takes on the persona of Jul and visits the earth (this is where Yuletide comes from). The character of Jul was a portly, elderly man with a white beard and a long blue hooded cloak was said to have ridden through the world giving gifts to the good and punishments to the bad.

Finally, in more recent times the tradition of Father Christmas has been conflated with the story of Saint Nicholas, to produce the contemporary figure of Santa Claus. At this point my readers may say that if I truly think this is the meaning of Christmas, then I have finally lost the plot, perhaps in an attempt to continually shock and provoke. Well, I cannot deny the latter, but I can certainly assure you I am still Compos Mentis. Please read on!

If the story of Father Christmas is the key to the true meaning of Christmas, then how so? Let us ask none other than Professor JRR Tolkien, who wrote Letters from Father Christmas. I believe if anyone understands the heart of Christmas, it is Tolkien. Here is a man, that despite his academic environment, could enter the story world of a child -- a world he called Fairy -- in a moment. Tolkien's response to Christmas was to write a Fairy Story about Father Christmas. And its here that the mystery of Christmas is revealed.

Now Tolkien had a high regard for Fairy Stories. He once wrote:

The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords.

We can now come back to the Jesus, and to the historical Christian story. For Tolkien said, in relation to his understanding of Fairy Stories:

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospel contains a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful and moving: ‘mythical’ in their perfect self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe [good 'catastrophe' - a sudden appearing of something gloriously good].

The quote above introduces many concepts which I don't have time or space to comment on right now. I leave that as an exercise to the reader. What I want to zoom into, however, is Tolkien's keen insight of the nature of the gospel story, and in particular the birth of Jesus, which he elsewhere described as the "eucatastrophe of Man's history". In other words, Christmas is not about death and suffering (of Jesus), nor is it about a feel-good mush of love, joy and peace. Rather, Christmas is mysterious. Christmas is 'magical'. Christmas is a fairy story - not to say it is untrue, but on the contrary, it is to assert that its a wonderful time when the world in fact is the way children know it should always be. Christmas is about wonder! Its about joyous anticipation, excitement, beholding marvels, dreams coming true. Its about admitting that the impossible is possible after all. It is, at the end of the day, about the Incarnation of Jesus: about God becoming Human. This is what we celebrate at Christmas. Not his death, or his suffering, or his shame. No-one, and I mean no-one, actually celebrates that in this holiday season. They may say they do, but just look at what they actually do...its all about excitement, and wonder, and magic, and mystery.

Think about this for a moment! I first loved Christmas as a small child. Father Christmas would visit our home, magically filling up our stockings with presents. Why did I believe in this? I suggest its because it represents a deeper truth, which all children, and only some adults, know intuitively to be true: that we live in a world of wonder, amazement, excitement, mystery, magic, miracles ... of dreams coming true. I ask you this: is there any better way to describe the Truth behind this truth, and to describe the Father behind Father Christmas, than to use the language of a child?

The Incarnation of Jesus - God becoming one of us, is so often overlooked by Christians and Christmas celebrations alike. The significance of the Incarnation, which at the heart of Christmas, is best summed up by the Church Father Irenaeus: Jesus became what we are so that we might become what he is. This is the meaning of Christmas - this is what we celebrate: the mystery, magic, wonder and excitement of Jesus becoming what we are, so that we can become what he is.

This Christmas, let us throw ourselves into the magic, mystery, excitement, and wonder of Christmas, however we celebrate it, knowing that in doing so, we are experiencing what Tolkien called eucatastrophe -- that sudden thrill and excitement of something wonderful happening -- and that by entering into this, we are in fact entering into the very same wonder of the Incarnation, and find ourselves transported to the Nativity scene: perhaps standing by the mysterious Magi, joining the shepherds in their wonder, and standing in complete awe as the angelic heavenly army appears in all its might and splendor and glory.

My dear friends and readers, this is Christmas: wonder, mystery, excitement, magic... the feeling that Ooh, I just know that something good is going to happen (!), the impossible becoming possible ... The Nativity, the Incarnation of Jesus, is a historical and true "Fairy Story": The ultimate story, the most wonderful story, the most enchanting story, and its what I will be celebrating this year.

Merry Christmas!

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