The Spirits of Christmas

the spirits of christmas
I guess it’s because I’m starting to get old (some would say I’m already there), but with each succeeding Christmas I think more about what has become of the holiday.

There is, of course, the problem of the secularization of Christmas. The “War on Christmas” that we have heard so much about in recent years certainly continues. Schools and other government entities increasingly try to demote the holiday to merely a calendar event.

There was an episode a few years ago involving bus drivers in Lexington, Kentucky. A number of them decided to dress up as Santa and greet each child as he climbed aboard in the morning with a “Merry Christmas!” The Grinches at the central office were scandalized at the prospect of a breach in the “wall” between church and state, apparently thinking that Santa Claus played some significant role in Christian theology.

The controversy raged for about a week, until the district finally agreed to a compromise: Bus drivers could dress up as Santa, but they couldn’t say “Merry Christmas.” So the city was left with a bunch of bus drivers driving around town dressed up as Santa and pretending it wasn’t Christmas.

Then there is a problem with the commercialization of Christmas. Increasingly, it has become a shopping holiday. This actually goes back much further than the secularization problem. The tradition of taking your child to see Santa originated with the old department stores as a way to get parents in the door so they would buy things. Today, Christmas is the high point of the commercial season.

Of course, little of the Christmas promotion has to do with the actual day of solemnity on the Christian calendar, and the secularization and commercialization conspire together in a mash-up of symbols and images. In the United States it’s still pretty consistent–Santa and his reindeer (with Rudolf getting most of the attention), elves, and Christmas trees. But several years ago, I heard of a department store in Singapore that put up a Christmas display that consisted of Mary, Joseph, and the Christ child in the manger surrounded by the seven dwarfs.

Maybe we should at least give them credit for trying.

These are problems, but on the other hand it surprises me how much of the real Christmas we still see in our otherwise secular and sales-oriented holiday. References to the Christ child abound. Ricky Bobby was on to this: Everyone loves “Baby Jesus.” If you think about it, it is rather hard to be cynical about a baby and the message of peace on earth goodwill toward men.

There seems something about the season that can never be fully secularized. I think that is at least part of the meaning of Marcellus’ declaration in Hamlet, a play written at a time well before the arrival of Santa Claus on the cultural scene, but which had its own contenders for Christmas attention:

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long.
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad.
The nights are wholesome. Then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is that time.

In this scene, Marcellus is fresh off seeing the ghost of Hamlet’s father, a harbinger of evil. The spirits in this context–the ghost, the fairies, the witches–are malevolent presences. There is a bad magic that Christmas somehow restrains. But the scene itself crackles with spiritual energy, as if the good spirit of Christmas is holding the evil spirits at bay.

Even those who are otherwise indifferent to religion are haunted by the Ghosts of Christmas past–memories of the magical feeling that pervaded the Christmases of their childhood. In fact, the presence of spirits–good ones–are an almost universal feature of Christmas.

Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three ghosts who show him the spirit of Christmas. Jimmy Stewart’s character George Bailey, the protagonist in It’s a Wonderful Life, is visited by an angel who prevents George’s suicide by helping bring him to an understanding of how his life has benefited other people, punctuated at the end by an army of friends who save him from a financial scandal. And in Miracle on 34th Street, Kris Kringle (not technically a spirit, but in some way a magical figure) turns out to be the real thing.

In other words, even many of the secular treatments of Christmas cannot keep themselves from invoking the miraculous. They repeatedly ask, “What if …?”

And then, of course, there is what many people consider to be the best of all secular treatments of Christmas, one that turns out to be not so secular. In Charles Schulz’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, the entire cast of children is practicing for the Christmas play, and they get so distracted by all the incidental things involved in putting on the production that they are in danger of losing their sense of the true significance of Christmas. Finally, Charlie Brown, disgusted with the petty animosities surrounding their activities, shouts, “Doesn’t anybody know what Christmas is all about?!!!” Linus answers that he does, and walks on the stage as all goes dark except for one spotlight trained upon him, and he recites Luke 2:8-14:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not; for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.”

“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” concludes Linus. Here there are spirits too–angels attending the birth of the Savior of the world.

Even in 1965, when the program originally aired, Linus’ Bible recitation was considered controversial, and the producers wanted to take it out. Schulz refused. “If we don’t do it,” he told the producers, “who will?” Despite their concerns, the show became a huge hit, and still retains much of its popularity.

Truth has a way of interrupting our world of secular pretense and profit. At a time when it sometimes seems as if all is going dark, there is still, a spotlight trained on the most important story of all.

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