It is the birthday of the undefeated Light, the winter solstice of world history, which gives us the certainty amid the rise and decline of this story that here, too, the light will not die, but has already achieved the final victory.
Christmas drives out of us the second, greater fear that physics cannot dispel. This is the fear of humanity and before man himself. It is a divine certainty that the light has already conquered in the hidden depths of history, and that all the great progress of evil in the world in the end can do nothing more about it. The winter solstice of history has irrevocably taken place in the birth of the Child from Bethlehem.
Man is meat. About that there is no question. The question is whether he is to be only that. We Christians should not be too otherworldly, because the facts as we understand them are bloody before they are glorious and glorious only because they are bloody. The truth of the Incarnation — God as meat — is not that the facts and events and suffering of this world do not matter in light of the glorious kingdom to come but that they do matter. Meat matters. Blood, too. Metaphor won’t do. The Incarnation is our only link to that other kingdom.
Every year I get more annoyed with the de-Christianized winter festival formerly known as Christmas. Unfortunately the advertising for that season begins in mid-November, which means that it's during football season, which is almost the only time I watch standard TV and am exposed to any great number of commercials. I am unreasonably annoyed by advertisements that begin "This holiday....", usually followed by something like "make your family happy by buying our thing." I might not be so put off by the whole thing if I weren't seeing those commercials.
The American Christmas has always, or at least since the middle of the last century or so, had its secularized aspect. That was fine: we were a predominantly Christian country, but plenty of people who did not celebrate the religious holiday as such found much to enjoy in the cultural paraphernalia. Irving Berlin gave us "White Christmas," which no decent person could dislike or resent, and he was Jewish. Notice, though, that he didn't shy away from using the word "Christmas." From an early age I had a sense that something was missing when the decorations and greetings and such of the season left out any mention whatsoever of Christmas itself. And at a not so early, but not very late, age it occurred to me that "the holiday season" would lose the essence of its charm if the religious core of it were removed.
Well, that has pretty much happened now as far as public speech is concerned. It seems that Christmas has become That Which Must Not Be Named in most situations that are not specifically Christian. And as far as I'm concerned all that paraphernalia I mentioned, which I used to enjoy for the most part, has begun to seem lame, dull, tawdry, and often depressing. I guess every Catholic who's ever read a book has heard of Flannery O'Connor's famous response to the suggestion that the Eucharist is only a symbol: "If it's only a symbol, then the hell with it." That is pretty much my view of Holiday carefully scrubbed of any Christian reference whatsoever.
The good part of this is that as I lose interest in Holiday I take more notice of Advent. I can't say I've observed it very well this year, but I did a little better than last year. And this year, thanks to the Anglican tradition, I've discovered what is called "the Advent Prose": an English translation of the Latin Rorate caeli. You can read it at the Wikipedia page for Rorate caeli. It's obviously not a contemporary translation, but I don't know how far back it goes. It's good strong stuff; here's how it begins:
Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness.
Be not wroth very sore, O Lord, neither remember iniquity for ever: thy holy city is a wilderness, Sion is a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation: our holy and our beautiful house, where our fathers praised thee.
I guess it would be wrong for me to think it would be fine with me if that deluge washed Holiday away.
The red king Came to a great water. He said, Here the journey ends. No keel or skipper on this shore.
The yellow king Halted under a hill. He said, Turn the camels round. Beyond, ice summits only.
The black king Knocked on a city gate. He said, All roads stop here. These are gravestones, no inn.
The three kings Met under a dry star. There, at midnight, The star began its singing.
The three kings Suffered salt, snow, skulls. They suffered the silence Before the first word.
Brown, or Mackay Brown, is one of the poets in the British Poetry Since 1945 from which I drew at least one poem for the 52 Poems series. The index of that book lists him under "M" for "Mackay Brown." I don't understand this British thing in which sometimes two unhyphenated names, which appear to be middle and last, are treated as a surname. (MB is Scottish, but you know what I mean.) This seems to be the case with Ralph Vaughan Williams and has always bothered me. Why is he not just "Williams"? Or if he's going to be indexed under "V", "Vaughan-Williams"?
Anyway, I like this poem, which someone posted on Facebook a few days ago. And I like the two poems of M-B's in that anthology. But the brief bio there does not mention that he was a Catholic convert. According to his Wikipedia page (notice that it calls him just "Brown"):
In late 1960 Brown commenced teacher training at Moray House College of Education, but was unable to remain in Edinburgh because of ill-health. On his recovery in 1961 he found that he was not suited to this type of work and returned late in the year to his mother's house in Stromness, unemployed. It was at this time that he was received into the Roman Catholic Church, being baptised on 23 December and taking communion on the following day. This followed about twenty-five years of pondering his religious beliefs. This conversion was not marked by any change in his daily habits, including his drinking.
It must be close to twenty years ago that I wrote a science-fiction story in which Christmas had been replaced by "Holiday." (That wasn't a major part of the story, just a passing remark by a character.) I thought it was clever at the time, but it soon became an interesting and personal reiteration of a lesson I had long since drawn from the work of others: that when the real future gets here it's likely to make past imagined ones look dated at best, and absurd at worst. That usage is now expected in many situations and effectively mandatory in others.
Some years ago (less than twenty, not less than ten) I began to notice it in my workplace. No one insisted upon it, but I could see that certain co-workers, especially those very much aware of prevailing cultural winds in the academy, said "Happy Holidays" in a way that was just ever so slightly self-conscious, almost pointed. And to say "Merry Christmas" to them, one realized, was a bit of a faux pas. And some of these were highly-placed people, whom their subordinates did not wish to offend. It made the exchange a little awkward, a little uneasy. To call this an exercise in political correctness would not be completely wrong, but it was also in part a genuine desire to be "inclusive" and considerate, though it was a little peculiar at a small Catholic college where both parties were usually at-least-nominal Christians.
Soon, of course, the matter became an explicit skirmish in the culture wars, with Christians, especially politically right-wing Christians, denouncing "the war on Christmas." That was rather an exaggeration. But as with those who so scrupulously avoided using the C-word, they weren't completely wrong, either. Trump was able to score points with them by including in his list of great things that would happen if he were president the item "We're going to say 'Merry Christmas' again." I wonder if it occurred to him that if your "Merry Christmas" is administered to your political enemies as a blow to the face you're not altogether in the right spirit.
Arguments about a war on Christmas seem to have died down somewhat now. Culturally we've reached a point where Holiday really has replaced Christmas for most public purposes, and I guess we're all coming to take it for granted. I almost never watch commercial television--that is, old-school television, where whatever you're watching is interrupted frequently by advertisements. Unfortunately the thing that necessitates the "almost" is college football. And a little bit of pro football. And unfortunately these mostly occur in the three months preceding Christmas, and after Thanksgiving almost every advertisement involves "the holidays." I can hardly stand them, and I don't know what I'd do if there were no such thing as a "mute" button on the remote control. There's the grotesque consumerism itself, such as the commercial in which a young man has bought himself and his wife (or girlfriend), as "holiday" presents, giant SUVs which probably cost at least $40,000 each. And there's the scrupulous avoidance of any mention of the religious content of "the holidays." I'm going to stifle my impulse to complain at length about these. It serves no purpose and anyway everyone knows what I'm talking about.
There was a time when the commercialism and American Christmas customs coexisted. The distinction was there, though I think it was often unnoticed. Even as a child in the 1950s I was vaguely aware that some of the "Christmas" paraphernalia had nothing to do with Christmas. I distinctly remember wondering why some advertisements said "Season's Greetings" instead of "Merry Christmas." I think I was in my early teens when it suddenly dawned on me that "Winter Wonderland" and several other songs associated with the season had no connection at all to the Christian celebration.
But even as a child in the 1950s I was vaguely aware--I guess I could say unconsciously aware, if that isn't contradictory--that without Christmas, Holiday would be an empty thing. This was true even though I was vastly more interested in the presents I would be getting than in the birth of Christ. Somehow I knew that to remove the stable and the shepherds and the angels and Mary and Joseph and the baby from the picture would take the life out of it all.
The disconnect between Holiday and Christmas grew over the years, but they were still closely enough associated that the former had much of the allure of the latter for me. That's pretty well over now. Part of the reason, I guess, is the jadedness of age, but in any case I've been slowly reaching a point of almost complete indifference to Holiday. It's a little sad, or more than a little, because I miss that old feeling.
The loss has some advantages: appreciation of Advent, for one. I find it difficult in our culture to focus on Advent. And yet I very much want to, which has not always been the case for me. And Christmas itself means more now, much more. The sad and shallow frenzy of Holiday is now becoming part of the darkness, a pathetic attempt to strike a few sparks that kindle no lasting flame.
And so I still enjoy the lights, even if they're only Holiday lights. At night you don't necessarily see the difference. I have imagined what might easily be the case ten or fifteen or twenty years from now, when I might be unable to get out by myself, hoping or asking that someone would take me out one night a day or two before Christmas so that I could see the lights and think of Christmas Past and Christmas Yet to Come.
These thoughts were flitting through my head one night last weekend as I sat in my car waiting to make a left turn onto Highway 72 in Athens, Alabama, looking at a house across the way, its roof outlined in lights which, though unspectacular as these things go, were for me nevertheless expressive.
I hate to admit it, but for four or five years now I've been slowly turning into one of those people who feel depressed at the approach of Christmas. Still, I usually find that I snap out of it, more or less, by the time the day itself arrives--if I don't feel so very good, I at least stop feeling bad, and even rise to mild cheerfulness. This year I didn't make much attempt to talk myself out of it or fight it, but just accepted that this is the way it is now.
My wife and I seriously considered not getting a tree. She's been leaning that way for a while, as most of our children are far away, and our local grandchildren would not be at our house for more than a few days of the two weeks or so that are generally encompassed in the term "the holidays." So the two of us would for the most part be the only "audience" for it, and in that case was it really worth the trouble? Left to her own devices I think she would not have had one, but I can't quite bear to let the custom go. We decided to compromise by getting a small one, so on the Saturday two weeks before Christmas I went off to Fish River Trees while she worked on the deep carpet of cypress needles and sycamore leaves that covered the yard.
Some years ago my late friend Robert sent me a mixtape that included a lot of pre-rock-and-roll Christmas music by people like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. I've never been very fond of secular Christmas-pop songs like "The Christmas Song" (aka "Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire"), and the truth is that much of the material on that tape struck me as cheesy. But for several years while we still had children at home I played it in the car on the way to the tree farm. And I learned to like the Sinatra album with which it began, A Jolly Christmas. In time I bought the CD, and when my youngest child was still at home, and it was sometimes just the two of us going to get the tree, it was a bit of a tradition for us to hear it on the way there and back, not without a certain irony produced by the old-fashioned swingin' '50s way in which it starts off: a jazzy re-working of "Jingle Bells" which includes a group of background singers in an upbeat chant of "I love those j-i-n-g-l-e bells--OH!--those holiday j-i-n-g-l-e bells."
I wasn't sure whether I wanted to listen to it the other day. I thought it might just be sad. But I decided to do it anyway, and if it made me feel sad about past Christmases, well, I would just wallow in it.
And it did turn out to be a bit of a wallow, not for anything personal to me, but for what has been lost in our culture since 1957, when the album was recorded. This is not a desire to "return to the 1950s", as is generally charged against anyone who feels any sort of nostalgia for the time. There were certainly a great many things wrong with American life at the time, and we can be glad that some of them have been corrected. But only a fool--well, an old fool or a young person who doesn't know any better--can fail to see that in many significant ways American culture is now meaner, cruder, dumber, more dishonest, and vastly more cynical than it was then. You may argue that on the whole things are better; fine, I might even agree with you, depending on what's in front of me at the moment. But still: something has been lost. Much has been lost, in fact. It seems inevitable that mankind will always throw out babies along with bath water, and steer clear of Scylla only to be dragged under by Charybdis.
The Sinatra album is an instance. It's about evenly divided between secular pop Christmas songs (why is "Jingle Bells" even considered a Christmas song, anyway?) and carols. The carols are truncated, made to fit the two-and-a-half-minute strait jacket of the popular music of the time, but are simply and tastefully arranged (by Gordon Jenkins) and presented with an unforced respect, even reverence. A word comes to mind, a somewhat casual word which acknowledges that some things are better than others in ways that ought be obvious to all, not as profound moral truths but as a matter of a properly formed sense of what is decent and appropriate: "class," as in "classy." It has a bad and laughable sense, as used by people who lack the thing itself, in which it refers to something meretricious, something marked by an insincere or misguided attempt to appropriate class: "Let's put an "e" on "old" to give it more class." But in its good sense it signifies respect for that which actually has merit, for a certain dignity and grace: "The losing team showed its class by congratulating the winners."
The Sinatra album has class, which is something we don't often get from popular music today, and I ended up listening to the CD five or six times over the past few weeks, and deciding that I like it quite a lot.
I kept returning to one song, one of the pop-Christmas songs that I've heard for most of my life and never paid much attention to: "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas." This is an odd little song. The title, which begins and ends the lyric, seems somewhere between wry and spiteful. The whole thing is subdued, almost somber, wistful, and a little mysterious. You have the sense that something is going on, something not explicitly referred to, and that the hopeful words ("From now on our troubles will be out of sight") may be in defiance of that something, or at least relief that it's over. And the music is definitely melancholy, and far from jolly. But then in the next to last line the melody ascends where it had descended, so that "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough" becomes a cry of hope.
The song comes from the musical Meet Me In St. Louis, and until tonight I didn't know what its context in the drama is. I could have found out easily enough, but had very deliberately not yet done so because I like the ambiguity of it, and the sense of its being extracted from a conversation we haven't heard.
So just now I did look it up, and now its melancholy makes perfect sense. It was in fact as originally written resisted by Judy Garland, who was to sing it in the original play, and others because they found it depressing. You can read the whole story of its revisions here; "depressing" it certainly was in the original:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas It may be your last
The lyrics were revised heavily for the play, but the next-to-last line remained "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow." This was replace by the shining star for Sinatra, who thought muddling through wasn't quite the touch he wanted in his "jolly Christmas" album. And though one might decry it as bowdlerization I think in this case the late revision really makes the song. At the moment it's certainly my favorite of the pop-Christmas repertoire.
All my quirky personal reactions aside, by the way, I can recommend this album to anyone who has any taste at all for this kind of music. Sinatra's voice was in its golden cello-like prime, and Gordon Jenkins was a top-notch arranger.
The tree turned out very nicely, by the way. It's only five feet tall, small enough that all but a few inches of it fit into the trunk of my Honda Civic, and light enough that I can pick it up with one hand: easily set up, and it will be easily taken down, but still bringing a sufficient amount of greenery, colored lights, and glittering ornaments, to the living room.
Now that the 52 Albums project is over, there will probably be more discussion of music in this post. For instance: here is a Christmas playlist put together by Sigur Rós for BBC Radio 6. I don't see that it has anything to do with Christmas, but those who like the band will probably like at least some of the music. I know I'll be looking for more music by some of the artists represented. And at the very beginning you get to hear the voice of Sigur Rós herself. As fans of the band know, she is the sister of Jónsi, the band's vocalist, and she was only a few days old when the band was formed in 1994. So now she's twenty-three and introducing the band's playlist on the radio. It's interesting to hear the way she pronounces her name. I wouldn't have recognized it.
Speaking of 52 Things: as we discussed over the past week or two, this year it will be 52 Poems, appearing on Thursdays. I have something in mind for this week. Beyond that it's open. I said in that discussion that I would have specifications for the format, because formatting poetry for the web can be difficult. But after doing some experimenting I think that may not be necessary. We'll see. For now you can just send the poems in a Word or Word-compatible format, or in plain text. Or you can just send me a link, if the text is online, which is quite likely. So you can send me things whenever you want. If I have nothing by Wednesday morning, I'll supply a poem. If I have more than one I'll post them in the order received. And if two people send the same poem...well, I guess we'll cross that bridge if we come to it. Should I post a "dibs" list? Did anyone ever consult those in the past?
Also, I'm not soliciting original poems, or publishing any of mine. No offense but I just don't want to be in that position.
Sunset, Christmas Day. Best wishes to all for a happy new year.
They call it "12 Days of Christmas Songs," but they use the 12 days preceding Christmas, which may be ignorance or may be a bow to the reality that on December 26th most Americans will consider Christmas over. Anyway, I've only read a few of these, and they're a mixed bag to say the least, but it's an interesting feature. And the ones by Emma Green are excellent.
Then came, at a predetermined moment, a moment in time and of time, A moment not out of time, but in time, in what we call history: transecting, bisecting the world of time, a moment in time but not like a moment of time, A moment in time but time was made through that moment: for without the meaning there is no time, and that moment of time gave the meaning.