Sunday, November 14, 2010

More Thoughts on Yuletide (of My Philosophy of Decking the Halls)

Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch, says the LORD of hosts.
Malachi 3:19
"The day is coming..." - these words from the first reading of today's Mass present a good jumping-off point for yet another discussion of due seasonal awareness in our existential encounter of the meaning of the Christmas season.

In the Church, for some weeks now, we have been looking toward the prophetic day, the adventus of Christ the King. Next week, we celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King - the final Sunday in the Novus Ordo calendar of the ordinal Sundays following Pentecost. It is a celebration of arrival as well as of expectation: it is, in a sense, a nice microcosm of the whole meaning of the season of Advent which we enter the following week. We are at once joyous, but also restrained - penitential, sober, alert, watching. Watching for Christ to come again, in the consummation of time and the fulfillment of the Kingdom, and also watching with a different emphasis of attention Christ's daily arrivals in our lives as Baptised members of His Holy People.

Now, so far I am very much in agreement with the sort of philosophy propounded by many good Christian apologists on the correct posture of religious experience at the ending of the Church year: see, for example, this excellent resource. But I part ways - really, just a bit, although it might seem more pronounced - in terms of how we should approach the day-to-day experience of this restrained joy and anticipation.

I have taken a bit of flack this week for having already put up my Christmas tree. Now, it should be noted that, while I have placed the tree (a fake one, but nicely made) and hung it with lights (actually, they came pre-arranged on the branches), I am not going to regularly light the tree just yet. But while I'm easing into that, I will be lighting it before the recommended date given by FishEaters, December 24th. I want to deal with that recommendation here, as well as address some of the objections that I've taken against my having put up my tree "so early" - and I apologize if some of this will seem redundant to those who have read my other ruminations on this subject, but I will try to cast the matter in more precise terms here than I've done before.

So, on to the objections:
It's not even Thanksgiving yet!
Well, this can be dispatched with rather easily, I think. What is Thanksgiving, anyway? And why should it have any bearing on our understanding of the cosmic realities surrounding the revelation of the Son of God as Man? Thanksgiving is, in a sense, a Hallmark Holiday. It is a secular celebration tied in some ways to the tradition of harvest festivals, and useful insofar as that goes. But it is, on the other hand, an observance of an American heritage - largely imagined - of making friends with our displaced aborigines. In fact, there's something ironic in hearing people who disparage the secularization of the Christmas observance appealing to Thanksgiving as some sort of meaningful time-marker that ushers in the appropriate time of anticipation. It is, to say the very least, question begging: for those who object that I've put up my Christmas tree before Thanksgiving, I reply, "Why do you put up your Christmas tree after Thanksgiving? Or, more to the point, why do you put it up at all, whenever you do put it up?" And there's the rub. The why is the heart of the matter, so let's get at that, shall we?
It's not even Advent yet!
Now, we're getting a little closer to a meaningful discussion, as Advent does at least relate in a meaningful way to the matter at hand, a way that Thanksgiving does not. So, let's look at this one more closely. A first approach here is the same Socratic question with which I ended the last paragraph: "So, when do you put up your tree, and why? What does it mean?" Now, to this, there is the answer of FishEaters first of all, which situates the question in the meaning of the season of Advent:
The mood of this season is one of somber spiritual preparation that increases in joy with each day, and the gaudy "Christmas" commercialism that surrounds it in the Western world should be overcome as much as possible. The singing of Christmas carols (which comes earlier and earlier each year), the talk of "Christmas" as a present reality, the decorated trees and the parties -- these things are "out of season" for Catholics; we should strive to keep the Seasons of Advent holy and penitential, always remembering, as they say, that "He is the reason for the Season."
And so it is that FishEaters recommends putting up the tree on Christmas Eve - certainly not lighting it before that night. But, here, the argument is all non sequiturs: we haven't really identified why the trees go up at all, what lighting them is meant to symbolize to begin with. After all, any conclusions we derive about propriety of time-frame will depend upon this information. Thus, if the Christmas tree is somehow part of the commericalized secular abuse of Christmas, then we should want nothing to do with it at any time. There is, on the other hand, the notion of the Christmas Tree as a "baptized" symbol representative of Christ Himself: the tree anagogically associated with the Cross, the evergreen with His eternity, the lights with the kerygma directed to the conditions of the poor and lowly. But penitential preparation and expectation doesn't mean we hide Christ from our experience: we don't pretend during Advent that He's never come. [Indeed, the first half of Advent - and the foregoing weeks in the liturgical cycle - aim to prepare us for and focus on the Second Coming at the end of time. What does the tree have to do with that?]

But the symbolism of the tree, while indeed representing truths about the Person of Christ, has even richer meaning. The symbol includes its pagan connotations before the baptized meaning: the Norse and Germanic celebrations of Yule, the winter ritual of warding off death with symbols of life (the tree's vitality) and warding off dark and cold with warmth and light (the candles hung upon the boughs). Not just the symbol itself was baptized and given new meaning, but the Christmas event transforms these earlier associations as well. These pagan ideas - as symbolized in a tree - in a sense recapitulate the entire pagan ethos of pre-Christian expectation: those seeds of the Gospel that were implanted through natural law and the experience of nature. The tree here is meaningful not in its similitude to Christ, but in its difference: it represents our wants and desires for light in darkness, warmth when we are cold, life that escapes or cheats the ever ominous threat of death. We lose this meaning somewhat in our technological age, when winter doesn't mean the threat of starvation or exposure, the testing of our harvest and our hearth against the ferociousness of a fallen world. G.K. Chesterton's reflection from The New Jerusalem puts this meaning quite nicely: "Anyone thinking of the Holy Child as born in December would mean by it exactly what we mean by it; that Christ is not merely a summer sun of the prosperous but a winter fire for the unfortunate." The effect of all this is that the tree becomes part and parcel of our expectation, our anticipation, even our somberness: the tree reminds us of Christ, but it is not Christ. The lights combat the darkness, but they do not conquer it as He will do when He comes. It is a species of logical fallacy to suppose that the tree must necessarily distract us from this difference. The notion of holding off on the use of the tree as decoration ironically gives it more power than it deserves, rather exalts it instead of "putting it in its proper place." It all depends on what the tree means and why we put it up when we do. If we see the tree only as an embodiment of Christ and as some sort of panacea for the winter blues, then I agree that it has no place in Advent or before. But if it is, instead, a reminder of our own feebleness, a symbol of the futility and fragility of our battle with darkness and death, then it can very truly have a proper place throughout the entire darkening part of the year. In the one approach, the culmination of the tree's meaning is when its lights are hung on the night of Christ's arrival, demonstrative of the light he brings; in the other, the culmination is when the tree's lights fade and our attention redirects to the child in the manger that was once empty, His own ethereal light and power making a joke in the darkest time of year of our own weak dwimmer-craft.
But... the department stores! The commercialization of it all! Doesn't this give in to that cheapening of Christmas, and shouldn't we as good Christians fight against that trend of secularism?
Once again, this is typical of the approach that FishEaters seems to take along with many well-meaning preachers. I reiterate here that we run the risk of mistaking, a la post hoc ergo propter hoc, a common result for an inevitable one - or, in the terms of philosophy, we give perhaps sufficient cause the more potent meaning of necessary cause. As my defense against this objection, I'll appeal to the secondary players in the Christmas drama: John the Baptist, Herod the Great, and the Oriental Magi. As a preliminary, though, I present another Socratic question: "What should we do?" It's all very well and good to grumble about the commercialization of Christmas and determine that we will not participate, but all our efforts and words spent upon this determination can sometimes distract us from the pressing question of what we ought to be doing instead. Many people I speak with on this issue have very good reasons for rejecting the culture's observances at this time of year, but they're much less salient about having reasons for their own practices. Don't we concede too much to the culture, don't we let them have their way with Christmas, by simply stopping our ears and closing our eyes and running around all gloomy and disgruntled, "tsk"-ing in the check-out aisles and frowning at the office decorations?

Enter the Gospel players. John the Baptist is the figure of knowledge about the meaning of Advent and Christmas; Herod the figure of missing the point; and the Magi the figure of those who half-understand, who are charmed by the signs and search for meaning. Take any one of these away, and you lose something of the power of the drama. There are plenty of Magi in our world today who are, as the Biblical Magi did, running into Herod and being put on a wrong track. Who will announce, as the Angel did, the error of Herod's ways? Who will warn them off the mistaken path and usher them into the true recognition of the mystery? It must be we who do so, taking John the Baptist as our model.

To put it succinctly, it is precisely because Christmas has been commercialized and demeaned by our culture that we must become more knowing, more articulate, more robust in the manifestation of its true meaning and power. If we don't do it as a sign for the world, we must at the very least do it for ourselves and not succumb to pride. We can't think we're unaffected by all of what's happening around us from mid-November until December 25th, and then suddenly ending. When we return home after a saccharine-soaked swim in our cultural soup, we must have cures for it. On the one hand, we can drive past the decorated trees on mainstreet and pass the Salvation Army Santa Clauses and retreat behind our door with a grumbled "Bah humbug," seeking to purify our minds entirely from all this untimely joy. But it seems to me to be just as effective to put up our own tree, with our own meaning and intent, and to allow ourselves to be struck by the difference of it all. The tree can serve as a true herald who disabuses us of Herod's lies. We should keep the season robustly and vitally within our own homes, very aware of the meaning behind all that we do. Doing so will at once highlight the vapidness of the culture's indulgences and soberly remind us what is being missed - it might even spur us on to find ways of expressing the distinction to the world (such as writing a blog post, for example). Are we giving in to the culture more by maintaining our own observance with added vitality rather than by simply retreating from it all?

And so goes my attempt at justifying my seemingly untimely tree. I welcome discussion, even debate, on the matter. Because, for me, what we do and when we do it are less important questions than why we do them at all. I respect the person who puts up his tree on Christmas Eve, provided he has good reasons for it. It puts Christmas ornaments and decorations in the proper place to realize them as manipulable symbols that have meaning according to their use. They are not ex opere operato fixtures that necessarily add to or detract from our religious awareness. Rather, they are expressions of our awareness - or of our ignorance - to the extent that we use them deliberately and use them well.


  1. The money quote:

    It's all very well and good to grumble about the commercialization of Christmas and determine that we will not participate, but all our efforts and words spent upon this determination can sometimes distract us from the pressing question of what we ought to be doing instead.

    I've thought for some time now that we ought to speak no further of diagnosis, we all know the diagnosis. The time now is for cure: what ought we be doing to cure this. Chesterton said a 1906 essay "The Neglect of Christmas” that our irritation at seemingly mundane Christmastime rituals means simply that we ourselves are insufficiently ritualistic. With apologies to FishEaters, Advent isn't Lent, not quite. What we've done at our house is hold off outwardly festive "stuff" until Gaudete Sunday (you know, the one with the pink candle). We're preparing for Christmas and trying to avoid the twin traps of celebrating Advent and going Adventist, letting virtues run wild (another of Chesterton's themes).

  2. We have to have the tree up before the 6th. Otherwise, where would we have the kids put their shoes for St. Nicholas to fill them?

    (We have no fireplace.)

    Dr. Eric


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