Post editors argued that we were taking the holiday way too seriously 50 years ago.
This editorial originally published December 16, 1967, as “God Rest Ye Merry”.
It is everyone’s privilege, of course, to celebrate Christmas in his own way. To some it is primarily a religious event; to others a completely secular holiday. Some regard it as a festival, others as a nuisance. Still others, not satisfied with celebrating it in their own way, annually complain at the way others celebrate it. Among these would-be legislators are those who denounce “commercialization,” those who drive around with signs that say, PUT THE CHRIST BACK IN CHRISTMAS, and those who enter into litigation about hymns and creches in the schoolroom. To these we add the voice of the former Father James Kavanaugh, who argues on page 10 of this issue, that the religious symbols of Christmas “no longer speak to me,” that “most of the past symbols are dead and the future ones have only begun dimly to live.”
Why so serious? Christmas, to begin with, is scarcely a Christian holiday at all. There is certainly no evidence that Christ was born on that day, nor was the day celebrated as such for some 300 years after His death. Instead, there were various festivals commemorating the winter solstice on December 21, and December 25 was officially decreed to be the birthday of the Unconquered Sun, climaxing the orgiastic week of Saturnalia. Teutonic and Celtic tribes added the rites of the Yule log, and the Christmas tree apparently dates from a fir tree planted by St. Boniface to replace the sacred oak of Odin in eighth-century Germany. Added to all this, from various places in various times, came Santa Claus, Good King Wenceslaus, and the office Christmas party.
It is, in short, a day of festivity and celebration, and everyone is free to celebrate whatever concerns him most, whether it be the coming of Christ or the coming of a new pair of skis. Far from “commercializing” Christmas, the merchants who sell Christmas presents, and the buyers who wrap them up and send them to one another, represent a tradition of Christmas gift-giving that is far older than its religious tradition.
And where’s the harm? It’s true that it can be annoying to have to stand in line to buy a teapot for Aunt Mathilda, and to receive, in return, a beige sweater in a size that hasn’t fit for 10 years. It’s true that after a certain number of Christmas cards have been sealed, the tongue begins to feel like a glue-factory washrag. It’s true that the bills that begin pouring in during January make one feel as though one were single-handedly buoying the national economy. Still, if there are excesses, they are excesses of giving, and while every gift may not be the purest expression of altruistic love, a dutiful gift is better than no gift, a routine card of greetings better than no card. Was it not George Bernard Shaw who responded to that foolish old saying about the impossibility of forcing people to be good by declaring that nobody was ever made good in any other way?
The more important part of Mr. Kavanaugh’s complaint deals not with commercialism, however, but with the decay of Christian symbols, and his argument reflects an increasing sense among many devout Christians that the rituals of the church have become meaningless. Behind this sense of meaninglessness lie two assumptions. The first is the assumption that such symbols as the cross or the lamb or the key or the dove once did have a meaning greater than they have today. The second is the assumption that the supposed loss of meaning is the fault of the symbol, or of the use of symbols. Neither assumption is indisputable. One suspects instead that they express a new version of the old cry, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief!”
Symbols are symbols because they express the inexpressible. Thus the lamb. Words are equally symbols. Thus the lamb is not a small white animal, but Agnus Dei qui tollis peccat mundi, and when, in search of clarification, we translate that into English, we risk a loss of meaning rather than a gain, for we risk a transformation of the magical into the mundane. Symbols do not die; what dies is our ability to use them as substitutes for reality. And in the demand for new symbols lies the hope of somehow making religion easy, the hope of somehow making it God’s duty to take part in our daily lives, rather than our duty to seek Him.
One of the curiosities of Mr. Kavanaugh’s argument is that his search for a more truly Christian Christmas leads him to a much more secular Christmas. And perhaps the only conclusion to be drawn from this is that the true meaning of Christmas can be experienced just as well in secular as in religious terms. It is, as stated in the beginning, a matter for each of us to determine for himself.