Thursday, 24 December 2009

Let It Come Down

Among the many responsibilities attendant upon being a member in good standing of the Fraternal Order of the World's Worst Catholics is the duty to mock those Christian dullards who insist on cackling about the "secularisation" and “commercialisation” of Christmas.

This annual dyspepsia is wrong-headed on every conceivable level. Remember, first, that it is we Christians who twisted the original meaning of Christmas, hijacking a congeries of pagan holidays for our own ends and commemorating Christ's birth on a day which is almost certainly far removed from the day of the historical Jesus' nativity. If one remembers, too, that public holidays are essentially celebrations of collective values and ideals, one will agree that no more appropriate celebration of North American values can be conceived than the brutish, neo-pagan pursuit of appetitive and commercial satiety that disfigures our Yuletide season. No ostensibly Christian civilisation that accepts as a legitimate expression of New Testament values a creed as grubbily cynical as the Prosperity Gospel has a right to complain about the commercialised or secularised decadence of Christmas: as your faith degrades, so shall your ceremonies. We don't celebrate Christmas on Christmas Day; we celebrate it on Boxing Day.

When I see the sham and chintz that emanate from post-Modern Christmases, I see a pitiably embarrassed Christianity--weakened by centuries of instrumental materialism--futilely holding paganism back from reclaiming what it owns. Ironically, the Roman Saturnalia was far more Christian than our Christmas, conventionally observed as it was by the overturning of social hierarchies and the requirement that masters serve their slaves, that husbands serve their wives, and that all the powerful bend to their inferiors. The Saturnalia, for which the Magnificat could have served as anthem, was a perfect embodiment of the Good News--as perfect as our current celebration of affluence and wretched excess is grotesquely sacrilegious.

It appears to me that Catholics (especially bad ones) must wish--even pray--that our commitment to Western re-paganisation, now tentative, becomes resolute, for it is certainly the only cultural force with enough power to re-connect us with the true meaning of the Nativity. Let us resolve, then, to sharpen our piety upon the whetstone of our heathenism and, in redemption of our unstoppable recrudescence, to so utterly strip from the features of this season the vicious accretions of centuries-long Mammonistic idolatry that we discover anew the truly sacred (that is, sacrificial) expenditure--the existential potlatch--which is the glorious bounty of the Word, now in the cradle, soon on the Cross.

As this blog does not allow me to distribute the gold-plated iPods and 60GB PlayStation 3's that might otherwise be expected of me, my contribution to Christmas neo-paganism will need to be filmic. Partially to correct an unforgivable oversight in an earlier post, I present to you the final scene of Bernardo Bertolucci's beautiful cinematic rendering of Paul Bowles' novel The Sheltering Sky. In it, the aged author (who actually hated the movie) has the last words.

The excerpt he reads occurs near the middle of his book, but placing it at the end allows Bowles to close the film with an epitaph that wrings the wistful stoicism out of the novel, splashing it onto our faces and waking us up from the two-hour Arabian dream the director has just woven. The excerpt's paganism is in its brooding disquiet before the certainty of human finitude, but that's also where its beauty lies.

"How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless". Not a bad Christmas thought, actually.


Ti-Guy said...

I'm just happy that at this stage of my life, family and friends no longer bother with Christmas gifts beyond a few token presents. It's all food, drink and socialising. The whole day today is being spent preparing for the réveillon, which is a bit of party in its own right.

Have a Merry Christmas, SF.

David Lindsay said...

There is of course a universal need for winter festivals. But the dating of Christmas derives from the Jewish Hanukkah, not from the pagan Saturnalia or anything else.

No British or Irish Christmas custom derives from paganism. There is little, if any, fokloric pagan continuation in these islands; and little, if anything, is known about pre-Christian religion here.

Most, if not all, allegations to the contrary derive from Protestant polemic against practices originating in the Middle Ages, and usually the Late Middle Ages at that. The modern religion known as Paganism is an invention from scratch, the very earliest roots of which are in the late nineteenth century.

Furthermore, the dating of Christmas from that of Hanukkah raises serious questions for Protestants, who mistakenly exclude the two Books of Maccabees from the Canon because, along with various other works, they were allegedly not considered canonical at the time of Jesus and the Apostles.

In fact, the rabbis only excluded those books specifically because they were likely to lead people into Christianity, and they are repeatedly quoted or cited in the New Testament, as they were by Jewish writers up to their rabbinical exclusion.

Even thereafter, a point is made by the continued celebration of Hanukkah, a celebration thanks to books to which Jews only really had access because Christians had preserved them, since the rabbis wanted them destroyed.

Indeed, far from being the mother-religion that it is often assumed to be, a very great deal of Judaism is actually a reaction against Christianity, although this is by no means the entirety of the relationship, with key aspects of kabbalah actually deriving from Christianity, with numerous other examples set out in Rabbi Michael Hilton's The Christian Effect on Jewish Life (London: SCM Press, 1994), and so on.

Hanukkah bushes, and the giving and receiving of presents at Hanukkah, stand in a tradition of two-way interaction both as old as Christianity and about as old as anything that could reasonably be described as Judaism.

Merry Christmas.

Catelli said...

What Ti said.

Have a peaceful, reflective and ultimately a Merry Christmas SF.

Sir Francis said...

Have a Merry Christmas, SF.

And to you, Ti.

Réveillon is a great tradition. My family, though Anglo, practiced it when I was young. Quite a few West Islanders did (the Catholic ones, anyway), in a neat little bit of cultural counter-colonialism.

Sir Francis said...


There is significant scholarly debate concerning the rationale behind the establishment of Christmas. There's very little evidence that the feast was celebrated in a meaningful way before the Patristic era, and it's considered doubtful by many that the holiday's cultural framework was Judaic--as the celebration of birthdays was not customary among the Jews.

Certainly, locating the birth of Christ on December 25th appears entirely arbitrary (as it clearly runs counter to Biblical evidence and is rarely neatly consistent with the variable timing of Hanukkah) unless holidays familiar to the Roman and Romanised élite who administered the early Church, such as Saturnalia and the rites of Sol Invictus, are taken as prototypes.

As for Christmas customs, I think you shall find that Christmas trees and mistletoe have at least partly pagan origins. Needless to say, abject drunkenness (or “wassailing”, to be more genteel)--a Western Christmas tradition as common as it is unfortunate--owes more to the mead-hall and ring-house habits of our pagan ancestors than to the precepts of the First Council of Nicaea.

Sir Francis said...


All the best of the season to you and yours, and I hope the holidays haven't been too hard on your credit card!

Ryan said...

True enough. Though I find it somewhat irrelevant that the Christian calendar is an appropriation of a pagan one--considering that most of the early Christians were former pagans, and that the calendar they paid attention to was Roman. I'm not sure how many Pagans were familiar with the lunar calendar of the Jews.

Regardless, the Christian calendar (and Christmas) is not about "the facts." Fundamentalists like to celebrate Christmas as some sort of love-fest birthday party commemorating the birth of some guy, and the only requirement is that we "believe" that "it happened". Liberals tend to take it the same way, with the Jesus Seminar-ish response of "the facts" say "well Jesus didn't say that" or "that didn't really happen that way." Both miss the point entirely. The point isn't that "it happened" or "it didn't happen", the point is for us folks not embarrassed to speak truthfully in our peculiar language, is that this is a "true story" and "it is happening" and Christmas comes not because of an arbitrary date, but because the incarnation is inevitable. As is Good Friday and Easter. We do not merely mark the passing of time, but commemorate the timefullness of the gospel.

Happy Advent, Merry Christmas and a Holy Epiphany to you, my Catholic friend.