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.