“For now I am in a holiday humour,” wrote Shakespeare, and now in this brief interlude should we all be as gratitude gives way to merriment. There are fifteen school days remaining before the Christmas break, and while it is important that students complete the second quarter with the same verve and studiousness they began it, is undeniable that preparations for the holiday season are underway.There are some humbugs who detest the music, lights, decorations, and sappiness of the whole affair. For everyone, but especially for those with young children, the season is a magical and festive time of year in which there are important lessons to be taught and learned. As we skirmish with our respective frustrations and toils in the coming weeks, we should forbid either political correctness or the accusations of kitsch from dampening our spirits or diminishing the importance of the holiday.
There are three parties at the table who would like for Christmas to be called to account. The first, contends that nothing important can be said in the public sphere for fear of marginalizing or offending an individual or group who does not agree with the message. The second group consists of those self-identifying intellectuals who pretentiously dismiss the holiday as a carnival of besotted low-brow nostalgia. The third group believe that the holiday is disfigured by secularism and ruined by commercialism. All are wrong, and the message is as important as it has ever been and as universal as one living in a pluralistic society could reasonably wish for.
Celebrating anything meaningful in America has sadly become an almost routinely litigious affair. It is the first group that so loudly denounces the celebrations of others that they forget to put anything of substance in its place. “It is with narrow-souled people,” wrote Alexander Pope, “as with narrow-necked bottles: the less they have in them, the more noise they make in pouring it out.” The idea of festivity, so abhorrent to them, has been wrenched out of context and applied only to inoffensive endeavors such as the outcome of athletic events – America’s analog of the Roman circences, proficuous emotional outlets and amusements for the people. As the Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper noted, the truer nature of celebration lies in harmoniously bringing together relaxation, effortlessness, and most critically, the ascendancy of ‘being at leisure’ over mere function. That we are drawn to Christmas is unsurprising given that, as Seneca put it, “The soul has this proof of its divinity: that divine things delight it.” We delight in celebrating the meaningful and only resort to celebrating the inconsequential when it becomes socially or legally unconscionable for public expressions of anything of consequence. Neither pluralism nor freedom of conscience posit that a risk-averse, bureaucratic elite ought to foster a society of all or nothing in which either everyone’s beliefs are celebrated or no one’s.The attempt to say or celebrate something of substance that will not cause any group or person offense is impossible unless we are willing to become a people without celebrations. Making inoffensiveness the sole objective of our efforts leads either to the sort of splenetic observation made by Thomas Hobbes that man’s principle attribute is a common diffidence, or the assuasive, corporate inanity of blank, red, fill-them-in-yourself cups approach to the holidays. Instead of conjuring a Vorstellung in which one person’s celebration is another’s repression, we should instead rejoice that we share in common more than diffidence and celebrate the best version of ourselves.
The second group is comprised of ludibrious mandarins and snobs who insist that our puerile amusements are a waste of emotional energy, a series of deceptions foisted pointlessly on the young, a mere fairytale without the deeper culture they claim to be the purveyors of. Christmastime can be glaring, jarring, gaudy, crass, materialistic, and altogether over the top, and examining its underlying ideals and our traditions more collectively is not an unreasonable venture unless that examination obliterates the spirit imbuing the holiday and fails to replace something that provides joy with little more than haughtiness. Humbug intellectualism is little more than cynicism, and cynicism, as George Meredith quipped, is little more than intellectual dandyism. An idyllic walk through Old Town with its colorful storefronts, falling snowflakes, and the soft glow of the lights in the trees reveals that “the message” of Christmas has not been lost to the money, the marketing, or the muscular secularism if that message is one of faith, charity, goodwill, benevolence, or generosity. Whether one is a Christian, Jew, atheist, or agnostic, are these objectionable qualities to celebrate? As Alexander Pope wrote in his Essay on Man, “For modes of faith let graceless zealots fight; /
His can’t be wrong whose life is in the right: / In faith and hope the world will disagree, / But all mankind’s concern is charity: / All must be false that thwart this one great end; / And all of God, that bless mankind or mend.” If odium’s source is faith, are the sentiments of the season apt to be finer without it? As Samuel Johnson reflected, “True charity arises from faith in the promises of God, and expects rewards only in a future state. To hope for our recompense in this life is not beneficence but usury.” Those who insist that the whole holiday is tarnished not by religion, but by nostalgia, soft-headed sentimentality, and kitsch focus on the wrong manifestations of the season and threaten to teach the wrong lessons to our already jaded youth who are predisposed to uncritically dispense with traditions they stand to inherit but are yet too inexperienced to comprehend. Rather than demean the spirit and belittle the mood, cherish this fleeting opportunity to warm tender hearts with stories such as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl, Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Astrid Lindgren’s Christmas in Noisy Village, or Susan Wojciechowski’s The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey. There are wonderful films as well, such as Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, and Joyeux Noël. There are so many other books and films that one could hardly exhaust the supply in the twenty some days between now and Christmas, and partaking in just a few would do us all infinitely more good than believing ourselves too clever to celebrate.
The third group, comprised mostly of devout Christians, holds that their holiday has been hijacked. Instead of observing what we were given, advertising men have persuaded our children to wonder overmuch at what they might be given. There is little doubt that the holiday contributes economically to many livelihoods. It is estimated that the average American will spend $832 on gifts this holiday season, and over $465 billion will be spent nationwide. These gifts will account for twenty percent of all annual retail sales, but this does not mean that Americans do not think or act charitably. In 2012, Americans gave over $316 billion, and seventy-two percent of this came from individuals. It also does not appear as though religious observance and ostensibly secular traditions are mutually exclusive. Americans participate in both in large numbers. Ninety-five percent of Americans celebrate Christmas, and of these, fifty-one percent describe themselves as “strongly religious,” which is a number that has steadily increased since 1989. Sixty-two percent of those celebrating Christmas will attend religious services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and seventy-eight percent of these tell surveyors that they will take time to reflect on the birth of Christ. Money will invariably be spent, and it sometimes seems as though Santa is destined to outshine Jesus, but even with regards to Santa Claus, “the message” has not been lost. Consider a collection of letters to Santa Claus dating from the 1930s. In 1930, a nine year-old girl from Woodstock, Maryland wrote to Santa to say “we are poor and got no money for toys or candy.” She lists the names and ages of her siblings before adding “and the others are dead.” In 1953, an eight year-old Chicago girl writes to tell Santa that “our daddy still doesn’t come home and mamma cries at night when she thinks we are asleep, because she has no money for our coats and shoes and some dolls for Christmas.” Our situation, materially and medically, has improved. Between 1935 and 2010, the mortality rate among American children aged 1 to 4 fell by 94 percent,” notes an article in the Weekly Standard. But it is still too easy to be cynical. Courage must replace cleverness to live life with an open heart. The children writing these letters did not misunderstand the spirit of Christmas, and while one could make facile comparisons to children now who ask for too much, they also still ask for what they all deserve but do not yet have. In 2002, an Indiana girl writes to tell Santa that “A man called a Judge gave me a new Mommy,” and another girl from Yonkers writes to say that it is just her mother and her living alone, and that her mother is very sick. “All I want is a gift for us,” she says. “It can be a small gift but at lest it would be something,” which is “better then nothing” [sic]. It is nearly always as bad somewhere for someone as it has always been, and there is enough of this to inspire a defense of the qualities the season evokes.
Do not wait overlong to begin celebrating and ensure as best you are able that your children see that there is joy to be had in celebrating what is best and highest in all of us. Steel your children’s enthusiasm against the humbuggery they will encounter this season, and give them the activities, stories, conversations, and films to model the sort of behavior that is the salvation of us all. And, if you are able, give. Ridgeview will always help our families in need in whatever ways we can. We will have donation bins set up in the lobby to make giving convenient for you, and we look forward to seeing you in the school over the next three weeks. Let the season begin.