Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Apology for Christmas

Calvinist Cath, whose Christian example is very dear to my heart, has written an annual brief against Christmas to relieve her conscience. Personally, I am so confused by the changes to the British mainstream Reformed traditions, their enthusiastic (if sometimes shallow and misplaced) embrace of Catholic ritual on the one hand, and their compete slide into unscriptural insanity on the other, that I have arbitrarily decided that Cath's is the authentic voice of, at least, Scottish Presbyterianism. And I would happily send my husband off to work on Christmas morning if the non-Catholic Scottish majority were all like Cath.

For, as a matter of fact, the celebration of Christmas was suppressed/rejected in Scotland at the start of the Reformation, and December 25 was a normal working day in Scotland until 1958. As there is no Scriptural references to celebrations of the anniversary of Christ's birth, the Reformers thought that no-one ought to celebrate it--except every Sunday, of course. Cruel bosses took a special delight in working Scottish Catholics particularly hard on Christmas Day, and so presumably kind bosses gave them a break. The religious freedom of Catholics was not a major priority in Scotland, since it was felt that Catholics themselves would be a threat to the religious freedom of Protestants if they were not sufficiently sat upon. In the 1930s, the Church of Scotland (by then no longer the church of Cath, by the way) tried to get Catholic Scots of Irish birth or descent deported to Ireland, but Westminster said "No", for which I am grateful. If it had been otherwise my pal H's father would have been shipped off in the cattle car boat and there would be no H.

But I am getting away from the subject of Christmas, distracted by Cath's reference to religious freedom. As a matter of fact, I am sympathetic to poor Cath having to explain again and again that Scottish Presbyterians do not celebrate Christmas, especially when she has to explain this to people who think they are Presbyterians. I had to explain over and over again to confused Scottish doctors why I have no interest in IVF, so I know the agony and the embarrassment of these little social martyrdoms.

More annoying for Cath, I suspect, are the Christmas créches because they involve artistic representations of Our Lord, which Presbyterians believe are blasphemous and idolatrous. I do not believe that, of course, but I do believe they tempt sinners to vandalism and I would rather that in countries without a Catholic majority to love them, they were kept safely indoors in beautiful churches. The same goes for artistic representations of Our Lady. Would you want a picture of your mother in public where people might scribble on it or steal it as a joke? And would you really want a cheap statue of your mother outside that sink of iniquity that is City Hall? Meanwhile, even if there was no risk to them, I would gladly relinquish public Christmas créches if that meant the non-Catholic majority would become just like Cath.

Cath, being Presbyterian, objects to public créches on the grounds that they are blasphemous, and I, being Catholic, object to créches on the grounds that they invite blasphemy. Cath objects to Scottish Christmas on the grounds that it (in her view) unjustly regards a non-Sunday as holy, and I object to Scottish Christmas on the grounds that it makes the great Feast of the Nativity unholy.

The origins of the Feast of the Nativity, which is to say the celebration of the anniversary of Christ's birth, are a bit lost in the fog of antiquity, but it would seem that in A.D. 200 theologians of the Church of Alexandria had reasoned out a date for it. Our witness, Clement of Alexandria, notes further that they celebrated the Epiphany on January 6, and the Catholic Encyclopedia surmizes that they also celebrated the Nativity on that occasion. Thus in this case (as in so many) what Presbyterians tend to call "the errors of Rome" (although Cath does not use this annoying if everyday expression in her post) could be duly ascribed also to the most ancient churches of the Middle East. But of course many of the Eastern Churches have stuck with January 6 for their celebrations. Rome has celebrated the nativity of Christ on December 25 since before A.D. 388.

Incidentally, the official beginning of the Scottish Reformation (1560) is farther away from today than A.D. 388 was from the Incarnation itself. This reminds me that Saint Augustine was born only about 355 years after the Incarnation, so why we think modern Scripture scholars know more than he did about Scripture is a question my BC Scripture prof failed to answer. Was Saint Augustine celebrating Christmas? You bet your new Christmas socks.

Celebrating the Nativity of Christ fostered a devotion to the Infant Christ, and theologically this was very important at a time when people were so in awe of Christ's divinity that they sometimes doubted that He shared their humanity. The annual celebration of the Nativity puts Christians of East and West mentally and spiritually in the same place as the shepherds: on their knees before the Babe, hearts full of joy and wonder. Non-Protestants have very visual traditions, and most of us didn't know how to read until yesterday, so we need some visual prompting, thus the créche. We also enjoy grabbing the best paganism has to offer, so just as the Early Church Fathers regarded Virgil as a pre-Christian prophet, we have taken the concept of songs-not-psalms and made Christmas carols out of it. There are traces of early Christian hymns in St. Paul and (I seem to recall) the Gospel of John, and they are not from psalms. Neither is the Magnificat, by the way. Ah! What Catholic does not love Our Lady's great hymn of praise? No wonder we celebrate the Annunciation, too, and fight tooth and nail for the rights of the unborn in the name of the Child of Mary's womb.

But back to Christmas. Admittedly Christmas in majority-Protestant countries is crass and materialistic, and it is hard to get children to think about the Christ Child rather than, in my case, the Consumers' Distributing catalogue. The Christmas songs are treacly, and the hypocrisy of playing Catholic/Anglican hymns in shops full of rubbish made by Chinese near-slaves has bothered me for some years. Women unrooted in reality demand that people who hate each other sit around a table covered with knives and pretend to be a happy family. I myself have stressed out so much over Christmas cooking that I have cried hysterically on the kitchen floor on at least two Christmas mornings in the past four Chrismasses. However, I fully acknowledge that this is my fault, not the fault of Christmas.

Besides, I love cooking for Christmas. I love baking for others and cooking extravagant feasts, especially as B.A. enjoys doing the ordinary day-to-day cooking. I love recalling the wonderful Christmases of my childhood, and the loving care which went into my parents' efforts on their children's behalf and, indeed, still does. I love going out to get the Christmas tree with my husband because sometimes I went out to get the Christmas tree with my father. I love baking the Christmas cake and the Christmas bun because I watched my mother bake the Christmas cake and take the Christmas bun from the oven. I love being awake until two or three on Christmas morning, wrestling with the bun, because I am reminded of my mother's sacrifices of sleep on her family's behalf. I don't much like Christmas shopping because I am not sure what everyone at home would like, and so I feel like a lemon, and I never touch the gifts we buy them online. But I love that our friends and family touch and see and read the Christmas cards we send. I love that the extended holidays allows my husband to potter about, free from the office, and that they send friends to Edinburgh to stay in the Historical House.

I love all this because of love. If you didn't celebrate Christmas as a child, or as a child surrounded by love, a lot of the "joy of Christmas" passes you by, and it would be difficult and perhaps artificial for you to try to create it for yourself now. You just can't, and I'm sorry, but presumably there are other celebrations (e.g. Communion Sundays, your birthday) that remind you of the unbridled joy of childhood and, with adult reflection, the astonishing unselfishness of others on your behalf. This unselfishness and gift-giving--and I am not thinking about the wrapped-up stuff taking center stage under the tree (a distant cousin of the Cross, and whose green branches signal everlasting life)--mirrors, insofar as humans can mirror this, the unselfishness, gift-giving and affectionate love of God for us, which first publically manifested itself on the day of Christ's Nativity. (John three:sixteen.*)

Meanwhile, I would like to stress my great affection for Cath, and wish her in advance a happy Hogmanay. I am not a Scottish Nationalist--I firmly support the Union--but I do not applaud the wholesale imposition of the English Yuletide holiday (which is something quite apart from the truly Roman Catholic celebration) upon the Scots. That said, neither do I like the growing revival of truly pagan customs, complete with torch processions involving people dressed as drumming demons, during the solstices. Unbaptized cultic customs, be they consumerist or "Celtic", should be resisted by all Christians. On this I am sure Cath and I will agree.

*The number three no longer works on my keyboard.


Heather in Toronto said...

My "Christmas spirit" is still recovering from having worked for five years in one of the biggest and most profitable temples to mammon, oops I mean malls, in Canada. After three years I'm just starting to be able to enjoy the season a bit more.

I was just thinking recently how odd it was that, having turfed nearly the entire rest of the liturgical calendar, most Protestant denominations still celebrate the feast of the Nativity. I find Calvinism frankly baffling but consistency in this regard at least deserves respect.

Amused Observer said...

I just saw that my library purchased TWO copies of Ceremony of Innocence!
That's not really on topic with the post, but I was excited. I'm excited that people who like thrillers are going to pick it up, and maybe get a bit more than they bargained for ;-)

MJ said...

I was overjoyed this month to read a Touchstone article in which the author, William J Tighe, argued that in fact there was no official festival of the Sun on December 25th until the time of Marcus Aurelius. The Emperor was cheesed off at the popularity of the slaves' religion and decided to institute the celebration of the Re-Emergence of the Sun or something like that on December 25th, in order to muffle the celebration of the Nativity.

Thus, if the author is correct, the common narrative from both de-liturgizing Protestants and anti-Christian pagans that Christmas is merely a cover-up for the Solstice celebration is actually completely backwards.

I can't access the article from this computer to link it to you, but simply Google "Calculating Christmas + William J Tighe + Touchstone" and you'll find it.

Jackie said...

Amused Observer, you have given me a GREAT idea! I ordered a copy for my library system here in the US, but I will call tomorrow to see if more than one copy can be ordered. Thank'ee! :-)

Jackie said...

Heather, I am so glad you escaped! Here in the US, they put the Christmas display out the day after Halloween (or sometimes even before, UGH). And they had stores open on Thanksgiving Day, which is just so profoundly offensive.

Offensive because not only is it craven and crass to think of "celebrating" the holidays by materialism, but the poor employees! There are always things on the news about people getting crushed by a mob of people fighting to get a cheaply made electronic (that will break soon enough).

It just seems so gross and ironic that holidays that are supposed to be about family take the employees away from hearth and home so they can be at the store selling people "deals." Down with Black Friday! :(

Seraphic said...

Ah! Thank you, girls!