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The True Meaning of Xmas

I think Christmas has become something better--or anyway more deeply coherent, more universal, more important--than a celebration of the nativity of Christ. And the strange thing is, I think everybody knows it.

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A few minutes before the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas, the barely animated classic that's broadcast around this time every year to (1) decry the commercialization of Christmas, or (2) sell Dolly Madison snack cakes, Linus announces, "I know what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown" and takes the stage to tell the rest of us. "Lights, please," he says. Then: "And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field . . . " The passage is a pretty familiar one out of the Gospel of Saint Luke--"the angel of the Lord" bringing "tidings of great joy"--but there's something especially moving about this calm, wobbly, Linus-y reading. If you've seen it as many times as I have, you can probably do the voice in your head:

"For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

"And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men."

When Linus has finished--"That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown"--the show is over, thematically. Linus has obviously gotten Christmas "right"--his is the only suggestion that isn't vigorously undercut, either by its own crassness or by the various wilting, gagging, or "AUUUGGHH!"ing responses of the everyman Charlie Brown. There's still some plot business to wrap up, a carol to be sung in the falling snow, maybe one last Dolly Madison commercial. But the message has been delivered, the meaning of Christmas explained: it's all about Christ. Cue the promo for "Frosty the Snowman."

But hold it. Back up. What exactly did that meaning mean? In context of course it was a gentle scolding, of a kind we're accustomed to hearing at this time of year. All our lives we've been told there's something wrong with Christmas as we commonly celebrate it, that we're "missing the whole point," defiling the authentic religious Christmas with our glitzy secular trimmings. The rebuke has been delivered so many times that it's becoming part of the ritual. Every year Christmas is conceded to belong to God, and every year it's filched, exploited, and returned after a time, slightly crumpled, by shamefaced ordinary people. Quiet "reminders" like Linus's are designed to make us feel once again the small, almost pleasurable spasm of helpless guilt that's very, very close to the heart of religious sentiment. We know we're abusing Christmas, but--we can't help it. We're only human. Father, forgive us. We'll never, ever, ever--well, actually, we will do it again. Same time next year. But we'll feel just as horrible about it, really.

I don't know of any other holiday in which the officially sanctioned meaning and the popular celebration diverge so much. Some holidays are felt to mean exactly what they're supposed to mean. On the Fourth of July we get good and drunk and loud about our independence. On Thanksgiving even those of us who don't know who or what to thank manage to feel a sort of intransitive thankfulness. Other holidays have only their official, public meanings--they're acknowledged by everyone to be privately meaningless. On Memorial Day we barbecue. On Washington's Birthday we have sales.

But Christmas isn't like that. The fact that the season and some of its symbols are exploited for gain doesn't reduce Christmas to a retail tie-in. It's hard to imagine it being switched to a Monday for the sake of a three-day weekend. For many if not most people, Christmas still means more than any other day of the year. But does it have to mean what it's supposed to mean or else nothing at all? Is it a choice between the meaning that believing Christians like Linus insist upon and meaninglessness?

I don't think so. I think Christmas has become something better--or anyway more deeply coherent, more universal, more important--than a celebration of the nativity of Christ. And the strange thing is, I think everyone knows it.

There's no information in the Gospels as to the date of Christ's birth, and the early church didn't commemorate it at all. On the contrary, according to James Frazer's The Golden Bough, it was "the heathen" who first "kindled lights in token of festivity" on December 25. This date was reckoned the winter solstice under the Julian calendar and thus "was regarded as the Nativity of the Sun, because the day begins to lengthen and the power of the sun to increase from that turning-point of the year." Celebrants of the pre-Christian Christmas "retired into certain inner shrines, from which at midnight they issued with a loud cry, 'The Virgin has brought forth! The light is waxing!'" Some "even represented the new-born sun by the image of an infant," which "they brought forth and exhibited to his worshippers." Not surprisingly, the Christian rank and file "had a leaning to this festival"; perceiving this, "the doctors of the Church . . . took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day."

This account of the origins of Christmas--which is at least tacitly confirmed by such heavy Christian hitters as Saint Augustine and Pope Leo the Great--is in its way one of my favorite Christmas stories. It's certainly one of the gentler passages in the history of the early church. There's no fanaticism, no martyrdom, no fighting, no persecution--the solstice festival is not seized from the pagans, but shared with them, and gradually, peacefully changed into something else. But not changed out of all recognition. That's what I like. In absorbing the preexisting holiday, the Christians seem to have adopted not only its date but also a few of its themes and symbols. So that even today an old sun worshiper might find something to recognize in Christmas--might be able in some sense to join in.

It seems to me that the same kind of peaceful, gradual, subsurface change in the character and meaning of Christmas is occurring right now. Ironically, the best external evidence for this is provided by spokesmen for Christianity. Like pagan high priests becoming just a little bit edgy as they count the house at the solstice rites (so many new faces), the guardians of orthodoxy have been worrying aloud for some time that Christmas is getting away from them. That's the real point of A Charlie Brown Christmas and a thousand other sermonettes. That Christmas is changing. That its "true" meaning, if not quite forgotten, is now so grossly and cheesily papered over with alien "commercial" themes that nobody thinks of it anymore, at least not without being prompted. That people have been so thoroughly distracted and inflamed by false values that they're actually beginning to celebrate a false holiday.

Call it Xmas.

Once undoubtedly a respectable abbreviation--the X representing the Greek capital letter khi, initial of Khristos (Christ, the Anointed)--Xmas may have acquired its bad odor from a faint association with secularism (X could also stand, if you like, for a blank or unknown quantity, even a negation) or with commercial expediency (X fits better on signs). In any case, Xmas is now one of those words with the sneer already in it. It's the name for everything that's cheap, superficial, and kitschy about Christmas--one-finger electric-organ tunes, video Yule logs, Slim Whitman in a stocking cap--and also for what might be called the Antichrist-mas, the sinister "materialistic" Christmas everybody's always denouncing. Xmas is at best a secular corruption, at worst a black mass. It's doubtful that anything good has ever been said about it by anyone.

And yet Xmas has a maddening, weedlike vigor. Religious sentiments must be laboriously cultivated at year's end, but Xmas springs up out of every untended cranny, spreads everywhere, overruns everything. Including the sacred. It can't be stamped out. It's assailable only as an abstraction; as soon you descend to concrete details, people won't hear a word against it. Tell us to shun "commercialization," and we will nod like sheep. But tell us, even from the pulpit, to turn away from Santa Claus and we will be scandalized. Tell us to stop making ourselves cozy, spoiling our children, getting misty over old movies, and you will lose every one of us. Xmas may be unsanctioned, it may be unhistorical, it may be false--it may be demonically false--but it remains dear to our silly hearts.

Dearer--more meaningful--than the "authentic" Christmas it's gradually replacing.

To see this and understand the reasons for it, we have to begin by recognizing that Xmas--not the caricature derided by its religious opponents, but simply the demotic Christmas, the play-at-home version, the holiday we celebrate when nobody's coming over--is an invention of our childhoods. In fact, Xmas is usually condemned in terms that could just as well be applied to children. I have a three-year-old son, and I assure you he's tasteless. He's crude. He's utterly captivated by material things. If when you think of Christmas you have in mind something so pure, so exalted, that it would be defiled by the base enthusiasm--and grubby hands--of my son, then you're not going to care much for Xmas.

We're used to hearing that Xmas is to Christmas as the golden calf is to God. Every year, in fact, Xmas is ritually "exposed" as hollow and false--but then why our dumb, indefensible fondness for it? Why should that fondness feel so unforced? Especially in contrast with the clammy, high-minded respects we pay to "the true Nativity"? I think the only possible explanation is that Xmas is Christmas as felt and interpreted by children--and also as recalled by ex-children. Our feelings for it arise from the deepest possible sources. By comparison, it's the official, adult Christmas that's superficial.

You take, say, a picturesque story about a baby born in a stable in winter with farm animals all around. Better yet--take tiny, painted-ceramic figures of the baby, the mother, the animals, the shepherds, the kings, and a kind of cutaway dollhouse thatched with spray-painted straw. They're packed in the big box with the lights and ornaments. You have to handle them carefully--they're chipped here and there, at the elbows and flanks; one or two have lost limbs. You're not allowed to play with them. So why are they precious to you? Not only the individual figures, but the whole scene, and even in a sense the idea represented by the scene, the idea of reverence for a baby. Is it because the baby is "divine"? Or is there another meaning in the arrangement, a truth that seems infinitely more crucial and comprehensible than anything having to do with gods or sons of gods: that it is natural and right to adore a baby because it is a baby?

This may be a gross humanist distortion--kids do think the darnedest things--but it doesn't much matter. It's just an illustration. It shows how even dwelling on what might be called the sacred heart of Christmas it's possible to miss the point. If your line of sight is close enough to the ground, distant, towering themes can easily be blocked out by smaller, nearer, more concrete objects. And this, I suppose, is the beginning of Xmas, the tilted base of it. Because as mistaken and cheap and unworthy as our first version of Christmas may be, we never do get around to throwing it away. It's a private, heretical interpretation of the holiday that's always straining quietly against the orthodox one, and may now be definitely overcoming it. You can't argue with kids.

What are the true features of Xmas? I want to discard the idea that it's the puny, dumbed-down, bastard brother of Christmas. Xmas is actually bigger than Christmas. It's an elaborated Christmas, a Christmas with more stuff in it; that's why it takes two months to celebrate. There are almost no restraints on its development, no sanctioning authority, no one to say what is and isn't authentic--it's just a loosely packed and rolling ball of customs, songs, stories, sentiments, obligations, and gilded-macaroni bric-a-brac that keeps getting bigger and bigger every year. Always picking up more Rudolphs and Frosties, but never spinning anything off, never losing anything. Even Christ is still in there somewhere, rattling around with the shepherds and elves and jingle bells.

Or is He in syndication now, with the Smurfs? Obviously the Xmas ball doesn't roll on its own. There are those who keep it rolling, and I don't mean to overlook their contribution. They are ingenious. They are smurftastically powerful. And in their eyes Xmas means a year-end surge in retailing activity. Period. It is to them that we owe the brutal marketing blitzes that have become so familiar a feature of Xmas--as when frighteningly consolidated toy-industry behemoth Hasbro (maker of G.I. Joe and Teddy Ruxpin dolls, Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers games, PlaySkool toys, Tonka trucks, and everything else not already made by Mattel) sponsored a cartoon binge on three Turner cable networks the day after Thanksgiving last year and booked 700 commercials during a 14-hour period. Do the math. This is not a misprint.

But even if Xmas is to some extent "brought to you by" (or in the even more delicate euphemism of public broadcasting "made possible by") the people who profit from it--so what? So is everything else. It's not as though Xmas could be "soiled" by an association with "commerce"--it's a loud, sprawling, happy, sloppy, dumb party, right? Which is to say, a swell party. Middle-aged ennui sufferers like Charlie Brown may worry that it isn't lofty enough. But you're not going to find many real kids thinking along those lines.

What do real kids care about? What kid values might Xmas celebrate? Obviously we're going to have to start pretty low on the scale. How about--warmth in winter? Coziness? Am I mistaken in calling these "values"? Things to be prized for their own sake? Light when it's dark out? Secure toy ownership? Safety, intimacy? Cocoa? Home? The two or three or half dozen people in the world who can be trusted, who are not fundamentally alien? Who--for reasons it would never even occur to you to wonder about--owe you love?

You will note some omissions. Peace on earth, good will toward men--those are Christmas themes; I don't think Xmas has much to do with them. If the phrase "peace on earth" stirs anything in a kid's mind, it's connected with the way the world looks through the windows, when he's safely shut off from it. And brotherhood --with strangers?--is out of the question. Strangers are, if anything, more shunned at Xmastime than at any other. Even aunts and uncles and cousins are not a particularly welcome sight coming up the walk. And as for God--nobody wants to offend Him, of course. He may be quite important in His way. But Xmas takes place in a smaller, more familiar sphere, where His presence would be an imposition. If you want grandeur, go outside and look at stars. If you want Xmas, come in. And shut the door.

All this sounds pretty untranscendent, I admit. Shelter. Blood attachments. Body warmth. Is this some kind of dog holiday? I could plead that Xmas is not, like Christmas, the work of thinkers, and so doesn't translate very neatly into words or even coherent ideas; that its meaning is easier to feel than to spell out. But the truth is the ideas running through Xmas, such as they are, tend to be very small, personal ones. No great leaps, no superb feats of analogy, no heavenly father, no family of man. Maybe just a little family. Maybe just--yours. And nobody else's. It's this littleness, this self-centeredness that lots of good people find deplorable about Xmas. They want to lift us up, to enlarge us, to take us out of ourselves. But we are wary, like children. We hang back.

We stay home. Did you ever notice how nobody in the Peanuts "gang" seems to have a home, in the ordinary sense of the word? They're pictured sometimes in beanbag chairs, watching big TVs, talking on telephones, but the rooms they're in are just interiors. No family life ever occurs in them. It's never, for instance, "time for dinner" or "bath night." You can't picture Charlie Brown crawling into bed with his parents on a chilly morning. In fact, none of these children has any parents, or needs any. They're completely self-sufficient, public creatures, living in a community of equals. There are no pockets of intimacy to divide them. Even those who are nominally siblings don't seem to have any shared private life. And so it isn't jarring when, at the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas, they all discover and celebrate the true meaning of Christmas together. Out under the night sky, united in sacred song, blissfully ignoring what look to be heavy flurries. This, you can't help thinking, is just the way it's supposed to be.

And just the way it isn't. We simply don't come into the world that way. Our faces are angelic, our voices are sweet, you can arrange us in choirs and teach us the tenderest harmonies imaginable. But we are little animals, right down to our little bottoms. And the cold out here is something fierce. And our mittens are wet besides. We have only to look up at the lights in the windows to know where we belong. Even if no one comes out to call us, we know, each of us, when it's time to go in.

Christmas is about what we have long aspired to be; Xmas is about what we are. In trading the one holiday for the other, you could say we traded down. But I have no regrets. I've kept Christmas in many a drafty church, with the aspirations soaring to the highest cross vaults, but I can never remember a time when I wasn't relieved to get home. Home for Xmas. Isn't there a cheesy song . . . ?

Let me get my music.

And after that we'll do "Sleigh Ride."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.

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