Notes at Christmas 2006


24 December 2006, 23.00 CET

I am not a Christian, though I would consider myself to some extent a student of Christianity. However, in the West—especially culturally and historically—the influence and importance of the New Testament are undeniable and valuable. For that reason I have spent considerable time this year reading and thinking and writing about Christmas, particularly about Nativity celebrations (which were invented and first staged by St Francis in the 13th century). I won’t go into details here but I would certainly recommend a few texts:

  • The Biblical accounts of the Nativity
  • John Milton, “On The Morning of Christ’s Nativity”
  • Sholem Asch, Mary
  • Leo Spitzer, Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony
  • John Hollander, The Untuning of the Sky: Ideas of Music in English Poetry 1500-1700
  • Roberto Rossellini’s film Francesco, giullare di Dio (The Flowers of St Francis)

In the pagan/classical, Judaic, and Christian traditions (and others too but I’m not knowledgeable enough to comment on them) there are considerable emphases given to the possibilities for and eventuality of world harmony, phrased as “peace on earth, goodwill towards men.” Even in today’s secular society, much attention persists towards Christmas pageantry and to the ideal of world peace.

John Milton arguably has much to do with this: Milton, who seeds much of the tone and fiber of modern High English, bridges the Catholic visions of Dante and Francis with the English schoolboy poets, the Enlightenment writers of constitutions, and American articulations of the divinity of pastoral vision and of holiday redecorating. Thus Milton can be said to be largely responsible for the English and American conceptions of Christmas significance since the waning of the Puritan age unto the present debates over Christmas fadeout.

The afterlives of Milton’s poem, the subsequent Anglo poetic traditions, the use and reuse of many of these tropes in Enlightenment thought and Romantic aesthetics and literature, and the varied but largely consistent Anglo/American rituals and celebrations of Christmas, seem to be split largely between presence culture (materials and actions) and meaning culture (interpretations). In Anglo/American Christian (and even secular) cultures, Christmas is a scene of doing very season-specific things centered around the creation (at least theatrically with decorations, music, costume, foods, theater) of a different looking and sounding world—very presence oriented.

Furthermore, for Christians (but not only them) Christmas is a time for imagining, hoping for, and looking for ways to create a world closer to the promise of “peace on earth, goodwill towards men.” More than any other Christian holiday, Christmas is about the transformation of the world of appearances and sounds. While Easter is a time for focusing on personal (and universal) redemption Christmas is a time for imagining a new world, only partially different from the current world, a completed world still fully assimilable by human consciousness and physical experience.

For Enlightenment and Romantic writers (and afterwards) the pagan and Christian promises of world harmony must now occur through the application of human logic, imagination, and the achievement (through desire and awareness) of a kind of attunement with the world. Knowledge, morality, and conscious (and unconscious) action are given new roles in much the same enterprise. Although secular culture alters the methods of enlightenment, the tropes of the promises of world harmony are maintained. These tropes and hope for progress and completions are pervasively maintained in Europe with great cultural vigor and tenacity arguably until the Great War (WWI), and in the United States until arguably the middle 1960s.

Thus ideas and moods of attunement and harmony which originated as pagan imagination, Hebrew yearning, and Christian theological vision, and were then transposed into persistent Enlightenment possibilities and longed-for Romantic ideals (the parents from which liberal humanism was a complex offspring), now exist mostly as pale shadows, without calendar dates for expectation, clarity, or remembrance.

Some may struggle to imagine peace on earth, and unity amongst peoples, but this remains quite like the afterimage of a dream: a vague haunting of specific images, sounds, and words, but without any unifying hope or even any implicit sense of possibility.

The internalization of efforts to achieve harmony or attunement (begun with Luther and completed with the institutions of German Bildung) remains in progress with the now common ethos of “work hard and learn to get along with others.” Yet still there is the stubbornness against returning in any way to the bold possibilities of those belief systems which are now viewed as the old frauds, despite the legacies of hope and possibility which they bequeathed to us, the fixed stars under which we continue to be born.

Today’s Wall Street Journal featured an editorial from which I excerpt the following concluding passages:

Then might it come to pass that darkness would settle again over the lands and there would be a burning of books and men would think only of what they should eat and what they should wear, and would give heed only to new Caesars and to false prophets. Then might it come to pass that men would not look upward to see even a winter’s star in the East, and once more, there would be no light at all in the darkness.

And so Paul, the apostle of the Son of Man, spoke to his brethren, the Galatians, the words he would have us remember afterward in each of the years of his Lord:

Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.

These sentences are from an editorial written in 1949 (just after WWII) by Vermont Royster and have been published annually by the Wall Street Journal since.

The values and visions of Christmas, especially in the United States, are predominantly but not solely Christian. All may join the celebration. Yet the hopes for peace and harmony are not vacuous dreams, they are the explicit results of civil order, moral distinctions, and cultural optimism. They originate from belief systems which intuit that the visible world is not the only world, that human beings and the systems they create are deeply flawed, and that redemption is available and the promised fulfillments will occur. Above all, the hopes for peace and harmony are purchased (with God’s help) by each generation. They are won through constant but costly struggle, both near and far, against despotism, barbarism, violence, and meaninglessness.

May the hope for peace and harmony, still so strong in the West despite everything, continue to flourish, and may it thrive in our lifetime and beyond. May we be capable of perceiving its benefits and strong enough to bear its costs.