Tis the season to be sappy. Twee cartoon reindeer and Santas, pointy trees and beribboned boxes, tinsel wreaths and spray-painted snow, and above all, inescapably, in every shop, that dreary treacly music that is the aural equivalent of sitting in a bath as it goes lukewarm. The fact that late December is midsummer in New Zealand gives all the doggedly wintry imagery an extra edge of falseness. You can tell that people are feeling it, because the other thing you get this time of year is movies and TV specials offering to reveal the true meaning of Christmas, which evidently is hard to find otherwise.
Well, if its hard to find, then the true meaning cant be money worries and time pressure. Which is pretty much what Christmas is nowadays, if youre an adult: a time to lavish gifts and food and hospitality on your friends and family or theyll think you dont love them. Even that wouldnt be so bad, if only the gifts were things that were useful, beautiful, thought-provoking or informative. But no. As George Monbiot recently noted, businesses ravage the environment and sweat poor workers half to death so that we can present each other with
a solar-powered waving queen; a belly button brush; a silver-plated ice cream tub holder; a hilarious inflatable zimmer frame; a confection of plastic and electronics called Terry the Swearing Turtle... a Scratch Off World wall map... An electronic drum-machine t-shirt; a Darth Vader talking piggy bank; an ear-shaped iPhone case; an individual beer can chiller; an electronic wine breather; a sonic screwdriver remote control; bacon toothpaste; a dancing dog...
Monbiots right. These things amuse us for a day or two and then we compound the damage done in their manufacture by adding them to the worlds overflowing landfills. They end up in the ocean. Plastic doesnt rot. Tools exist that we can use to clean it up, but not at the rate it keeps arriving. And once weve cleaned it up, what do we do with it? Burn it, and release the carbon to the atmosphere? Another bad idea. The best I can think of is to recycle it as building materials say, underfloor insulation since thats at least something we would like to have last forever.
Its become a kind of society-level addiction: better to buy cheap plastic crap than be that one guy who doesnt give Christmas presents. And of course, the more people who behave like this, the more of a Scrooge youll look like if you dont join in as well ironically, considering Dickens original Scrooge was motivated by profit maximization just like the businesses foisting the cheap plastic crap on us. I dont know how long the cycle of guilt and cheap plastic crap would go on if it werent regularly given a kick along by all the advertising.
This commercialism has even managed to infect the true meaning stories. Back in 1956, Ted Geisel (aka Dr Seuss) could write How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, in which the townsfolk of Whoville wake to find all their presents and decorations gone and still sing for joy that its Christmas. Contrast that with the 2011 movie Arthur Christmas, whose plot-driving problem is that a single present has fallen off the sleigh, destined for a child who already has lots of presents from her family but will apparently nevertheless be absolutely devastated if she doesnt get something from Santa as well. Hear that, parents? Better nip out and buy one more just in case.
By the way, speaking of Santa, I realize Im in a minority here, but to me the whole you have to lie to your children every year thing is weird. My siblings and I werent taught to believe in Santa in case, when told the awful truth, we extrapolated from Santa is a lie to Jesus is a lie. The usual excuse is that childhood is supposed to be magical, but the only thing magical about flying deer or free presents is that they break the laws of nature that is to say, that they dont actually exist. To the children who believe in them, theyre no more magical than volcanoes or Pluto or anything else that you only see on TV and in books. When I was three, Santa coming down a chimney sounded much less magical than the endlessly fascinating mystery of water coming down a tap.
Since Ive now gone and mentioned Jesus, I should probably delve into this whole War on Christmas thing, where, as far as I can tell from the internet, not being a Christian at Christmastime constitutes an attack on God and America. Then again, not being a Christian at any time of year constitutes an attack on God and America, so maybe we shouldnt sweat it. I cant speak from direct experience here, because this just isnt a thing in New Zealand. Nativity scenes and angels are recognised here as Christian motifs, but Santa Claus and Christmas trees and holly and what not are seen as secular. Here, Christians complain about the latter getting too much glory, not too little.
Ive already blogged my best guess regarding the real Jesus of Nazareth, and that includes a discussion of the Gospel accounts of his birth, which I wont rehash here. Suffice to say that Matthew and Luke tell completely different stories which in some details, notably around dating, directly conflict with each other. Neither gives any indication whatever of what time of year Jesus was born. If we had the date of the Census of Quirinius mentioned in Luke, or an astronomical ID for the Star of Bethlehem described by Matthew, we might have a shot at estimating it. But we dont.
So why did the Church settle on 25 December? A popular but poorly-sourced answer is that this was the birth-date of the Persian god Mithras, whose following some believe I think mistakenly to be the real source of the Jesus myth. Mithraism was and very largely remains a mystery cult, and hence ideal for making stuff up about when you want to look knowledgeable. The Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun) holiday did fall on 25 December, but that belonged to mainstream Roman religion, which Christianity at that point was still avoiding going anywhere near. The reason actually given for that choice of date in early Christian writings is pretty convoluted; the gist of it is that Jesus was killed on 25 March, so therefore he must also have been conceived on 25 March. No, ask Hippolytus of Rome, not me.
Dating issues aside, is Jesus the true meaning of Christmas? Salvation, redemption, the hope of eternal life is that what were doing all this for? Well, some people are, obviously. But what does that mean, exactly? Jesus saved us from the punishment for our sin makes for a good story, right up until you remember that that punishment was imposed by the same God who sent Jesus to take it off again, which sounds less like a loving plan of salvation and more like someone frantically trying to undo their own foolish mistake. As for eternal life, I dont think its all its cracked up to be.
Yes, yes, I know, Christmas is actually a pagan festival, Saturnalia, Yule, etc., etc. I dont know that ceremonially beheading a king every winter is all that much better either. Besides, its not all that good of an imitation. Isnt it supposed to be the Sacrifice in winter and the Birth in spring in the pagan cycle, rather than the other way about? While were on the subject no, Santa Claus did not originally wear a green suit. The Green Man is slain at midwinter by the Red Man, that is Sir Gawain in the Arthurian canon or Cú Chulainn in the Irish myth, and red is common to many different versions of St Nicholas across European cultures.
Lets face it. Christmas means different things to different people. No one meaning is the true one. Were not really looking for a true meaning anyway; were looking for a nice meaning. We call the nice meaning the true meaning because we want niceness to be truth we want goodness to be built deep into the universe, something we can rely on, something thats still there even if its temporarily put out of our reach by war or famine or some other disaster.
Well, I have good news and I have bad news. Goodness isnt built into the universe; atoms dont care if we hurt each other. But goodness is built into human nature. Oh, selfishness and vengefulness and spite are as well, yes, were all capable of those. The good news is that were bright enough, most of the time, to tell the difference between a problem and a solution. This implies that in general, over time, societies and other human systems tend to improve, as people fix mistakes and solve problems. No guarantees, of course; and one major prerequisite for this tendency to continue is that we hold on to old knowledge and dont throw it away, which is why I favour maintaining traditions like Christmas even when their meanings have changed.
If you doubt the power of human goodness to overcome human evil, heres a multiply true story by which I mean it happened in many different places at once. Not all Christmas songs are sappy; this is the best one ever written.
Whatever you celebrate at this time of year, I wish you a good one.