Thursday, 22 December 2016

The false meaning of Christmas

’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 it’s hard to find, then the true meaning can’t be money worries and time pressure. Which is pretty much what Christmas is nowadays, if you’re an adult: a time to lavish gifts and food and hospitality on your friends and family or they’ll think you don’t love them. Even that wouldn’t 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...

Monbiot’s 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 world’s overflowing landfills. They end up in the ocean. Plastic doesn’t rot. Tools exist that we can use to clean it up, but not at the rate it keeps arriving. And once we’ve 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 that’s at least something we would like to have last forever.

It’s become a kind of society-level addiction: better to buy cheap plastic crap than be that one guy who doesn’t give Christmas presents. And of course, the more people who behave like this, the more of a Scrooge you’ll look like if you don’t 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 don’t know how long the cycle of guilt and cheap plastic crap would go on if it weren’t 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 it’s 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 doesn’t 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 I’m 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 weren’t 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 don’t actually exist. To the children who believe in them, they’re 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 I’ve 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 shouldn’t sweat it. I can’t speak from direct experience here, because this just isn’t 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.

I’ve 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 won’t 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 don’t.

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 we’re 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 don’t think it’s all it’s cracked up to be.

Yes, yes, I know, Christmas is “actually” a pagan festival, Saturnalia, Yule, etc., etc. I don’t know that ceremonially beheading a king every winter is all that much better either. Besides, it’s not all that good of an imitation. Isn’t it supposed to be the Sacrifice in winter and the Birth in spring in the pagan cycle, rather than the other way about? While we’re 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.

Let’s face it. Christmas means different things to different people. No one meaning is the “true” one. We’re not really looking for a “true” meaning anyway; we’re 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 that’s still there even if it’s 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 isn’t built into the universe; atoms don’t care if we hurt each other. But goodness is built into human nature. Oh, selfishness and vengefulness and spite are as well, yes, we’re all capable of those. The good news is that we’re 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 don’t 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, here’s 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.

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