This time of year, preachers are constantly telling us to “put Christ back into Christmas.” Well, maybe.
My beloved and I watched the first Christmas episode of the old “Mary Tyler Moore Show” at lunch today. (For you youngsters, this was a very popular comedy that won multiple Emmys and would likely seem impossibly slow, dull, and predictable to you.)
Anyhow, the show was a telling statement of how fully Christ had already been edged out of what I call “Kris-mass” (the celebration of Kris Kringle, not Christ). In one scene, Mary’s desk at work is shown completely decorated with Santa stuff. Her boss jovially asks her, “Well, there isn’t room for anything else. Do you have a nativity scene in your drawer?”
Mary scores the quick laugh by ruefully opening a drawer to show her boss, indeed, a nativity scene. And the quiet punchline ensues: “I just didn’t have time to set it up.” No, perhaps not–but, by Kringle, you had time to do everything else that is Krismassy, didn’t you, Mar’?
Later in this brief show Mary asks her best friend, Rhoda, to celebrate Christmas Eve with her. A few minutes earlier, another neighbor had briefly alluded to Rhoda being Jewish by way of Hanukkah, but Mary seems oblivious. She and Rhoda agree to open presents and drink eggnog–to take the sacraments of Kris-mass–in front of the sacred tree.
This was the 1970s. A full generation before this comedy show, however, C. S. Lewis was calling for a separation between what he called “X-mas” and the truly Christian season of Advent and Christmas.
And in his Santa Claus: A Biography (McClelland & Stewart), historian Gerry Bowler reminds us that various Christians have had an ambivalent, if not hostile, reaction to Yuletide celebrations over the centuries. Why? It’s fundamentally because of incongruities between the Christian meaning of the season and the usual alternative: a festival of light, drink, food, and play that issued often in late-night drunkenness, gluttony, and vandalism.
So it’s an old, old story: The attempt to displace or co-opt pagan symbols and practices by the Christian church turns out to be only partially successful, and the pagan alternative shows itself sometimes to be much more resilient–almost as if it represents a perennial alternative in the soul….
We’re not going to get rid of “Kris-mass,” then. Nor should we. I like it as much as the next person, and here I do not raise my Ebenezer. (Sorry about that arch Bible/Dickens pun.)
But just as we Christians try to clearly separate the spring celebration of fertility via the Easter Bunny during Holy Week, so we should try harder to distinguish Yule from Advent, “Kris-mass” from Christmas.
I know we’ve heard this kind of warning a hundred times. But ask yourself: How did the last month go for you, in terms of the relative priority of “Kris-mass” versus Christmas? If we do not pay attention and make good choices, the nativity scene does get reduced to a mere ornament, a decoration we can set up–if we have time to do it, of course.