Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Do We Really Hang the Christmas Decorations Too Early?

“They’re putting the Christmas decorations up before Halloween!” I remember my father’s Mall Saturday complaints like they were yesterday. “Remember when they usedta wait until at least Thanksgiving? Now it’s like they can’t wait for the year to be over!” Mom would nod along, sometimes interjecting something like, “They don’t respect the value of Advent anymore.” As a young, impressionable kid, I believed every word they said.

In recent years, I heard the same words dribbling off my lips. “Remember,” I told my then-girlfriend while cruising the local mall, “when they usedta wait until at least Thanksgiving?” Because in my head, I did remember it, even though the memory was implanted by my parents’ retellings, not personal experience. Complaining about early Christmas decorations in commercial settings has become a seasonal tradition as established as the tree.

This struck me recently while reading acclaimed religious historian Mircea Eliade. In a term guaranteed to tweak Doctor Who fans everywhere, Eliade speaks of “The Regeneration of Time,” an important function of early literate religion. Important year-end festivals, generally associated with fall harvest or spring planting, featured ritual reenactment of the Creation of the World. These were generally acted out, the beginning of Theatre.

After early Christians purged Theatre from Europe in an attempt to exorcise pagan influences, the art form re-emerged about a millennium ago, as part of Latin Easter ceremonies, which concluded the liturgical year. The faithful would reenact, not the Creation, but the Redemption of the World, in Gregorian chant. As in Babylon and Egypt, the old year ended with the dead emerging to walk the earth, though for benevolent purposes.

When European Christians moved the commencement of the New Year from April to January, perhaps to offset the influence of pre-Christian Saturnalia rituals, the dramatic emphasis moved onto Christmas. Now not the end, but the beginning of the liturgical year gained prominence. Some churches today practice Easter dramas, but nearly every mainline denomination performs the Birth and Annunciation of Jesus, usually (but not always) in child drama form.

Think about that. For one evening, our children ritually become the Holy Family, the angels and shepherds, the magi. Not perform these roles, ritually become them. These long-dead saints become alive during religious ritual. The New Year, which usually marks a pass-through point between the living and the dead (consider the Celtic Samhain traditions), is embodied when some of Christianity’s holiest saints walt among the congregants for an hour.

In Euro-American tradition, the temporary reemergence of the dead on living soil has largely died out. Besides the Scandinavian ghost story tradition or Krampus parades, little of the New Year’s frequently terrifying supernatural tradition survives. Yet fundamentally, we still have some vestige of this awareness. Whether eggnog toasts for the loved departed, or New Year’s resolutions solemnly written and tossed into the Yule fire, we still bury our dead at midwinter.

How does this relate to mall Christmas decorations? Consider a moment Michel Foucault’s famous question: “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” Add malls to that question: huge, block-shaped buildings with few windows and controlled, antiseptic interiors. They all promise salvation, but not outside, not in nature; only by surrendering yourself to the shiny yet dark, crowded yet impersonal space.

Today’s modern world, with its ahistorical architecture, quantity-based work attitudes, and commercialism, goes against human desires. Dr. Stephen Ilardi, of the University of Kansas, asserts that depression is so widespread in America partly because we spend much of our lives indoors, seated, alone.Our bodies and brains aren’t built for such environments. From factories and cube farms, to airless schools, to mausoleum-like malls, we already feel partly dead.

Therefore we welcome Christmas, and reward merchants with our money for decorating their trees and playing carols before the Equinox, because we want to die. We want to pass through the New Year’s tomb and emerge beyond, hoping next year will seem truly real. This flesh, conditioned as it is to a noisy, inhumane, materialistic world, longs for death, because we believe Heaven, Nirvana, or whatever, waits beyond the river.

We usually don’t consider Christmas a morbid holiday. But it inevitably involves burying Last Year’s painful, mortifying baggage, and the liturgical recreation of humanity with the New Year. Yes, malls cynically want to make money selling cheap plastic crap, but they don’t do it alone. We give them power to hasten Christmas because we want Last Year, with its pains, to die. So we can be reborn.

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