What Do We Believe at Christmas?
It’s hard to remember sometimes that Christmas is a religious holiday — not just a school vacation, mandatory shopping season, and reliable catalyst of family conflict. If it weren’t for the occasional old-time carol slipping in between chestnuts and reindeer on the December playlist, one might reasonably wonder what this all has to do with a tiny slumbering deity in some backwater town in Galilee.
One might wonder that anyway. The Gospel of Mark, the oldest of the gospels and thus presumably closest to historical truth, contains no record of Jesus’s birth, and there is reasonable cause to suppose that this date in late December was tacked on as an afterthought, maybe because it coincides with popular pagan festivals that people were celebrating anyway. The tree, the reindeer (which as I understand it are close cousins of caribou), and the fat bearded elf obviously have their origins in northern Europe, which Christianity scarcely penetrated for the first thousand years of its existence. None of this seems to bother anybody — it certainly doesn’t bother me — but it does suggest that actual belief in what we’re ostensibly celebrating takes a back seat to tradition and to the general spirit of the occasion, which is all about kids and love and fun. All of which, I think we can agree, are worth taking a day off for.
Still there is a kind of vacuum here: a void between the idea of Christmas and the reality, so to speak, of Christmas on the ground. The void is probably greater in Maine than other places, seeing as how we rank among the least religious states in the nation. (In a 2009 Gallup survey [http://www.gallup.com/poll/114022/state-states-importance-religion.aspx], we tied for third-from-the-bottom with godless Massachusetts, exceeded in our lack of devoutness only by New Hampshire and Vermont.) That doesn’t seem to impede our full-body embrace of the holiday spirit — Christmas in Maine is observed as wholeheartedly as I’ve seen anywhere — but it begs the question of fundamental belief. I mean, what are we really doing this for?
Most of the year (like most people, I expect), I get along fine without giving much thought to what I actually believe in. I believe in something, and if pressed I can come up with a list of specific ideals: love and truth and human kindness, charity to the poor, fairness to everyone, freedom from worldly or spiritual oppression. All kind of weak tea, in a way. Anyone who drives an old Subaru would probably sign the same petition. I might put forth one or two controversial notions — that art trumps politics, or patriotism is a refuge for the thought-impaired. But none of this seem big enough, transcendent enough, to constitute a genuine system of belief. Yet I persist in thinking that I have a system of belief. I just have trouble pinning it to the mat.
The folks most conscious of the religious character of Christmas, in my experience, are those who don’t celebrate it at all (or maybe just embrace some of its tangential features, like presents for the wee folk), and people who observe it with absolute piety. I don’t really know many of the latter. But many folks I know fall into the non-observant or strictly secular category. They may be Jewish or Buddhist or atheist. A few are seriously neo-pagan, like my student Zeb who has spent the past week wishing everyone a happy Yule. What they have in common is standing outside the predominantly (if often nominally) Christian mainstream. They might do some Christmasy stuff anyway — who wants their kids to be the only ones not going back to school with a new iDevice? — but Jesus has nothing to do with it.
Over the years I’ve taken a couple a couple of those online surveys that purport to tell you where you stand, belief-wise, in comparison with a range of contemporary faiths. The best one, whose website now appears to be broken, was created by the University or Oregon and embraces both religious and non-religious systems of belief. Another, run by Beliefnet.com, is worth taking for fun, though I seriously question its reliability (as, I suspect, do the creators: “Even if YOU don't know what faith you are, Belief-O-Matic™ knows”). For the record, I scored a 100% match with Unitarianism, whose chief religious icon, from what I can tell, is either a rainbow flag or a coffee urn.
Thank God (Odin, Nature, Guru Dev, Absolute Truth) Christmas comes only once a year. I don’t mind buying presents, but wondering what it really means takes a lot of the fun out of it.