From Rev Rex Hunt
Christmas and Popular Culture.
I preached/gave this at a Unitarian Fellowship in Sydney last Sunday.
[Comments welcome at ‘Leave a reply’, above]
I’ll call him Merv. A young Sydney Anglican minister fighting Christmas crowds.
Looking for a special gift at one shop,
a toy another place, a card at still another.
Eventually he finds something he likes, or more importantly,
that he thinks someone else will like.
The salesperson wishes him a ‘Merry Christmas’ as she hands back his purchase and change.
Merv responds with a smile and a cheerful, “Have a materialistic Christmas.”
Apparently the saleswoman misses the sarcasm,
for she returns the smile before moving on to her next customer.
Pleased with his protest, Merv moves on, too.
Not only is he determined to avoid the frantic shopping crowds
that seem to grab everyone else in December,
he will make a statement as well.
The Christmas that Australians celebrate today seems like a timeless weaving of
custom and feeling beyond the reach of ordinary history.
Yet the familiar mix of cards, carols, parties, presents, tree, and Santa
that have come to define December 25 is little more than 135 years old.
In 1788 when the First Fleet arrived from England, Governor Arthur Phillip not only established a penal colony he also won the land for ‘protestant’ Christianity. (Breward 1988:2)
According to some historians Phillip saw religion as a “useful package of warnings and admonitions that supplemented the cell, chains, the lash, the gallows, or the rewards and remissions for good conduct.” (Blainey 1987:429)
Hence christianity was in the main rejected by the convicts and only slightly embraced by the free settlers in latter years. Which has led others to conclude that in Australia, Christianity has always been rather a casual affair. And at best, the nation was only ever superficially christianised.
As an event in Australian society, Christmas in the early days of the colony held little importance. Unless Christmas Day fell on a Sunday a holiday was not declared. And the day was usually celebrated with a compulsory Anglican church parade or, if punishment had to be administered to a convict, perhaps a reduction in the sentence was ordered.
It would appear that on Christmas Day in 1788 a convict was arrested for stealing and,
because it was Christmas Day, had his sentence of 200 lashes reduced to 150.
At other times, a double share of rum and rations was offered.
It wasn’t until the mid- to late- 1800s that much of what we in Australia identify as ‘Christmas’ was really celebrated.
And this came about as the result of the influence of several events, primarily in England and America, including changes in technology, the development of the ‘penny post’ system, and
at least three samplings from within popular culture:
(i) an imaginative poem written by a protestant American minister of religion for his three daughters, called ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’;
(ii) some art sketches inspired by that poem, along with a series of commercial advertisements for an American soft drink manufacturer, and
(iii) a Christmas morality story published in England by Charles Dickens
originally called A Christmas Carol, in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.
Much later, when Christmas did begin to influence the social and religious life of the colony,
it was mostly through secular ‘nostalgia’ rather than religious leanings.
Old customs and symbols such as the tree and presents were yearned for, and the arrival of food stuffs and other items were eagerly awaited as ships from England docked in December.
These old traditions were never totally abandoned, but aspects of the festival were ‘Australianised’ and became increasingly nationalistic. Australian Christmas Card art competitions were held, with cash prizes. The small tree, aptly named ‘Christmas Bush’,
which was growing in great abundance around Sydney, became a popular substitute for the fir (Christmas) tree.
And while American artist Thomas Nast introduced a ‘winter’ Santa Claus to the world in the 1860s, some enterprising Australian artists a few years later, gave him a cooler ‘summer’ outfit,
complete with kangaroo driven sleigh.
It was a big transition to form a southern Christmas in peoples imaginations when for so long the Christmas imagery focused on the north with mid-winter snow on a fir tree and a log fire in the grate!
In a well-known example, let me mention the metaphor of ‘light’, a primary symbol during the Christmas festive season. In southern hemisphere time, we are actually in the midst of summer, when the days are at their longest and the nights their shortest.
Light is something we have in abundance in December and January. As with a northern hemisphere winter Christmas, we do not feel devoid of light. In fact, especially when the glare of the scorching summer sun is at its harshest, we seek deliberately to escape from the light
and retreat into the cool of the darkness for refreshment and relief.
Since its inception Christmas has been debated, ignored, celebrated, banned, and reshaped.
As a pre-Christian festival, its traditions go way back in time to changes in the seasons and the affects these changes had on people, their social life, and work situations.
As a Christian event, the so-called “Feast of the Nativity of our Lord” didn’t make the church calendar of feasts until well into the 4th century. And then as a result of a series of mixed motives, including the take-over of a number of rival so-called ‘pagan’ festivals.
Such a ‘take-over’ seems to be the pattern of Christianity. “Expansionist religions like Christianity,” writes Australian Roland Boer, “work by taking over and appropriating the symbols and practices of a whole range of non Christian belief systems.” (Boer 2000:41-42)
And the church did this all over Europe.
In one of the older so-called ‘pagan’ ceremonies, the northerners drank themselves into helplessness. The church tried to stop it, but they couldn’t. So they said: ‘If you drink the first goblet to Christ, it will be approved!’
In popular belief it is said the foundational stories of Christmas can be found in the nativity stories of the anonymous storytellers we call Matthew and Luke, in the Christian scriptures.
Both stories, very different from each other in general shape, atmosphere and content,
came rather later in the biblical tradition – probably anything from 85 – 125CE.
As a former seminary professor of mine has written:
“… Luke’s account is full of strong, vibrant, bright colours with just a hint of umbers in the background. The other, Matthew’s account, is rich but sombre, darkly hued, and strangely shaded. Luke tells a cheerful tale, a buoyant, hopeful, joyous tale. Matthew tells a gothic tale, fascinating, disturbing, disquieting.” (Griffin 1982:55)
“Matthew tells a gothic tale…”. Have you ever heard Christmas described as that?
We should have. Because in both stories there are strong political undertones.
An oppressive Empire and resistance to it lies beneath the early Christian stories.
Eric Stephenson gave a similar clue about this in his Easter Address
five years ago in this place.
But for centuries these undertones have been downplayed because we have domesticated the stories.
Of these two stories, one, Luke’s birth story of Jesus of Nazareth, has had an enormous influence on the popular religious imagination. For many Christians, for example, Luke’s story is the Christmas story, even though the birth itself is only briefly mentioned and is not really the focus of the story.
So why these stories? Scholars suggest there are two possible ways of accounting for their creation. I will only mention one: the comparative study of hellenistic biographies.
To account for Jesus’ unusual life and noble death in terms that enhance his comparison with other famous people, the nativity stories mimic the pattern of Hellenistic biography
where the stories of their heroes lives were read and interpreted backwards.
Each biography followed a set structure of at least five elements:
(i) a genealogy revealing illustrious ancestors,
(ii) an unusual, mysterious, or miraculous conception,
(iii) an annunciation by an angel or in a dream,
(iv) a birth accompanied by supernatural portents, and
(v) praise or forecast of great things to come, or persecution by a potential competitor.
In general terms these five elements can be found in both Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy stories.
Now, while the Christian religious ‘infancy stories’ may have provided
the fundamental rationale for the festival within the institutional church,
even giving the festival its original core, for the most part and for most people,
they no longer function as determinative.
From the beginning the church’s hold over Christmas was and remains still, rather tenuous.
True, it seems there will always be people in our multicultural, multi-faith 21st Century for whom Christmas is a pious devotion rather than a popular festival, but such pious people are and were always in the minority.
For many people today Christmas is just that… Christmas! An accepted part of the annual cycle of events, and something to be entered into and enjoyed.
No matter how vehemently preachers or church-going folk might decry the fact, or stage mock assassinations of Santa Claus seeking newspaper headlines, “the Christian feast integrated certain originally non-Christian elements, and that has remained precisely the case down to the present moment… Christmas is firmly established in its socio-cultural environment, in terms of that environment.”
(Roll 1995:257, 269)
British scholar Daniel Millar suggests that a modern controversy which now surrounds Christmas is whether or not the most powerful of all forces, that of the modern wrinkle called ‘commerce’, “has been so successful in its appropriation as to overturn and then destroy the spirit of Christmas celebrated by Dickens.” (Millar 1993:4)
It is true retailers and advertisers do seduce us into overspending in November and December,
but it is just as true that we, the spending public, encourage such an economic cycle.
We willingly participate in the escalation. While many in the traditional church would seem to agree that ‘commerce’ is the problem, few want to concede that a ‘loss’ is the Dickens sentimentalism.
So this Christmas, dreaming of a Berlin/Crosby ‘white’ one, could be influenced by some Dickens-type nostalgia that never really was.
Both the pre-Christian folk-festivals and modern popular culture celebrations
are essentially life-affirming. They say ‘yes’ to life.
Such a view stands in sharp contrast to much evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity
with its unchanging, interventionist sky god, and which seems to be “pessimistic as regards this earth, and value[s] it only as a place of discipline for the life to come.” (Miles 1912/76:25)
We need to reshape a broader response to this festival, rather than continue to dismiss or criticise it with the often puritanical and pious claims that in this festival, ‘culture/consumerism’ have marginalised ‘religion’.
Catholic priest and theologian John Shea, says of Christmas that it is a “mighty mess of experience, tradition, Bible and imagination.” (Shea 1993:15)
He also suggests it is more fun to contribute to the mess than to try to straighten it out.
Thus ‘religion’ – however you want to understand that word – should consider adopting
such a strategy as suggested by Shea, in its efforts to find new ways of making connection with the culture in which it finds itself sharing the modern Christmas festival.
The purpose of the customs, colours, and legends of Christmas is to make available its essential Spirit. And it could do this by engaging the mind imagining rather than just engaging the mind thinking.
Thus I would suggest the ‘problem’ with the modern Christmas is not commercialisation…
The problem is, there is no longer any ‘surprise’.
Both religion and the business world encourage us to ‘celebrate’ but their messages are rehashed and blatant. There is no surprise. There is no subtlety. Familiarity is a hindrance.
A Christmas that walks around naked will never be noticed. It needs a strategically placed sprig of holly for allure!
I began with Merv on a shopping spree. Let me return to that story occasion…
Merv had made a protest. But what about the saleswoman? Had she understood the sarcasm, she would only have felt hassled. Converted to his opinion? Not by this display of arrogance.
As for himself, Merv had simply found another way of being distracted during the festive season. He does not understand the subtlety of Christmas.
Let me offer two related unConcluding comments:
(i) Christmas is the festival of life. At its best it is a mirror in which we see reflected the very best life can be. Where we see ourselves moved by generosity, inspired by hope, and uplifted by love, not only for ourselves but for the whole universe.
And it would never have achieved the level of importance which it enjoys today unless it had struck deep folk roots, and called forth a natural, spontaneous human response. (Roll 1995:271)
No wonder popular culture wins out all the time! Indeed, it may not be going too far to say that Christmas has always been an extremely difficult occasion to christianise!
(ii) To be religious in the 21st century will be to dispense with the natural/supernatural dichotomy, and reassert a life-affirming belief and lifestyle, which:
• maximises the future of all living creatures, whose destiny is increasingly in our hands;
• values, more than ever, the importance of the human relationships which bind us together into social groups, and
• works towards a fully humane world within the ecological restraints here on planet earth, while standing in awe before the profound mysteries of existence.
So at the commencement of this southern hemisphere ‘Season of Light’
expressed so eloquently in the candles of the annual Carols by Candlelight,
I thought I would leave my final word to one of the ‘saints’ of popular culture – Spike Milligan:
“And God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light, but the electricity board
said he would have to wait until Thursday to be connected.”
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Boer, R. “Bilbies, Gumnuts and Thanksgiving, or the Commodified Religious Imagination in Australia and America” in Australian Religious Studies Review 13, 1, Autumn, 40-55, 2000
Breward, I. Australia. The Most Godless Place Under Heaven. Mitcham. Beacon Hill Books, 1988
Frazier, R. T. 1992. “Christmas Should be Softly Spoken” in Quarterly Review: A Journal of Theological Resources for Ministry 12, 4, Winter, 69-74
Griffin, G. “The Colour of Joy” in N. Watson. (ed) Jesus Christ for Us. Reflections on the Meaning of Christ Appropriate to Advent and Christmas. Melbourne. JBCE, 1982
Haydon, A. E. “Christmas… A Symbol” in Religious Humanism 7, 4, (Autumn 1973), 230-236
Hunt, R. A. E. Cards, Carols, and Claus: Christmas in Popular Culture and Progressive Christianity. Northcote. Morning Star Publishing, 2013
Miller, D. (ed) Unwrapping Christmas. Oxford. Clarendon/Oxford University Press, 1993
Miles, C. A. Christmas Customs and Traditions. Their History and Significance. New York. Dover Publications, 1912/76
Nissenbaum, S. The Battle for Christmas. A Cultural History of America’s Most Cherished Holiday. New York. Vintage Books, 1996
Roll, S. K. Toward the Origins of Christmas. Kampen. Kok Pharos Publishing House, 1995
Shea, J. Starlight. Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long. New York. Crossroad, 1993
Spong, J. S. “A Post Christmas Look Back at the Stories of Jesus’ Birth”. Newsletter, 12 January, 2006
Wilson, B. “The Church in a Secular Society” in D. Harris, D Hynd, & D Millikan. (ed) The Shape of Belief. Christianity in Australia Today. Homebush. Lancer Books, 1982
© Rex A E Hunt
Spirit of Life Unitarian Fellowship
2 December 2018