Ryan Bell is “Claiming Christmas for Humanism”: “whether or not Jesus was a real historical person, the legends about his birth and the counterintuitive announcement of peace and human flourishing make Christmas a beautiful humanist holiday.” (Go read the rest.)
Hey, in a world where people salivate over Marvel, Disney, and Lucasfilm joining forces, with a culture that can support subversively and ironically humanizing phenomena like Comic-Con and Star Wars conventions, and when the ancient tradition of reimagining old stories is chugging along with renewed (rebooted?) strength, there’s no reason why a story involving infanticide, other-worldly messengers, gritty shepherds, exotic magicians, and a subvert-the-powers-that-be vibe can’t be added to the mix.
And for me, Christmas has only improved with distance from the culture of Christianity. There’s no reason to pretend that we’re still using the Christian liturgical cycle to order our society or maintain solidarity, so why not step back and look at what we actually do with Christmas? It’s part of a big, nearly-three-month cycle of U.S. culture that manages to sweep up lots and lots of our culture in a wide array of festivities and contemplations.
It begins in October with a celebration of horror, death, humor, and sex. Interestingly, the family vs. friends dynamic for this celebration is relatively fluid—if you have young kids, you’re with them; otherwise, do as you please! Either way, be sure to push the limits. Explore the fine line between horror and hilarity. Cosplay at the boundaries of the sense of self, and wonder at the natural totemism of a kid dressed up as a monster. If you’re not spending the evening with the kiddies, then transcend convention by drinking a lot, and getting laid while wearing a costume. Contemplate death. This one is about ritual decoherence.
Having blazed quickly through an overtly raucous existential combo, we move into a strange, more interiorized phase where we wrestle with a variety of problems: incoherence from deseasonalization through globalization (“harvest” means almost nothing to most people anymore, but we keep the imagery, which becomes ironic because most of us are engulfed in plenty year-round); the question of whether “Christmas” decorations should start to go up yet (which I interpret as a manifestation of guilt arising from the tension between our need for lengthy celebration and our drive to work as much as possible); and an obligation and a desire to express gratitude and contingency (which can sometimes be a challenging mental state to reach, given the year-round plenty that we’re also failing to make sense of), culminating in Thanksgiving, which is solidly a family event. No wild sex involved. This one isn’t about transcending conventions, but embodying them, getting our feet back on the ground after the haze of Halloween.
Then we drop the interiorized stuff, jump into overt consumerism and gluttony, move temporarily away from the family (now’s the time for awkward office parties!), eat and drink to excess, listen to sentimental music, put up our most intense decorations of the year, and begin the terrifying slide back to the family core, culminating in the Christmas Eve—Christmas Day cycle that is so oddly syncretistic that one of the most common traditional threads is having distinct, family-unique traditions. (When does your family open presents? What food does your family eat? Does your family always go see a movie together? Attend church together?) Now that you’ve decohered into death, re-embodied convention, and spread yourself too thin, it’s time to hook back into your own nativity. This is the great star of the holiday cycle.
And then, finally, there’s a weird pause, where we’re all in this supersaturated state of peaceful (or is it just relieved?) afterglow for a few days, and the whole thing finishes with a bang-up party to celebrate the coming of the New Year. And it’s decidedly not a family-centered event: now is the time to get back with friends, let down your hair, and be relieved of the pressures and appearances of the family Christmas gathering. The New Year’s party has an interesting symmetry with Halloween in that sense, where humor and sex have survived the cycle, but horror and death are as far away as can be.
After all of that, go for a single jog or take a single trip to the gym, and eat healthily for a day or two, to symbolize your new resolve to live better, and then get back to work.