The last time my father visited, I learned what seemed a remarkable thing: all three of his best friends in high school were Jewish. He grew up in Poughkeepsie, an hour from New York City by train. But I grew up four hours north of Poughkeepsie, and what a difference a few hours' drive can make. I remember only one kid from my high school whom everybody knew as Jewish: his name was Ben, he played tennis and the violin, and he put up with an awful lot of abuse from his circle of friends. He'd make a joke, and one of them would say something like, "Shut up, Jew." I don't think his friends actually cared about his being Jewish -- it was just an easy, stupid shot. For a long time, I couldn't understand how he took it the way he did. Finally, I decided that it must be that these were his friends -- where else was he going to go? So he learned to swallow it. It probably helped that they weren't really serious. As for me, I was friends with a half-Jew in elementary school, but his mother was Catholic, so you can bet he celebrated Christmas like the rest of us.
It's interesting that the place you decided to start was with the Jews, your father's friends, your own friend. Christmas has to start with the Jews, I guess, no matter where you start. It was Jews who were killed by Herod and Jews who were chased into Egypt by him, pregnant with the future, and Jews whose testimony later became the Christmas story. But though in my childhood I would sometimes help neighbors decorate their Christmas trees with tinsel -- we would never have had one and never felt deprived: "That's what they do, not what we do" -- in later years much of the holiday involved explaining over and over that Hanukkah had nothing to do with Christmas; it was just an accident that it came at the same time of year, and it was not the most important Jewish holiday by a long shot. I didn't know at the time that the Christmas celebrations we all know were more or less the invention of 18th-century Germany and 19th-century England (and Charles Dickens), while Hanukkah had been celebrated more or less the same way for over a thousand years. When I was a child, Christmas was the world, Hanukkah only at home.
The name-calling you described was painful to hear, but your adult understanding of Ben's having no choice was touching. For a good bit of my childhood I was like Ben. We lived in Reseda, in the San Fernando Valley of L.A., when the tracts were just being built. Almost all my neighbors were non-Jews except during one short period. Christmas was everywhere; Hanukkah, Passover, Rosh Hashanah we found privately at the synagogue or at my grandparents' or my great aunt and uncle's in L.A. The exceptional period occurred in the year or two during which my next-door neighbors were my friend Mark and his family. I call him my friend because we had both the neighborhood and being Jewish in common. We went horseback riding in Griffith Park on our birthdays (I still have a picture, him on a horse several hands taller than mine), and we would do what today kids call "just hanging out." He was twice as big as I was and once socked a kid in the mouth on the playground who was making some nasty comment about the Jews. To me he was a hero, like the Maccabees of the Hanukkah story. But he moved away, and there I was again, alone among the gentiles.
Jews on horseback? That doesn't fit with what I learned from Roth's Portnoy, marveling at a goy who "played polo (yes, games from on top of a horse!) on Sunday afternoons...." It's a complicated world.
We learned Hanukkah songs in elementary school about spinning the dreidel and dancing the hora, but I had no idea what any of it meant. I didn't know why you spun dreidels and danced horas. I didn't know why you lit candles on the menorah. I didn't know why you got one present a night for eight nights. It wasn't like Passover -- that, I understood from hearing the readings of the Old Testament in church. And I had attended a seder with my parents during our brief sojourn in Boston -- my dad worked with Lawrence Kohlberg, a noted developmental psychologist. But Hanukkah just seemed like a pitiful Christmas wannabe: "See, we have decorations!" Yeah, but what's a menorah compared to the complete transformation of a house that Christmas not merely makes possible, but invites -- even demands? "See, we have presents!" One present a night for eight nights? Sad, really. Check out the orgy of delight a Christian gets on Christmas morning, when half the joy is the sheer scope of it: so many presents for so many people, and all at once. "See, we have traditions!" Hello? Christmas carols? Stockings? Specials on television? Christmas trees? We even had a literature of Christmas: "The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus." "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas. A Christmas Carol. "A Child's Christmas in Wales." "The Gift of the Magi." And on and on. It wasn't that I gloated over Christmas's rout of Hanukkah. It's that I really didn't give it much thought beyond "It's not the real deal."
There's no doubt that Christmas beat Hanukkah in amount of public activity surrounding it and the quantity and size of presents. On the other hand, Hanukkah lasted longer. We got chocolate coins and other little gifts every night for eight days, and we got to eat potato pancakes, fried in oil, with salt, which I loved far more than anything in the fruitcake or candy cane line. This didn't make me feel superior or luckier; neither did I feel deprived. Christians love sweets; Jews love salt -- as it seemed to me then. That's just the way it was.
Wait a second -- Jews love salt, while Christians love sweets? That doesn't exactly square with what I remember from Jackie Mason: "After the show, the gentiles will say to each other, 'Let's get a drink.' The Jews will say, 'You want to go for a piece of cake?' " And the pastry counter at D.Z. Akin's is nothing short of breathtaking (or maybe heart-stopping). For me, eating at Christmas was less about candy and more about Christmas dinner, which often meant beef tenderloin with béarnaise sauce, which I'm just now realizing isn't kosher, mixing dairy and meat the way it does. But it's funny you mention potato pancakes. I was in Extraordinary Desserts up in Hillcrest, picking up some strudel and chocolate brioche, and I spied this little book from children's author Lemony Snicket: The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story. Except it's not exactly a Christmas story -- it's a story about a latke who escapes his Jewish home (a home "regarded with suspicion," thanks to its lack of Christmas lights), only to find that he's not exactly understood by the outside (read: Christian) world. "I'm something completely different!" he screams -- to no avail.
I concede on the sweets and salt. I knew it was a narrow view. But I was just a kid. And yes, Jackie Mason has a routine about Jews eating cake -- but it's coffee cake, not the food-coloring-dyed icing-topped candy-studded kind. What Jackie Mason really said about telling a Jew from a gentile was this: "I'll tell you who's a Jew and who's a gentile. You can always tell a Jew and a gentile. After the show tonight, what will every gentile say? 'Go for a drink? Drink? Have a drink? Drink?' What'll every Jew say? 'Did you eat yet?' " Jackie Mason I know by heart.
And you're also right about horses. As an old punch line went, "What's a Jew doing on a horse?" Though Mark was braver than I, we both, true to the genes, knew nothing from horses -- except that the thing Southern California boys did to celebrate a birthday in the '50s was to go horseback riding in Griffith Park, by which was meant going and coming along a dusty, familiar, fenced trail on the back of an old jade who knew the drill by heart. I've learned a little more about horses since (also on the farm of my teacher), but not enough to convert.
The real difference in our experience is that when you were young, you didn't give Hanukkah much thought. Christmas was the real deal, and Hanukkah was not much in evidence and required little of your attention. For me there was no such luxury, because Christmas, of course, was everywhere, inescapable. Inevitable Christmas-carol Muzak in the stores, Santa Claus putting in an appearance somehow on every one of my favorite TV comedy shows, and all those lights on the houses and reindeer in the front yards. This is why my sister observes that "on Christmas Jews huddle." Not because they have to, like the Jews of medieval (and later) Europe, who had better huddle to avoid massacre by mobs driven to frenzy by blood-libeling Easter sermonizers. No, thank God. But because anyone would want to huddle when confronted by nearly everybody else's celebrating an event of such cosmic niceness that if you didn't believe in it you were probably going to be damned.
It wasn't until I was in college and began to learn the great profundity of Christianity and of its art that I began to see that Christmas might be a true vehicle of grace for Christians, even though it would not be that for me. My greatest teacher was a Christian, and being at her house during the Christmas season was a joy because being at her house anytime was a joy. And she was a true lover of the Jews -- not tolerant, not patient, not patronizing, not suspicious. She could be a Christian and let the Jews be Jews and the Hindus be Hindus and the Buddhists be Buddhists. And she knew them often better than they knew themselves. Being with her at Christmas was a path to discovering not only what it meant spiritually to be a Christian but also what it meant spiritually to be a Jew. It is because of her that I grew to realize that all true paths lead to the center.
A few bleats of protest: While I'm pretty sure that you know more about mobs driven to frenzy by blood-libelers than I do, do you have to bring in the suggestion of damnation to explain huddling? As Christian moments go, the Incarnation at Christmas is about as far away from the Judgment as you can get. The Judgment -- whether the personal judgment at death or the general judgment at the end of the world -- does involve the separation of the wheat from the tares, with Christ commanding the evildoers to depart. The Incarnation, however, is a moment of supreme condescension ("cosmic niceness" is excellent), an affirmation of common humanity. As you note in your thought about Christmas starting with the Jews, God became not just a human child, but a Jewish human child, albeit one who would extend the promise of God's salvation to the gentile world. The angels sang of peace to men of goodwill -- a pretty inclusive offer. Couldn't the huddling be explained another way: "The whole country is throwing a birthday party, and we are unable to accept the invitation." Unable, not because you were probably damned, but because you didn't believe that the birthday boy was God -- which strikes me as not quite the same thing.
I like that about not being able to accept the invitation. But I didn't mean it was because we thought we were damned. We knew God better than that. And you're right that an issue was not made of the differences on Christmas by our neighbors. It was we who knew that we shouldn't be fraternizing with those who believed "the birthday boy was God." From our point of view, that would be sending the wrong message to one another, and to God.
Since then, having learned that Christmas was really about Incarnation and Salvation, as you say, I have tried my best to teach post-"there is no Santa Claus" kids in my classes that there really is a Santa Claus. The love embodied in the parental and fraternal and childlike joy of giving and receiving on Christmas is Santa Claus, and anyone who doesn't believe in that spirit is a goner. Incidentally, Santa has also proven very useful to me in trying to explain Shakespeare's inherited theory of the four humors: Santa being a classic example of the sanguine complexion or temperament -- red-faced, fleshy, and jovial (the other three being the phlegmatic, the melancholic, and the choleric).
I take your point about Christmas-culture's relatively recent foundations compared to Hanukkah, but I'm happy to quibble. Christmas trees, according to the legend I heard recited by Garrison Keillor, were invented by Martin Luther in the early 16th Century and are supposed to symbolize the fusion of heaven and earth at the Incarnation -- the lights on the tree standing in for the stars among the branches. (Makes you wonder if the iconoclasts, for all their hatred of graven images, were somehow haunted by the desire for sensible reminders of the spiritual world.)
Starlight amid branches -- how restrained, how tasteful. Could almost be a Martha Stewart cover. Not so, the Lickona family trees. There was in my family a good bit of Irish restraint, but our trees were positively baroque -- laden, crammed, balanced only in the sense that there was an equal distribution of excess. We always got something tall enough to scrape our ten-foot ceiling and broad enough to fill the bay window in the living room, trudging up a snow-covered hill to pick out the perfect specimen, sawing it down, hauling it out, and paying the tree farmer a dollar a foot. Small-town folk that we were, we had never heard of tree nets, so the monster rode on top of our car in all its wide-bottomed glory and had to be negotiated through the front door with supreme care and suppressed curses. Dad spent a couple of hours anchoring the trunk to the wall with a pair of guy wires to keep it straight, and then it was time for decorating. Oddly enough, the musical accompaniment I remember best was an album of carols sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Mormon we weren't.
I can't resist the urge to reel off a list of adornments -- if only because it's amazing to me how well I remember them, some 15 years after my last tree-trimming session in New York. This is straight from the top of my head: first, the strands of glass cranberries. Then the white lights. Then the colored lights -- they blinked. Then the giant, midcentury colored lights that didn't blink. Then the tinsel. And on to the decorations, starting with the basic balls in various colors, then the glass teardrops from the '40s, the homemade Play-Doh jobs that my brother and I had made, the homemade Stitch N' Stuff angels my mother had made, the tin figures from Mother Goose, angels of all shapes and sizes, on and on and on....
And finally and most gloriously, the ever-expanding array of "special" ornaments, a new one each year. A hugely maned lion, recalling the time Mom read C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia aloud to me. A glass heart, drizzled with gold, that my mother bought in Dubrovnik during our pilgrimage to Yugoslavia. A hand-painted glass ball covered with butterflies from the year my mother's mother died (and thereby hangs a tale). A terra-cotta angel from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, recalling our two years in that city. There must be something like 30 of them now, and they made for a potent introduction to nostalgia -- the family history dangling from the branches. I remember sitting in the living room after midnight, back during my junior year of college, the room lit only by the twinkling from the newly finished tree -- and marveling at the sight. It isn't often that I can just sit and look at one thing for any great length of time -- I'm afraid I'm something of a modern soul in that regard. But on that night, 15 years ago, I enjoyed something approaching contemplation.
On with the quibbling, even though you probably know a lot of this: St. Nicholas, of course, dates back to the 4th Century, and gift giving in his honor (including stockings stuffed with goodies) has been going on for some time, though not necessarily on Christmas. As for us, Mom sewed our stockings and embroidered our names across the part that folded over, up at the top. I still have mine. St. Francis developed the first crèche way back in the 13th Century. Laying it out was always the highlight of the house decorating, which usually took place well before the tree decorating. (That sometimes waited until Christmas Eve.) The great white Christmas tree candle that never seemed to melt, the wreath on the door, the whimsical ceramic figurines, the tinsel around the spindles of the stair banister -- all these were dressing. But the crèche set signified -- as much by what was left out as by what was put in. Angels, animals, shepherds, wise men, Mary, Joseph, and even the crib -- all took their place upon the pillowy pile of straw. But the baby Jesus never appeared until Christmas morning. And that meant something. As the billboards along the 94 say, "Jesus is the (only) reason for the season."
So, yes, Christmas can be "a vehicle of grace for Christians." But I'm happy to claim that it's in spite of everything, not because of it. I think Christians lost Christmas a long time ago and that those billboards are proof. When you have to buy a sign by the side of the road to tell people the point of all their shopping, all their preparation, all their festivity; when you have to remind them that this is a birthday party for God, then you've already lost the war. You're fighting a rearguard action, hoping to pick up a few stragglers. It's not like Easter. Despite the baskets, the egg hunts, and the Easter Bunny, everybody knows what Easter is about: the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Easter is still a religious holiday. Christmas, on the other hand, feels more like a national holiday with a religious component -- something like Thanksgiving.
I recently read an old interview with Charles Schulz in which he expressed dismay that A Charlie Brown Christmas won an Emmy for Best Children's Special or some such. "We didn't make it for children," he griped, "we made it for adults." Indeed. Charlie Brown's problem with Christmas is an adult problem: he doesn't know what it's "all about." The commercialization of the holiday has stripped it of its meaning. (Incidentally, it just now occurred to me that some people might take Lucy's claim that the holiday is run by "a big Eastern syndicate" as a swipe at the Jews. Sort of like the whole "East Coast bankers" thing I heard once. Not that I think Schulz intended it as such.) But here's the kicker: Linus tells Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about -- "for today is born, in the city of David, a Savior. It is Christ the Lord."
A huge number of people heard that message, but the culture didn't skip a beat; it assimilated A Charlie Brown Christmas, Jesus and all, right into the general mix -- by shunting it off onto the children. "Who knows? Maybe the children will hear the message and take it to heart. But as for us, we have shopping to do." And as children, we watched it, nodded, and went right back to making our lists for Santa. I knew that remembering Jesus was important -- I made it the theme of the Christmas grace one year. But the sign (presents) easily eclipsed the thing signified (the gift of the Incarnation). The world -- louder, brighter, more exciting -- won out. (And oh, wow, I just went browsing around the Peanuts website and found a $145 Peanuts Pals Christmas Celebration Figurine Set, "crafted of hand-painted Lenox ivory fine china accented with 24-karat gold." The gang is gathered around a huge Christmas tree -- the exact opposite of the tiny tree that just needed a little love in the original story. Commerce 1, Christmas 0.)
I know this may sound like sour grapes from a grumpy young man, so let me say that I speak from a measure of experience. My wife and I have five children, but we both came from two-child families, and our natural tendency is to try to create for our children the sort of Christmas we enjoyed. That means each child gets a stocking, a present from Mom and Dad, a present from Santa, and a present from each set of grandparents -- minimum. Somehow, we always end up with a sort of group present for the lot of them, and one or two extra goodies that sneak in from the side.
So much for the children: then there are presents to be bought for each parent, for aunts and uncles, for friends, for siblings and their spouses, and for siblings' children. Everything has to be picked out, shopped for, ordered, wrapped, shipped.... Christmas is simply exhausting and inspires no small amount of dread. Even Christmas Eve Mass is a chore -- it's packed, it runs long, and the children aren't used to sitting still in church during the late afternoon. You don't go to such an event to pray; you go to manage. (We could go Christmas morning, of course, but that would mean putting Mass up against present opening, and who wants to fight that battle? What child could love a God who delayed that supreme Christmas joy?) The holiday season of Advent, intended by the Church to be a time of spiritual preparation for Christ's arrival, is perfectly inverted into a riot of stuff and activity, all in the name of love.
"So what's the problem, Matthew? If you don't like the water in the cultural swamp, step out. Become a Christian who huddles at Christmas. The Christmas season lasts for 12 days on the Church calendar, starting on December 25. Why not wait until the 26th to do your shopping? The kids will gripe for a while, but they'll learn that being Christian doesn't always dovetail with the way of the world -- even when the world is celebrating Christ. There are advantages in belonging to a religion that informs the culture, but there are disadvantages as well -- one of them being that the culture tends to turn around and inform the religion. Come away and be ye separate."
And deny my children the Christmas joys that I recall from my own childhood? Break the chain of tradition? Are you joking?
But enough about me. I would love to hear more about how being with your teacher at Christmas helped you discover what it meant spiritually to be a Christian, and even what it meant spiritually to be a Jew. And I was struck by your line about how she let Jews be Jews and Hindus be Hindus and Buddhists be Buddhists. On the one hand, there is undoubtedly great wisdom in this. I think I get something of what you mean when you say that all true paths lead to the center, and the older I get, the more I understand that we have much to learn from one another. But the Christian is still burdened with Christ's command to "go out and teach all nations." Evangelization is part of what it means to follow Christ. In one sense, the Christian is not allowed to huddle at Christmas -- he has to go out and try to win it back. I wonder if this isn't part of the reason why Christmas got so far into the culture in the first place.
Your complaint about the commercialization and worldliness of the way Christmas is now celebrated is of course well merited. I don't think Schulz did, or anyone else should, blame that on the Jews, even though elevator-music favorites of the season were written by Jews: Irving Berlin, "White Christmas"; Johnny Marks (music) and his brother-in-law Robert L. May (lyrics), "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer"; and Jule Styne (music) and Sammy Cahn (lyrics), "Let It Snow." I am as repulsed as you by the commodification of everything in our age, religious holidays and faith among the rest. (We Jews see it in the ridiculously inflated prices we pay for packaged foods marked "kosher for Passover" before that holiday.)
For me, the reality of Christmas, opened to me at first by my great teacher Mary, was once and for all redeemed from secularism and commercialization by visiting my friends and hers, the poet Philip Thompson and his wife, in New York City during Christmas vacations from graduate school. First of all, their apartment was magnificently adorned with the most marvelous works of art from around the world. And by marvelous I don't mean scary protests against life and the world (like Munch's Scream plastered on every college student's dorm room wall), or abstract expressionist nonsense of the kind debunked in Tom Wolfe's Painted Word, or sentimental art that pretends the world is just fine, or trendy stuff of any sort. I mean moving and beautiful works that make visible the invisible spirits of love, devotion, and adoration of the marvelous works of God's creation. Think Hamlet's "What a piece of work is a man" or Rosalind's Forest of Arden. Fourteenth-century angels in the form of candleholders, a sunburst with the smiling face of the sun in the center, a Renaissance Spanish vargueño, a ceramic elephant from China, a medieval monastic refectory table, and a Mexican painted-clay crèche. At Christmas a tree was added, decorated with the most beautiful of ornaments.
But each year we would leave this tiny museum of treasures and go across town to see the Christmas tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was a two-story tree standing in the central gallery, covered with foot-high painted terra-cotta images of angels from Renaissance Florence. At the foot of the tree, spread out all around it, was the most phenomenal crèche in the word, a hundred people and animals, ox, ass, cows, sheep, shepherds, three magi, and the Holy Family all moving in as one, focusing their attention and imitated motion toward the cradle and the child therein. The face of every figure was unique, perfectly idealized in the Florentine Renaissance way, like a Botticelli painting, and filled with wonder, awe, and love. The total effect was as of a sweeping whoosh of invisible singing angels and a world full of flesh-and-blood beings all pouring love and spirit and wondering awe in toward the center of their own and the world's attention. Philip wrote a poem about it called "Crèche Figures" (available in my published edition of his works, Dusk and Dawn: Poems and Prose of Philip Thompson, available from me at OneMindGoodPress.com or from Amazon.com), which includes the lines "The heaven-tree/ With roots in earth/ Shines all before them/ Where the birth/ Calls bodies to/ An angel consort/ And the Word/ In weakness brings/ Cloud and fire/ Of alien wings."
Philip was called, by a mutual friend, the truest Christian she knew, and she was right. A great poet, a hilarious wit, a savage satirist, brought up in a secular home, he had come to religion as a response to reading the Creation section of Milton's Paradise Lost, went on to study deeply in the works of Augustine, Aquinas, Joachim of Flora, and particularly Bonaventure, and was the clearest and most upright Christian thinker about God, and the most moving embodied voice of Christian love, that I have ever had the good fortune to know personally. His wife, now his widow, is perhaps the best secondary-school teacher of art in the country (a fact recognized by Harvard University in a letter to her school that praised the artistic preparation of students in her program). The two of them so celebrated Christmas and so included me in their joy without preconditions of any kind except friendship, that I have ever after loved Christmas for their sakes and, as much as a Jew can, as they did. If all the world's Christians loved God and the world's Muslims loved Allah as the Thompsons loved the meaning of Christmas, the Jews would have nothing to fear from anti-Semitism.
Yes, Jesus said, "No one comes to the Father but through Me." But I would like to ally myself with Dante, the greatest Christian poet of all time. When he reaches the sphere of Jupiter in the Paradiso and sees the eagle of Justice, formed by the stars that are, in the vision, the souls of the great just rulers of the world, he finally asks the question that has been burning in his heart: "A man is born on the bank of the Indus, and none is there to speak, or read, or write of Christ, and all his desires and doings are good, so far as human reason sees, without sin in life or speech. He dies unbaptized and without faith. Where is this justice that condemns him? Where is his fault if he does not believe?" (Translation by John D. Sinclair.) In other words, how can God damn the righteous Hindu, or the unbaptized infant for that matter, neither of whom could have turned his will to Christ?
The Eagle answers in four parts: (1) Justice is created and defined by God; how could God not then be just, whatever He does? (2) Man cannot possibly understand the mystery of the divine Justice, for being a created being, and mortal, he can see only in part. (3) None comes to God but through Christ, but many who cry out "Christ, Christ" (but don't really mean it) will be farther from God on the Day of Judgment than many who don't know of Christ at all. Christians had better look to their own souls before they worry too much about those of the righteous Hindu. And finally, (4) Look! Here in heaven are the virtuous Roman Emperor Trajan and the virtuous Trojan Ripheus, mentioned in a single verse of Virgil's Aeneid, both of whom lived before Christ. "How can this be?" shouts Dante. The Eagle's answer is that both have been given the mysterious opportunity to choose Christ, Ripheus in a vision, and Trajan through a temporary resurrection won by St. Gregory, whose prayer that Trajan be returned to life long enough to hear the gospel preached was answered. In this way Dante the poet instructs us in humility before the mystery of God's judgment of souls. Yes, the Christian bears the burden of carrying the good news to the people of the world. But he had better do so in humility and love and not in know-it-all arrogance.
The Jews, too, are burdened by God with a mission. It is not, however, to convert everyone to Judaism. Nor, as the ignorant or the malicious will maintain, is the concept of the "chosen people" a sign of arrogance. This people is chosen to be the unenviable witness to the world that God exists, is One, is the Creator, Preserver, and Judge of all, and commands all to justice, kindness, and truth. We don't say you have to believe all that we believe in order to be saved. Not even all of us believe all of it. We say only that there is God and that not you nor we nor anything in the world is to be worshipped but only He. And to my mind, Christianity is God's way of getting that message across to those who were not going to get it any other way. So I say, let Christians celebrate Christmas and mean it; thus will they, the Jews, and all the world be the better.
Before I respond, I need to note that I just watched the trailer online for What Would Jesus Buy?, a Super Size Me-style indictment of America's materialistic excess at Christmastime. A film like that needs a foil, of course, something to represent the other side. It might have been interesting to dig up the huddlers -- people like you and the Thompsons, or Christian diehards who treated Advent like Advent and didn't celebrate until Christmas. People who prepared for Christmas by meditating on the darkness that preceded the Light: "Long lay the world/ In sin and sorrow pining..." Interesting to think, in a post-Christian culture, of caroling as a form of evangelization. But I don't carol, and the only carolers who have ever come to my door performed as a teen jazz choir. Sort of a "Let me entertain you" vibe. And that's what the movie went for -- they found a poofy-haired preacher willing to march into the malls and tell people that stuff was taking over their lives. Well and good. But when the message comes from a dude in a white suit with a megaphone who's trying to exorcise a Wal-Mart sign, is anybody supposed to take it seriously? It strikes me as a touch fatalistic -- as if the triumph of stuff at Christmas were inevitable, like death. Complaint is understandable but childish. The best we can do is joke about it to ease the pain. But then, I haven't seen the movie.
Your account of Santa matches almost exactly the one my mother gave to me when I confronted her with my toy Millennium Falcon – supposedly from Santa but with a mailing label addressed to my parents still affixed to the box. Looking back, it strikes me as a triumph on her part. In many ways, the sign had long ago eclipsed the thing signified -- presents pointing to the Divine Gift, extravagant gift giving pointing to the generosity of true charity. (It should be noted that in complaining about excess, I'm not necessarily complaining about extravagance, because that, too, can signify -- the extravagant love of the Father in John 3:16. "For God so loved the world...." "The Gift of the Magi" is a story of extravagant gifts, and that's part of its glory.) But when my mother invoked the spirit of Santa Claus, suddenly the sign became a sign again, pointing to love as the real thing. Santa became like those works of art you mentioned, "making visible the invisible spirits of love, devotion, and adoration." It's part of why I've been willing to tell the Santa story to my own children.
The Thompsons sound like remarkable people; I'm grateful for the story and happy that you were able to experience Christmas with them, to understand its virtues and attractions through their witness. (And I do think it's a witness, even – perhaps especially – if they didn't mean it to be so.) To paraphrase you, if all the world's non-Christians knew people who loved God and neighbor as the Thompsons did, then they would have nothing to fear from Christmas on the Prado. I remember the furor over Terence McNally's play Corpus Christi, in which, among other things, the Christ figure was presented as gay. One fellow, commenting on the Christian protesters across the street from the theater, said something along the lines of, "Why do they protest our art? Why don't they just go make their own? You don't like this Jesus? Write your own play!" I remember thinking, "He must be joking. There just aren't that many Christian playwrights. And even if there were, how many people would go see such a thing?" (Passion plays, which don't so much explore the faith as they depict it, seem like something else entirely.)
These days, I'm slightly more sympathetic. "Why do you protest our religious festival? Why don't you just go and make your own? You don't like our Christmas on the Prado? Why not hold Solstice on the Prado?" To which I can hear the other side replying, "You must be joking. There just aren't that many devout pagans. And even if there were, it's not like we have a canon of carols, or Solstice cookies, or centuries-old cultural traditions tied up with December Nights." No, better to take what we have and just do away with the tired old Jesus associations and hope that nobody minds too much. I don't know if there's a war on Christmas; I wonder if the religious part just feels a touch annoying to a lot of people.
But. If you're willing to write a line like this: "Let Christians celebrate Christmas and mean it; thus will they, the Jews, and all the world be the better," then I'm willing to come back with Chesterton's "If a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing badly." I don't imagine that Christianity is going to take back Christmas from the world. And I think we both know that your experience with the Thompsons -- their intelligence, their aesthetics, their liberality in the best sense of the word -- is always going to be the exception, not the rule. Mass culture is just that, and mass culture is at the mall, not the Met. But I'll still defend it, even though it includes some pretty nightmarish distortions of "the true meaning of Christmas." Even though it reduces the Divine condescension to a sentimental "spirit of the season." Even though Mammon has trumped Incarnation. I'll defend it for the same reason I remain a Christian despite the sins of Christianity: that for all its horror, the beautiful reality remains beneath and may still be found by the seeking soul. This is my culture -- much will be lost if I break ties with it, and further, I still believe that the possibility of goodness remains. So I'll muddle on and do my best. Last Christmas, my brother-in-law came to visit with his wife and six children. The fireplace wall of my '60s split-level ranch is composed entirely of rock, with no visible mortar between the stones. Christmas Eve found me pounding nails into every conceivable crevice, trying to find spaces for 11 stockings. I found looking at the finished project nothing less than glorious, something akin to that night contemplating the Christmas tree, 15 years ago.
I quite agree with you in the defense of mass- (not the mass) marketed, Mammon-ridden Christmas as better than no Christmas at all because "the beautiful reality remains beneath." It's worth remembering that the masses of the past, though they were smaller, were equally often led astray and that Mammon has never been absent. All of life is about discerning the holiness in the distracting life of the world and choosing to serve it. As the Jewish mystical tradition has it, every moment and every thing has in it a spark of divinity which it is man's mission to release by his acts of free will, redeeming the sparks from the shell enclosing and hiding it. And so with mall-Muzak carols in November. At the same time, it doesn't hurt to treat the commodification of the holiday as such a shell that needs cracking open from time to time, so long as that is done in a way that reveals rather than merely hammers. Of course, even a hammer is sometimes the right tool. You used it to redeem the sparks of that stocking-resistant rock fireplace wall. And who knows whether we are not soon in for a revival in which Christmas itself is taken back from the world. The principle of Tikkun Olam in Judaism teaches that every little bit of good we do contributes to the healing and completion of the world and the coming of the Messiah. Believing that the Messiah has already come, Christians find the location of the perfecting not in the world but in the individual soul. But can the preaching of the gospel be practiced effectively by one who lives in despair about making the world a better place?
"Why don't you just go make your own?" is a perfectly reasonable sentiment, except that it isn't possible, as anyone who tries must eventually discover. "Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it" (Psalms 127:1). I had a great Catholic teacher who fostered the following interpretation of the much-debated phrase "me antistenai" in the gospel of your namesake, Matthew (5:39): "I will not take up an anti- position. I will not define myself by what I am against but rather by what I am for." Many a rabbinic sermon has embraced the same principle, exhorting the congregations to turn the energy they expend on worry about what the goyim are doing toward becoming better Jews. Yes, as you say, "The Christian is still burdened with Christ's command to 'go out and teach all nations.' " And the Jews are commanded to "be a light unto the gentiles." If the difference is that you must preach and convert and we must be holy and testify, the similarity is that both relations to the world locate the ground of reality not in nature or in self but in God. Sharing that, why should we quibble about differences in form? God obviously wants both or we wouldn't both be here.
That is why I wanted this conversation not to be a fight between the Christians and the Jews. And by golly, it has not been. Because you and I, in our respective ways, make the effort to remember that God is the center and we the circumference. Knowing that, we will not waste time and spirit in fighting over the empty spaces between the spokes of that wheel along which, at various angles, all are converging, if they are really moving at all, toward the One. God has room, and His own reasons for making that room, for both our spokes and others too. The Incarnation inside Christmas, the divine spark inside the Hanukkah flame, and the Brahman-reality behind the righteous Hindu -- all are God's way of revealing to us that God is, though our images of Him are not God.
So, if I may paraphrase Dante, is the turning wheel of the world diversely formed as we rotate through the mystery of time, gravitating by the union of grace and our own wills toward the absolute will that wills it so.