A charming essay in the NYT about Christmas and Narnia, the much-loved mythical land created by C. S. Lewis.
But Lewis embraced the Middle Ages’ indiscriminate mixing of stories and motifs from seemingly incompatible sources. The medievals, he once wrote, enthusiastically adopted a habit from late antiquity of “gathering together and harmonizing views of very different origin: building a syncretistic model not only out of Platonic, Aristotelian and Stoical, but out of pagan and Christian elements.”I agree. The mashup of pagan, Christian, commercial, philanthropic, and you-name-it influences continue to help Christmas evolve and maintain relevancy. To be sure, the core strength of this desperately needed winter holiday is anchored in the Christian tradition, but the timing, for example, has always been suspect.
Christmas as we now know it is much the same sort of conglomeration, and when people call for a return to its pure, authentic roots, they’re missing an essential quality of the holiday. Narnia is a mongrel thing, and so is Christmas. As is often the case, this mongrelizing is the source of its strength. [More]
For many centuries, Christian writers accepted that Christmas was the actual date on which Jesus was born. However, in the early eighteenth century, some scholars began proposing alternative explanations. Isaac Newton argued that the date of Christmas was selected to correspond with the winter solstice, which in ancient times was marked on December 25. In 1743, German Protestant Paul Ernst Jablonski argued Christmas was placed on December 25 to correspond with the Roman solar holiday Dies Natalis Solis Invicti and was therefore a "paganization" that debased the true church. In 1889, Louis Duchesne suggested that the date of Christmas was calculated as nine months after the Annunciation on March 25, the traditional date of the conception of Jesus.
These pseudo-intellectual quibbles, along with the fabricated "War on Christmas" only add to the curious and, I think, engaging quality of Christmas. From mistimed masterpieces (the Hallelujah Chorus was intended for Lent) to technological geeky light displays there is literally something for eveyone. Christmas is inclusive and tolerant. And pretty irresistable.
While I certainly don't extend any mantle of religious sanction to the approaching Obama administration, so far its composition seems to adopt these same qualities. Personnel selections have been met with mostly grudging approval and fairly balanced grumbling from both extremes. Consider two of the most recent.
Tom Vilsack at USDA:
Zealous advocates of sustainable agriculture question his support of biotechnology, while partisans of the status quo find him insufficiently loyal to the system of farm subsidies. That leaves him with a very large center of support. He’ll need it to move this country’s broken agricultural policy in a new direction. [More]And the Inaugural Invoker, Rick Warren:
In choosing evangelical pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration, President-elect Barack Obama is associating himself with one of the most popular religious figures in the nation, reaching out to conservative America and proving he's willing to take some flak from the liberal flank of his party.
It will be yet another high-profile moment for Mr. Warren, an evangelical leader who opposes abortion and gay marriage but has worked to broaden the Christian agenda to include issues of poverty, AIDS and the environment.
The invocation gives both men the opportunity to build on their longstanding efforts to create big tents and extend their appeal beyond their natural constituencies. As a result, both have taken some criticism from their traditional supporters. [More]
After a period in America where idealogical purity and orthodox political practice were the highest virtues, I think we are in for a surprise to see how well mongrelization of political belief can work.
Such an approach certainly seems to have kept Christmas alive and available to more people around the world each year, and allowed them to tweak it to fit their culture as well. Has something been lost in the process? Of course, but certainly not the core tenet of the birth of Christ.
The extra Good News is much more has been gained, I think.