And so we've come to the end of the "holiday season" once again.
Another Christmas, another winter solstice, another St. Lucy's day with its deepest of midnights. Even here in ever-sunny Colorado, things are a bit gloomy. However, I have every confidence that another spring is just around the corner. I don't need to bring greenery into the house in order to prevent the dragon from swallowing the sun. The days, now so abbreviated, will lengthen and in five weeks we'll see the first crocuses and a week later the daffodils and pussy-willows. It's going to happen. But as always, the last days of the year challenge me.
I'm relieved and happy that Christmas and the whole Christmas business is done and gone. No one wants to be a scrooge and I don't want to frown on carols and gift-giving and plum-puddings and good fellowship, but in my heart, let me confess, I don't like the holiday. I can't make sense of the virgin birth or the sacrifice of the only-begotten son. I don't even respect the story-- to me it's just dressed-up scapegoating. It's nonsense. And then there's all that incongruous stuff that has accreted around Christmas -- the hype and the commercialism and the religious chauvinism and the reindeer and the tactless triumphalism. It's both incomprehensible and offensive to me.
And I'm in good company. I have allies. Let us go back to the beginning of the American experience with Christmas.
If the profoundly religious seventeenth-century founders of our country had a single favorite Biblical moment, it's when the Lord (speaking through His prophet Amos) severely condemned the vanity of holidays. "I hate," said the Lord, "I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies." The Lord of Hosts specifically enjoined against the attempt to placate him by sacrificing animals (a matter of topical concern in Amos' time). "Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them; neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts." Nor did He rest with these easy-to-follow injunctions, but He went on to condemn all musical tributes as well. Nor more chants, glees or carols: "Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols." Our Puritan forefathers recognized that the Lord opposed not only rituals and music but all formal observances and rote piety. The Ancient of Days was moved not by empty ceremony but right action and good behavior. Instead of squeaking timbrels and sounding brass, why, "let justice run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream." Taking these uncompromising sentences as their guide, our founders dug in their heels against the ostentatious celebration of all holidays, especially Christmas.
I applaud the old guy, the Father, and I revere Amos. His mantra bears repeating : "Let justice come down as the waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream."
The neglect of "righteousness" in favor of buying things makes me melancholy. I would be happy to see fewer purchases and more good deeds. It would help us through the dark months.
The winter solstice is a sensitive time for me because it's the anniversary of my father's birthday. He arrived to no poorer family on the planet on the darkest day of the year, the twenty-second of December, 1904. ‘And they called his name Emanuel, God with us,’ -- but whether by accident or design, I have no idea. My father lived a long and just life. He had many virtues -- one of them that he was the least materialistic person ever. He had no possessions and craved none. But he was righteous.
I don't know how anyone could write a biography of Emanuel, my father. There was so little plot, so little conflict in his life. He went about his business, raised his family, kept to the straight and narrow. His memory is a blessing to us.
At this time of the year I turn once again to one of the most challenging fathers in literature. The voluminous works of Sir Edmund Gosse are not much read nowadays except by specialists in Edwardian literature, but Father and Son (1907) still stands as one of the world's great autobiographies.
The father in Father and Son is the biologist Philip Henry Gosse, whom Charles Darwin once called "an honest hod carrier of science." The older Gosse was a minister and a leader of the Plymouth Brethren, a very strict, very puritanical splinter of English Protestantism -- one that could easily have taken Amos as its prophet and leader. According to his son Edmund, P. H. Gosse held that the celebration of Christmas was "nothing less than an act of idolatry. The very word is Popish, [my father] used to exclaim, 'Christ's Mass!' Then he would adduce the antiquity of the so-called feast, adapted from horrible heathen rites, and itself a soiled relic of the abominable Yule-Tide. He would denounce the horrors of Christmas until it almost made me [that is, Philip Henry's son Edmund Gosse the autobiographer] blush to look at a holly berry."
A passionate man, Philip Henry Gosse. A difficult father. Can we Imagine how Philip Henry Gosse would have suffered to behold a twentieth-century American Christmas: muzaked "Silent Night" in a shopping mall Or even, --horror of horrors --the odious, saccharine "Little Drummer Boy." There's not a sappier song in all of creation.
In Father and Son, Sir Edmund recollects a Christmas of his youth. One boyish year he defied his father and, putting his immortal soul in danger, secretly ate some Christmas plum-pudding that had been offered to him by 'rebellious' servants. But then, overcome with guilt and stomach-ache, he flew to his father, crying out "Oh! Papa, Papa, I have eaten of flesh offered to idols!" Philip Henry then "ran with me into the midst of the startled servants, seized what remained of the pudding,... and ran till we reached the dust-heap, when he flung the idolatrous confectionery on to the middle of the ashes, and then raked it deep down into the mass."
A frightening episode for a nine-year-old -- but beautifully told. Only an accomplished writer of comedy (and one who was steeped in Dickens) could have invented a phrase as marvelous as "idolatrous confectionery," where the triviality of the noun undermines the high seriousness of the adjective.
Compared to Amos and to the Plymouth Brethren and to Philip Henry Gosse, my own resistance to Christmas is trivial. I'm a dissenter, but a dissenter in moderation.
In fact, I'm not even a Puritan -- I'm delighted with the baked ham and the sweet potatoes. Moreover, I have devised a Christmas custom of my own. Every December 25, I reserve three hours to listen to Handel's Messiah -- not out of piety or reverence, but because the oratorio is so marvelous that it's almost -- almost -- sacred.
There are many Messiahs, but In our house, the performance of choice is, inevitably, the extremely intelligent Pearlman version (Boston Baroque Orchestra and Chorus-- Martin Pearlman, Conductor [Telarc 80322]). Blessings and honor and glory and hallelujahs be unto George Frederick Handel and unto his unsurpassed oratorio.
So this year and every year: rejoice greatly but appropriately, ye sons and daughters of Zion!