The Myth of Christmas

Since I read this passage in May’s The Cry for Myth,

“Life in the myth is a celebration,” wrote Thomas Mann. The myths of community are generally happy, joyful myths which enliven us; they mark the holidays, or holy days. We salute each other with “Merry Christmas,” or “Happy New Year.” The holy days which draw us together in carnivals, such as Mardi Gras in New Orleans and in Mediterranean and South American cities preceding Lent, are times of overflowing color and mythic mystery. Then it is permissible to love everyone and to abandon oneself to the spontaneity of the senses. Good Friday and Easter are the celebration of the eternally amazing myth of the crucifixion of Jesus and the resurrection of the Christ, Passover as the original Last Supper, all blended with the celebration of the newborn beauty in the blooming of lilies, the tender time of newly grown grass and plants and other loveliness which breaks through the crust of the earth in spring.

I’ve been giving some thought to my own views of Christmas, the one holiday I still get sentimental over. Perhaps it’s as simple as that Christmas is the easiest time to express my love for family and community. Though I’ve consciously try to give money to charities like the Salvation Army throughout the year, I’m still more apt to give at Christmas time.

After I read this passage,

These holy days gather around them through the ages the mythic character of eternity. We get from them a sense of union with the distant past and the far off future. Christmas- literally, a mass for Christ-has become blended with the myth of the Germanic and Nordic tribes of Northern Europe, and hence we have such symbols as the Christmas tree with all its glitter and with the presents emblazoned around it. The gradual process of accretion, of absorption and merging of local myths with the myths from the religious past, gives the holy day this aura of eternity. The myth of Christmas is a prototype of the birth of the hero, as Otto Rank writes, describing the baby Jesus in the crib in a stable with the Wise Men following the star in the east and bringing gifts. The myth implies that we are wise if we too participate in the spirit of giving.

I realized that Christmas ties my oldest memories to a future when I will only be a memory myself. I think my oldest memory is of a Christmas that took place when I was three or four. When I was young my parents put up the tree Christmas Eve, after my brother and I went to bed. I don’t think there’s ever been another moment quite as exciting in my life as those Christmas mornings when I awoke to a fully lit tree surrounded by presents. Nowdays, I get nearly the same joy seeing grandkids’ excitement Christmas morning. Christmas comes as close as anything in my life to encompassing time. Over the years I’ve collected old-fashioned Santa Clauses, particularly reproductions of hand-carved Santas.

Though I doubt many people hate rituals more than I do, after reading

Rituals are physical expressions of the myths, as in holidays and the sacraments of religion. The myth is the narration, and the ritual-such as giving presents or being baptized-expresses the myth in bodily action. Rituals and myths supply fixed points in a world of bewildering change and disappointment. The myth may be prior to the ritual, as it is in the celebration of Holy Communion; or the ritual may come first, as with the Super Bowl triumph of the 49ers. Either way, one gives birth to the other. No self can exist as a self apart from a society with its myths …

I realized that Christmas is probably the only time of the year where I indulge in rituals. The oldest ritual is making cookies, but only because it starts long before the tree is put up. My mother loved telling how the first year we decorated cookies I cried after I bit the head off a Santa Claus cookie, which reveals how young I must have been then. I’ve been making Christmas cookies longer than I can remember, a ritual rivaled only by the playing of Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters singing “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” while decorating the tree.

The only time I’ve missed these rituals my entire life is the year I was in Vietnam, and even then mom sent Santa cookies. In fact, the tree was still up when I got home mid-January.

And though I tend to be somewhat of a loner, Christmas does seem more than just a family holiday:

In Europe the community’s myth is symbolically emblazoned by the churches in the towns and cities. High over the collection of houses, which are built close together for protection, there rises the Cathedral of Chartres or the great spires of Cologne, bolstered from outside by flying buttresses and in- formed inside by mythic Bible stories. These Biblical myths led the person gazing upon them to the adoration of the Most High God and other Christian myths which everyone in the village knew by heart. The church was there for all to see, the custodian of the heart and spirit of the community, the central symbol around which its myths were woven. In the villages of New England there is a similar overarching symbol of the myth of the community. When driving through Vermont or New Hampshire, one comes to the center of the village and sees the “common ground,” a large square of green grass with the village church towering at one end as though its simple beauty in Puritan white gives an eternal blessing to the town.

I’ll have to admit that I’ve been more than a little dismayed by the legal and political wrangling over Christmas displays. Though the Christmas tree is definitely the center of our decorations, we also include two Nativity scenes in our in-house decorations even though I don’t think of myself as being particularly “Christian.” Christmas may well be Christ’s Mass, but it’s also clearly the Winters Solstice and here in the Pacific Northwest we all look forward to having more light, even if we have to supply it on our own trees. Christmas is one of the few times I actually drive around nearby neighborhoods admiring other people’s yards. Even simple things like shopping seem more friendly during Christmas. It’s certainly the only time when I take trays of cookies to share with neighbors.

These personal myths and rituals are so intertwined with public myths and rituals that it’s hard to say where one begins and the other ends, but I’m sure my life would be considerably diminished without them. The fact that the season means so much to me surely also says something about its psychic importance.

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