In a homily I recently heard, the priest made some very interesting remarks about the modern celebration of Christmas. First, as many others have noted in the Catholic world, he pointed out that the secular, consumerist drive to push Christmas sales as forced the Christmas season further and further back into the year until it has swallowed up the liturgical season of Advent. Christmas stuff all is brought out almost as soon as Thanksgiving dinner is off the table, oftentimes even sooner, like the day after Halloween. Many Catholics in the blogging world have noted this, and so I will not comment on it here, save to say that it is very sad because it robs us of our attention on the preperatory nature of Advent. If we prepare for the Second Coming the way we "prepare" for Christmas, then we are all lost.
But what I want to dwell on here was the priest's observation that in modernity Christmas has a forlorn, sad and melancholy atmopshere about it that is exemplified in some of the best known secular Christmas songs of our times. By secular Christmas songs, I mean stuff like "White Christmas," "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire," "Home for the Holidays" and such tunes, as opposed to religious Christmas music like "Joy to the World" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." Most of our religious Christmas music comes from the 18th and 19th centuries and was written by churchmen of one branch or another, while our secular religious music comes from a few decades: the 1940's through the early-1960's.
The famous secular Christmas songs all have an air of sad nostalgia about them, longing for some departed golden-age of innocence and mirth. Let's look at a few lyrics from some of the more famous songs:
White Christmas (Irving Berlin, 1940): I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know. Where the treetops glisten, and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Blane & Martine, 1943): Here we are as in olden days, Happy golden days of yore. Faithful friends who are dear to us gather near to us once more.
In both of these selections, there is a nostalgic longing for something past, a Christmas "like the ones I used to know," a desire for the "olden days, happy golden days of yore." But, we could ask, why were the olden days the golden days, and what is deficient about Christmas now (or, rather, in the 1940's when these songs were written) that makes us turn our hearts towards and earlier epoch?
Many people have noted that Christmas music tends to depress them. I have no evidence to back this up, but I do not think it is due to songs like "Silent Night" and "Come All Ye Faithful." The religious, Christian-based Christmas songs are always joyful and triumphant, as the English "Adeste Fideles" says. No, I think that when people say they are depressed by Christmas music, they mean the secular Christmas songs, the stuff we are talking about here from the 40's and 50's. It is well documented that Christmas is the saddest time of year for many people, and suicides are frequent during the Yuletide, as well. I'm sure much of this has to do with the fact that when people are alone at Christmas, they feel it more intensely than at other times of the year, but I think some of this secular Christmas music exacerbates the problem.
I opine that the reason for the melancholy is this: this secular Christmas music exposes how bankrupt our culture is, both because of its spiritual shallowness and because of our web of technological comforts that keep us from experiencing the fullness of our humanity through immediate contact with creation. We extol many things in these songs which are no more than phantoms to most people, ghosts of a bygone era.
Think about it for a moment. When was the last time you smelled or ate chestnuts roasting on a open fire? Or experienced the joy of rushing over frozen fields in a single-horse drawn sleigh to the jingle of the harness bells? Or put up any real holly or ivy? Or kissed under some mistletoe? Or stood around the Tannenbaum and sung reverently? Or even had a real Christmas tree for that matter? Or saw, let alone heard, a real silver bell? Or went "home" for the holidays? You know, in the song, "Home for the Holidays," the word "home" does not just refer to where you or your parents happen to live as we tend to use the word today. It refers to an antiquated concept of home, to an ancestral farmstead in the country where we retire from the busy suburban life and return to our roots, to the place where our families first settled in this land and carved out a living out of the wilderness. When this song was written in 1954 by Rob Allen and Al Stillman, this concept of a rural, familial homestead was still a reality for many people, and some elderly persons still living were the same who had first settled the frontier in the 1880's and 90's. That generation, and that way of life, is long gone. Who goes back to an ancestral farmstead anymore? My family's ancestral farm that we had possessed since the 1870's in Virginia was recently torn down to make room for another crappy Pulte sub. Yes, the way of life we idolize in these songs has vanished forever.
But yet, every Christmas we sing about these things ad nauseam. When we hear these songs, we are reminded of a simpler time, a time when we were more connected to the earth and to family, a time when things were more meaningful and when we were able to take true delight in the humble pleasures life afforded us. But as we sing these words, we get a creeping realization that we have lost all that was good and beautiful in life and exchanged it for empty trifles. Family bonds, connection to the earth, spiritual depth and self-sufficiency have been exchanged for superficial relationships, dependence on technology, vain secularism and the plague of consumerism. As we sing about the life we exchanged for our modernist bowl of pottage, we feel a deep regret and pain of loss at the reality, a pain that is even worse because we know that we are to blame. In a way, it is a microcosm of the pains of hell, I think (but only a tiny microcosm!)
At any rate, we can beat the melancholy aspect of secular Christmas by refocusing ourselves on what we know to be the spiritual core of the holy day: Christ's Incarnation. It is right for us to deplore what has happened to our culture in the past hundred years or more, but we do not despair as those in the world who have no hope (1 Thess. 2:13), but rather our hope is in Christ and His redeeming work, Who on the last day will raise us up and restore unto us infinitely more than we ever lost by our sin. This is the great joy of Christmas.