Last week I made a post that argued for a second Christmas to be created because I hate what Christmas in this country has come to represent. Beyond the blatant consumerism, there are so many people today so intent on arguing to "Keep the Christ" in Christmas that they have begun to behave in decidedly non-Christ-like ways. Also, millions propel themselves further into debt to maintain the appearance of financial solidity by way of conspicuous consumption, gluttony and caloric indulgence cheapens our immune systems at the most critical height of communicability for sickness, and the list goes on from there.
It wasn't long before I began to wonder - if Christmas is so far removed from the story of the Nativity and the purpose of God made flesh to walk among us, why not LET it be fully secular? Let Santa Clause have Christmas. I wondered even if - in a national sense - it was ever anything but that? I decided that there was no better way to examine a nation's traditions than to examine that nation's art about it; specifically populist art; specifically cinema; specifically Christmas movies.
I begin with the film that most easily represents Christmas for me: A Christmas Story from 1983.
In 1983 I was 9 years old. That's the year "A Christmas Story" came out. Of course, I probably didn't see it that year. It was only a year later, in 1984, that my family would get our very first VHS VCR. Luckily, our local public library began stocking films to check out for free on VHS, usually films that had been out a year or more. That's how we first watched "A Christmas Story" I'm guessing. I don't really remember. It's sort of like asking somebody the first time they ever heard the song "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."
Regardless, that film has become a mainstay in my Christmas experience, much like "the song "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," only happily so. When I think about the film and why it is so enjoyable I have to say it is an interesting mix between appealing to my "good movie" judgement and appealing simply to my affinity for the nostalgic. In part, I like the film because of all the memories that are tied up with viewing the film with family and friends over the years, in part because I feel like the film does a good job of representing what Christmas meant to kids who were born in the midwest (I grew up in Indiana too, you know) any time between 1930 and 1980 (seriously, for kids born after 1980, I'm pretty sure it seems like a "historical" film, with it's rotor dial phones, radio programs, soap-in-the-mouth punishments, etc...), and also in part because I think the film is made of just plain good storytelling (in that Lake Wobegon, The Wonder Years, or Stand by Me sort of way.)
But as much as I love this film and believe it to be representative of a vast majority of the feelings and traditions of Christmas in the midwest, it doesn't really represent a "holy" day as much as it does a secular "Holiday." That's not to say it goes against or runs counter to any of the things that I think are part of the spirit of the Nativity, but it certainly doesn't go out of its way to mention them.
In a certain way, Ralphie and his family mark a milestone of the change of Christmas in the post-modern age (the beginning of what I might call Kristmas in order to keep those who are so Hell-bent on keeping Christ in Christmas from snapping at its heels incessantly) and even though, as we will see in future posts they are not the first film to do so, they begin to parse out those values that the secular Kristmas is known for.
Ralphie's story even begins "in medias res" in the classical sense. It is as though we've suddenly begun listening in on him as he watches with us the story of his past - one third of Dickens' classic Carol in effect without the moral urgency of the remaining two spirits and their visions of present and future. By the end, we see the magic of Christmas almost dissolve for Ralphie in front of our eyes - as his romantic vision of the Red Ryder prize melts into its eye-glass shattering reality.
For most kids born between 1930 and 1980, that becomes the eventuality of Christmas with the coming of age - whether the magic of Christmas is captured in the story of the virgin birth or the wonder of Santa Clause, eventually that vision becomes horribly tainted for most when faced with the harsh realities of life. Some even claim the story that what we thought was true is in fact just designed to keep us good the rest of the year.
In fact, A Christmas Story does a great job of illustrating for me the value in extricating the Christmas "holy" day from the Kristmas holiday. For Ralphie, as he is kicked down Santa's slide after being told by Santa himself that his dream of owning a Red Ryder is both foolish and unrealistic, Kristmas needs to have a value much more narrowed in scope. It is about good memories of a family that also has bad ones, about caring for one another despite the personal cost, about allowing yourself some hopes and dreams but not fooling yourself into believing what never can be...
These ideals and those brought about by a celebration of "Immanuel" are not mutually exclusive in nature. You could easily go through Christmas believing that both are what "the true spirit of Christmas" is all about, which is why I think we've gone as far as we have pretending that the "secular" Christmas and the Christian "holy" day are one in the same. But how much better off might we be if we, as Christians, abandon our grief at the loss of the Christmas turkey to the metaphorical Bumpess hounds, count our blessings and let the scope of our own celebration narrow to include once more only those things most important to be celebrated in a "holy" way?