Monday, December 11, 2006

Monday with McKenna: Hauling Mass

Another week, another Terry McKenna post to start it off. Today, my co-blogger is taking up the "War on Xmas" debate. Personally, I don't have any particular problem with having Christ in Christmas; it's the "Mass" that I'd like to see cleared away. If your heart tells you to honor Christ, do it every goddamned day; just don't make a ritualized gnarl of dogma out of it (that's the "mass" part). Barbara Ehrenreich has more on this over at Alternet.

The Xmas season is, of course, make-or-break time for the retail section of our economy (or so we're told by the pundits). In the coming days and weeks leading up to the opening of the 110th Congress, we'll have some thoughts on the world economy and its three principal demons: corporate globalization, the credit culture, and big box retail stores. To get us started, a few key links:

Paul Krugman in Rolling Stone on how the wealthy are screwing the world, aided and abetted by the Bush tax cuts. A must-read if there ever was one. We'll be quoting from this one as the week progresses.

Globalization: The MoJo page The indefatigable research of the Mother Jones staff unveils the dirty truth of globalization.

Impeach Wal-Mart: A book excerpt from Stacy Mitchell's plan to end the "big-box swindle."

Debtor's Prison: the statistics on credit in America. But the pundits still assure us that "we're really frugal"; that there's nothing to worry about—for God's sake, keep digging that hole deeper. And so, led by the media and corporate advertising, we do; and are globally hated for it.

But after all, it's Christmas, and Jesus wants us to spend ourselves into poverty, right? Mr. Mckenna, to the pulpit, please...

Yes Virginia, there is a war on Christmas. But you’ve come a bit late. It’s just about over and the secular holiday has won. But don’t worry, because the Christmas holiday was always more pagan than pious; it’s a hybrid of ancient elements from all over Europe grafted upon a Christian narrative. And it’s not just Christmas. Most of our holidays have changed over the years. Think of Memorial Day. Once a day for picnicking in a memorial park (a cemetery) and decorating the grave of a deceased family member (originally a civil war casualty), the holiday has morphed into the opening weekend of an annual summer of fun. Halloween is another example of a changed and hybridized holiday. Originally a Celtic Fire Feast, the Medieval Catholic Church turned it into the Feast of All Saints (All Hallows Eve – Halloween). Modern America has saved a few of the Celtic elements, but turned the event into a day when our kids go from house to house begging for treats. My father’s generation celebrated a different begging feast – ragamuffin day; he and his friends did their begging on the day before Thanksgiving Day – his childhood occurred before WW1.

Christmas was originally a pagan (Roman) holiday celebrating the rebirth of the unconquered sun at the Winter Solstice. Its popularity made it an ideal platform upon which to graft the birth of Christ – the Son of God. (And no, the Latinate words for son and sun were not homonyms). The modern Christmas celebration includes myriad pagan elements – mistletoe, holly, the tree, strong drink, gift giving, even the wild abandon that we see at New Years (in the middle ages and renaissance periods, the poor might go so far as to invade the homes of the rich and demand strong drink and something to eat. A few of the older holiday songs contain hints of the older practice. Lords (or Abbots) of misrule were selected and whole towns would erupt into wild partying. Here's a song lyric that hints at the old ways.

Our founding fathers did not celebrate Christmas in the way that we do now. For sure, the wealthy would enjoy rounds of Christmas and New Year’s dinners featuring strong drink, dance and song. But for our more pious citizens (think of our hardy New Englanders) – their brand of Protestantism was of the sort that eschewed pagan celebration. In any case, Christmas was NOT a public holiday.

The Victorian era brought Christmas back from the shadows. And as industrialism and technology changed our ways, Christmas became modern too. The Victorians gave us Xmas trees and cards. Edison gave us modern street lighting; from this we got safe electric tree lights, and the modern well-lit downtown. By the 30’s and 40’s, Christmas took on a modern sparkle.
When the American experiment began, we were primarily Northern Europeans Protestants. An Italian would have been exotic. So too a Jew (though Jews came here pretty early on in our history). But think of us now—Catholics are prominent in life and government. So too are Jews. Asians are abundant in sciences and technology. I work with a number of guys named Mohammed – all great guys, good at their jobs, and middle class Americans. So, despite the fantasies of our right wing Christians, we are a different America from that of the forefathers. And as the old saw goes, you can’t go home again. We can no more return to the America of “It’s a Wonderful Life” than we can return to an era when married women stayed at home and high school graduates could go out into the world prepared for a good job.

And as for Christmas, it has become a worldwide and non-religious holiday. In Asian cities, Christmas trees and outdoor decorations have become popular. In Japan, parents now give their children gifts in the same way the Americans do – from Santa Claus. Of course, none of this represents the religious myth, but as we should know now, Christmas was rarely ever about the Christ story anyway.

—T. McKenna

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