WASHINGTON -- A sardonic British skeptic of the late 19th century suggested that three words should be carved in stone over all church doors: "Important if true." On Christmas Eve, at the end of the rarely stately and always arduous march that Americans make each year to the happiest holiday, it sometimes seems that they are supposed to celebrate Christmas as though they have agreed to forget what supposedly it means.
There are several reasons why forgetting, actual or make-believe, is not altogether unfortunate. First, some people really have forgotten, or never knew, or never cared about Christmas' religious dimension but they can still enjoy, and benefit from, the seasonal upsurge of nonsectarian good will. Second, many Americans are of faiths that assert Christianity is mistaken about what occurred in Palestine 1,998 years ago, and in the 33 or so years thereafter.
However, Christmas in America nowadays is largely an artifact of nonsectarian figures such as Charles Dickens, who poured a syrup of sentiment over the event, thereby making the fun of it accessible to all and offensive only to those who enjoy taking offense. This is one way a pluralistic nation accommodates religious differences -- by allowing some religious matters to be treated as desacralized bits of the common culture.
For example, this year, when a cranky North Carolinian sued to have two plaques bearing the Ten Commandments removed from a courtroom wall because he said they constitute unconstitutional mingling of government and religion, opponents said: Fiddlesticks, the commandments are no longer religious. They have evolved into mere parts of society's moral framework. far, the commandments remain on the courtroom wall.)
PTC By such appeasement, peace can be kept while at least the residue of religion retains a place in the public square. But for those seeking seasonal outlets for their aggressions, there are still plenty of opportunities for skirmishing about Christmas. For example, this year in New York City some religious people -- you know how difficult they can be -- blocked a plan to erect at the Central Park skating rink, in conjunction with an AIDS-prevention event, a Christmas tree decorated with condoms.
Even a mostly secularized Christmas can be subversive of secularism. The mental gymnastics that enable children to believe in Santa Claus -- one Santa, in spite of the half-dozen they may see while tagging along on a day of shopping -- make their minds limber for believing in astonishments. So do fairy tales, another staple of a well-stocked childhood. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote that:
". . . from my early reading of fairy tales and genii etc. etc. my mind had been habituated to the Vast and I never regarded my senses in any way as the criteria of my belief. I regulated all my creeds by my conceptions, not by my sight, even at that age. Should children be permitted to read romances, and relations of giants and magicians and genii? I know all that has been said against it; but I have formed my faith in the affirmative. I know no other way of giving the mind a love of the Great and the Whole."
Thinking of Santa
Also, the capacity of children to believe in astonishing things can help with social control. Consider this transcript of a recent conversation:
Mother (speaking to the rearview mirror, addressing an unruly child in the back seat): "David, stop it or I'll tell Santa Claus."
David Will (6 and on the edge of skepticism): "How would you do that?"
Mother: "I have Santa's fax number."
David: "How did you get it?"
Mother: "Steven gave it to me."
(Steven runs the neighborhood toy store. David subsided.)
For the past 155 years, Ebenezer Scrooge and the Cratchit family have been the secular carriers of what is nowadays called, with purposeful vagueness, "the Christmas spirit."
Dickens, in his public readings of "A Christmas Carol," would impersonate 23 characters, and until he shortened them, his readings took three hours. Victorians, poor things, lacked modern electronic devices and so had to make do with such entertainment. Still, it softened the hammer blows of the holidays.
For weeks many harried people have been feeling (in P.G. Wodehouse's words) that Christmas has us by the throat. Almost, but not quite, lost amid the commerce and clatter is the astonishing idea of which John Betjeman wrote:
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this simple Truth compare --
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
Important -- very important -- if true.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 12/24/98