Do we know what’s Christmas?
Christmas! Some sing, ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’ Others ask, What’s the point of Christmas? Some say they don’t believe in Christmas while yet others are dismissive of the whole thing as a concocted commercial festhog.
Whatever Christmas is, it’s not concocted – it’s cosmic! As with any ancient festival – fertility and harvest festivals spring to mind – we know it’s about man (and possibly woman) trying to establish a place for him/herself in the greater order of things. Regardless of why a place like Stonehenge was built or whatever went on in it the fact that such a monumental structure was built at all tells us of its overwhelming significance in people’s lives. This vast mortuary temple linked people with both their ancestors and the heavenly powers at a crucial turning point of the mid-winter solstice.
We cannot see back into those ancient times much beyond the Classical world, simply because it’s only since then that records have been kept, but their resonance remained, incarnate in other forms. For the Romans this midwinter turning point was under the auspices of the god of time, Chronus (‘Old Father Time’) in the guise of Saturn. The Saturnalia was the riotous celebration of endings and beginnings, when normal order broke down with no regard for deference or difference; when the ‘Lord of the Misrule’ ruled and slaves and masters regardless were greeted as equals with raucous ‘Io’ s’.
It was a celebration of the Sol Invictus – the invincible sun, on which all life depends. From the pharaoh Akenaton to the painter JMW Turner – whose last words were, “The sun is god” – this solar orb has preoccupied humanity and been seen as pivotal to life. For the prophet of post-religious non-belief, Don Cupitt, it is the symbol of his Solar Ethics, of the overwhelming outpouring of energy and boundless giving which not only makes life possible but which should underpin morality. The Sermon on the Mount says as much, for does not the sun shine on the just and unjust alike?
And this is where the Christmas we know picks up – the next layer of cultural accretion to enhance the festival. The earliest theological spin was quoted by St Paul in his letter to the Philippians with its lyrical eulogizing of divine self-emptying, of the divine becoming human, a theme taken up in the gospel of the Christmas Day Mass in which St. John the Evangelist acclaims the divine outpouring of the eternal Word becoming flesh.
That the Saturnalia should become spiritualised was theological rather than literal or historic – Jesus could have been born at any time, probably March – but it provided further foundation for a vast array of other cultural events and historical figures: a staging for the glorious pantomime in which all the world could mime. Pre-eminent was St.Nicholaus – Santa Claus – with his solar ethic of life-saving generosity. The little gifts which we can give to others and the small deeds of graciousness, such as the saint encapsulates, are but a pale reflection of the greater abundance of life in which we all share and which makes our life possible.
In Buddhist spirituality it is not the recipient who is the beneficiary of our gifts but ourselves, the giver, who are privileged to be able to enter in to the deepest currents of spiritual life through the opportunity to give to others. In JRR Tolkien’s fantasy world one of the most endearing characteristics of Hobbit’s is their love of giving and receiving presents at any opportunity. And we need such a spirit in order to live.
Christmas is a celebration of the incarnation of the life giving spirit of generosity essential for life. Now embodied in the archetypal figure of Father Christmas it is such archetypes which, as the psychoanalyst Karl Jung saw, are essential to giving meaning to life. Towards the end of his life he wrote that among all his older patients there was not one who had not fallen ill other than through losing an overall spiritual understanding of life, regardless of any particular creed. Amongst his prezzies Father Christmas has the answer to existential neurosis. We need his spirit in order to live. We need to become Father Christmas.