Rorate Caeli

"Post-Christmas Notes", a Maureen Mullarkey op-ed

We are very pleased to announce the new occasional contributor to Rorate Caeli, Maureen Mullarkey, who will, whenever time allows her to contribute (dare we hope, very frequently!), add the Catholic lay voice on what we might call "the Arts and Modern Concerns" to the list of matters presented and discussed on this blog.

Thank you, Maureen, and welcome to the team!

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The worthless man who loves things connected with birth keeps birthday festivals. (Origen)
It is not quite true that there is nothing new under the sun. You and I—we are what is new. Every generation is new under the sun. It all begins again with ourselves. We have a hard time imagining “is now and ever shall be” as anything that might differ substantially from our own now.

[Eugene Grasset. Angels Prepare Food for Mary and Jesus. Front cover, L'Illustration, Christmas issue, 1893]

It is easy to forget that Christmas as we know it is something of a latecomer. It was not celebrated in the early Church. Christians in the first two or three centuries understood themselves to be an Easter people, persecuted inheritors of the promise of the Resurrection. The death and resurrection of Jesus was the heartsblood of the faith. Within a community marked for martyrdom, it was the death date that earned commemoration. Death marked the day of initiation into eternal life, into the stunning mystery of Christ's victory over death.

Absent the Resurrection, there was no counter to the words of Jeremiah: "Cursed be the day on which I was born." Origen was emphatic on the matter:

Not one from all the saints is found to have celebrated a festive day or a great feast on the day of his birth. No one is found to have had joy on the day of the birth of his son or daughter. Only sinners rejoice over this kind of birthday.

Prior to the fourth century, there is scarce, if any, written evidence of an annual celebration of the Nativity on December 25th. Not until the fourth century—as newly unshackled Christianity spread northward from Jerusalem, north Africa, and the Mediterranean, into central and northern Europe—did popular custom ingest facets of those pre-Christian winter festivals that greeted its arrival.

[Saturnalia.. Portal of the Months (12th C.). Ferrara Cathedral.]

The Roman Saturnalia is the one we know best. Every December 17th on the old Julian calendar, the Roman Forum offered sacrifice to Saturn, that complex sovereign of rebirth and renewal. The following three days and more were devoted to frolic: partying, feasting, street processions, bonfires. People visited from house to house, bearing gifts. Buildings and homes were decorated with laurel and candle-lit boughs of shrubbery. It was, in the words of The Oxford Classical Dictionary, “the best of days.”

Role-reversals enlivened the pageantry. Mock kings, forerunners of the boy bishops of medieval Christmas celebrations, were chosen, costumed, and fêted. Saturnalia provided the template, sweetened by the Victorians, for what we still think of as a traditional Christmas.

So, please, let us spare ourselves complaints about the commercialization of Christmas. All that hectic shopping and wrapping we delight in lamenting is a tribute, in its way, to the cornucopia of modern manufactured goods that has freed us from having to make our own presents. And our own everything else. There is pleasure in a winter carnival, however heathen and frenetic. Enjoy it.

[Walter Crane. Christmas Stocking (c. 1875).]

We are threatened by our own debility, not by merchandising. What ought to concern us is the half-heartedness that has crept into the day. Christmas, sapped of the elation that was once natural to it, signals ever more clearly a fading religious landscape. Certainly, a dimming Christian influence. The consumerist Christmas machine is a easy target; but that is not what is worrisome. Rather, it is a growing embarrassment about Christmas, even hostility toward it.

What good is a Saturnalia with a hush over it? One that comes with cautions and hesitations? Even secular Christmas music went missing from local stores this year. All the piped background music in the mall, the dentist's office, hair salon, and deli was the usual elevator fare punctuated with an occasional—very occasional—"Jingle Bells" or something about Rudolph. You know things have slid when the sound of Celine Dion singing "I'm Your Angel" makes you want to genuflect.

[Rie Cramer. Father Christmas, postcard (c. 1906).]

Browse your Christmas mail. There is only one Child whose birth we celebrate on Christmas day, one Person who counts above all others. But would you know that from the bulk of cards that come more as self-advertisement than greeting? Each year brings a greater number of self-celebratory family snapshots-turned-Christmas-card. Some are commercially printed (Love, Laurie, Steve, Amy, and Amanda in Palatino or Times New Roman). Others are nicely turned out on a home computer.

Here are the Donaldsons, under water in scuba gear, somewhere off the Emerald Coast near Pensacola. There are the Edwards, lined up in size places on a North Carolina beach. The Youngs are in their backyard with the new dog. The Walstons sent a selfie from their vacation in Iceland. (Nice fumarole.) The Leverings positioned themselves at the base of Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square this last September. Two Taylor kids look cute on a pony. Three Hennelly tykes mug for the camera with Pokemon masks.

Back to a beach someplace warm and lovely with the Olsens. (Is that the Maldives or Costa Rica?) Yet another beach scene from the Sullivans in wind breakers; they hold hands on wind-swept dunes. (Were they on Nantucket again this year?) Do not forget the Russos, smiling from a red Range Rover with Cathedral Rock as a backdrop. (You've been to Sedona, too, haven't you?) Lest we forget they were in Thailand this summer, the Rausches had themselves photographed in front of the Wat Umong shrine. Just above their preprinted signatures is a Buddhist mantra: "All things arise, exist, and expire.”

Merry Christmas.

[Eugene Grasset. Poster advertising Harper's Christmas edition (c. 1894).]

Our contemporary Christmas lies in bits and pieces. Individuals still greet each other with "Merry Christmas" but the words have dropped from the seasonal common stock of the broader culture. Shop clerks have been primed to get the jump on things by chirping "Happy holidays." If a customer responds with "Merry Christmas," as often as not clerks lower their eyes. Heads go down with a muttered, "Same to you."

I tease myself with the fantasy of responding—at the butcher, the baker, the library, Starbuck's, or the town clerk's office—with a ringing: "And a happy damned holiday to you, too!" It will never happen. I am too reticent to do it. But I can make believe.

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One thing I cannot do is accustom myself to the sight of a large Christmas wreath hanging from the foot of the massive crucifix behind the altar in my local church. The red-ribboned wreath, touching the toes of the stone corpus, speaks a language unmistakably different from that of the crucifix. Here an emblem of transcendent holiness—of the pure, all-perfect Victim—is coupled with a seasonal embellishment as if no distinction existed between them. The placement is jarring. You have to be tone deaf to miss the dissonance.

I look at that wreath through the filter of today's events—the accelerating vigor of Islam, its bloodlust, and hatred of Christianity—and wonder how long before we recollect what it means to be an Easter people. Christiani ad leones, the ancient cry resonating in the Flavian Amphitheatre, has transmuted into Allahu Akbar on our news channels. Slowly, inexorably, we are being driven to remember that the Nativity has meaning for us only in light of the Resurrection.

Nativity celebrations marked Christianity's ascendance. That ascendancy was concretized in luminous art, music, and architecture. But it is blood that marks our decline. The chalice of eternal salvation pours out upon us not from a manger, but from the foot of the Cross.
Maureen Mullarkey is a senior contributor to The Federalist and keeps the weblog Studio Matters.