When I was a child, I remember my father complaining about the fact that Christmas decorations were going up “the day after Thanksgiving.” These days, waiting that long strikes me as the height of monastic patience. Twenty years ago, Christmas decorations went up mid-November. Ten years ago, they went up November first. This year, I saw several stores in the mall break out red and green “merry” window dressings a week before Halloween. By the end of the decade, Black Friday sales might start on the 4th of July.
But why? Why does the Christmas season keep getting longer?
There’s a certain kind of culture critic who is apt to answer, “Greed,” not only to this question but to just about any inquiry into the foibles and idiosyncrasies of contemporary society (or ancient society, for that matter). Modern men tend to believe they’ve figured out “the real story” of a thing as soon as they’ve uncovered its economic angle. All the pomp and ceremony, ritual, tradition, festivity, beauty, and sacrifice of the world merely exist to hide the ugly, selfish truth that underwrites each and every human enterprise.
I don’t buy it, though. I don’t believe the Christmas season keeps getting longer because people are greedy.
Doubtless, there is a marked economic aspect of Christmas, but the same is also true of marriage, academia, and religion, and I don’t believe that these things exist merely to satisfy human greed. A family, a school, and a church necessarily involve finances, although I think it better to see these things as the solutions to various financial problems rather than their cause. I say this because when I imagine my life apart from my family, I tend to picture myself broke, drunk, and weeping alone in a gutter. The same is true when I imagine myself without the church.
All this to say, I am not intimidated by the economic aspect of Christmas. Christmas is good for the economy—and when I say “Christmas,” I mean both the historical birth of Jesus Christ and the massive celebratory spending spree which attends His birth. The fact that Christ’s birth is good for the economy does not dampen my enthusiasm for the holiday whatsoever. Why would it? It’s yet one more boon the Lord’s birth has to offer all men, Christian and heathen alike. And we can’t pretend like spending is the only thing Christmas is good for, because in addition to juicing the economy, Christmas gets many people into church who never go otherwise, and once they’re in, most of them will blithely sing God’s praises simply because nativity hymns are the most beautiful hymns there are.
But to be fair to the grinches, I won’t fain ignorance of the reasons people scoff at Christmas decorations going up in October. “Fine, perhaps there is a justifiable economic aspect to Christmas,” the grinches retort, “but that doesn’t mean that every scrap of economic advantage that can leveraged out of Christmas is justifiable. Christmas in November is bad enough, but Christmas in October? It’s so tawdry. So tasteless. What purpose does such an elongation of the Christmas season have but to boost sales by putting people in “the spending mood” for a longer period of time? And even when the elongated season is not wholly centered around spending, is it not centered around the pleasure of indulging in “Christmas things,” like Yuletide music and food? And isn’t such indulgence a kind of greed? Is it not, at very least, selfish impatience?”
Such arguments tend to miss the unique role which Christmas now plays in the Western imagination. People are anxious for it to be Christmas time because they are anxious for it to be any time at all, and Christmas time is one of the last remaining times there is.
A thousand years ago, every day of the year fell under the spell of one time or another. There was a planting season, a harvest season, the horrors of winter, the relief of spring, but also the numerous feast days in the church calendar: the Annunciation, the birth of Christ, the baptism of Christ, the death of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, the ascension of Christ, Pentecost, not to mention numerous memorials for the friends and family of Christ. Each of these holidays was prefaced with preparation, commemorated with particular sights and sounds and tastes, and followed by festivity. Thus, every day of the year was “time” for something—time for these songs, these prayers, these passages of Scripture, this food, this work, this journey, this preparation, this repentance, this joy. Every finite thing pointed to some infinite thing. Any given Tuesday meant something.
Either by design or accident, this older conception of time is now almost completely gone—and with it, a genuine grasp of reality. That might seem an outlandish claim, yet the older conception of time was a bond which connected the material world with the immaterial, the contingent world with the transcendent.
But there are few times which yet remain. A Tuesday is a Tuesday is a Tuesday.
Nearly every food is now available year-round. Electric light means all our days are all uniformly long. Electric heat means all our days are uniformly comfortable. Everything is recorded and can be seen or heard whenever we feel like it. Winter doesn’t really mean we have to go without anything, and neither does summer. We eat apples all summer, asparagus all autumn. With the drapes closed and a sufficiently powerful HVAC, any day of the year can be plausibly recreated on any other day of the year. And we can buy nearly everything on credit, which means that even payday is largely a thing of the past.
Consequently, time itself has largely become meaningless. The fact that it’s February 22th or March 9th or September 18th no longer suggests something interesting, important, pleasant, or painful is about to happen. Every sort of labor or journey or food or clothing can be indulged in now or put off for later. Pretty much nothing must be done today. There are very few days left on the calendar which necessarily point to something higher and more transcendent than themselves.
Christmas is one of the last things we’ve got which holds out against the meaninglessness of time, which is one of the reasons why we’re so desperate to get to it. We’re desperate for time to mean something.
There is no Memorial Day season, no Thanksgiving season, no Halloween season. Only Christmas is spoken of as “a time” and “a season.” Other holidays entail comparatively minimal levels of purchasing and preparation, whereas there is a Christmas version of nearly every conceivable cultural artifact: Christmas foods, Christmas books, Christmas music, and not only are there Christmas movies, but Christmas action movies, Christmas comedies, Christmas horror movies. We decorate ourselves for Christmas, but also our homes, our cars, and our pets. This isn’t true of any other holiday.
On the one hand, we might be tempted to call this silly, and yet Christmas is really the only chance modern men get every year to connect time with something higher and grander. Christmas means “The time has come for…” something. Reasonable people yearn for time itself to have purpose. Unless time has meaning, we cannot.
My suspicion, then, is that as mankind gains more and more control over nature, we will need Christmas to begin earlier and earlier. If we are impatient, we are impatient to escape the atheistic world of time in which modernity has trapped us.
“So,” sneers the grinch, “you’d prefer Christmas to begin in January? Is that what you’re shilling for now?” Well, in a manner of speaking, yes. Absolutely.
Inasmuch as Christmas is the celebration of Christ’s coming, there’s some sense in which the old Medieval church calendar was a yearlong Christmas celebration, although different aspects of His life were variously celebrated over a twelve-month period. Once you stretch the celebration of His life out over twelve months, for logistical reasons (as well as economic reasons, health reasons, etc.) it can’t be candy canes, credit cards, and Nat King Cole the whole time. Christ’s birth is an aspect of His coming, but so is His death, as is everything He said and did in between, for that matter, and all that He continues to do mysteriously since His departure.
The choice we have is this: Christ or nothing. Meaning or meaninglessness. But nature abhors a vacuum, and so does supernature. So bring it on. October had it coming. September is next.