A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
I love Christmas. I love everything about it. I love Santa and the reindeer, jingle bells, mistletoe, the baby Jesus and the Wise Men – everything. I like the crowds and the bitchin’ and the music in the malls. I even tolerate that stupid little drummer boy – the first 500 times, anyway. It’s all too cool but I’m an old-fashioned guy, so I like the older traditions best. That’s why, every year, I wait, in uncontrollable anticipation, for one of our society’s oldest and dearest traditions — the arrival of the Annual Idiot. For me, the arrival of the Annual Idiot actually kicks off the Christmas season. When I was younger, the Annual Idiot was usually a school teacher with a full beard or the woman who didn’t shave her legs. However, like most traditions, the Annual Idiot has changed over the years. Today, the Annual Idiot could be anyone — a friend, a colleague, the guy you meet in the mall, even a family member. Like Christmas itself, the Annual Idiot has become somewhat universal.
For those of you who haven’t figured it out yet, the Annual Idiot is that person, who, filled with the spirit of “I’m Smarter than You Are” (and overcome with joy at the sound of their own voice) takes it upon themselves to explain just how screwed up Christmas really is. This can be as simple as the politically correct guy who stops you in mid “Merry Christmas” to tell you to say “Happy Holidays” because it’s more inclusive. Or it could be the holier-than-thou woman who tells you, “Christmas is becoming just too commercialized.” Or it could be that pompous ass who explains, “According to the fragmentary records from the Augustan period of the Roman Era, tax collection was done in July of the Julian calendar; therefore, Christ could not possibly have been born in December.” But the one I like the best is the cynical jerk who questions the holiday itself, asking, “How did we get from the birth of the ‘so-called’ Saviour to Santa Claus and elves? All of the things we have for this ‘so-called’ Christian holiday are really just pagan symbols, you know.” When I hear these dulcet voices singing, I know it’s finally Christmas. I like to take a second or two to contemplate the infinite universe and its delights before I respond, in my best little kid voice, “Sorry, I forgot.” What these neo-fascists don’t realize is that they’re engaging in a Christmas tradition that is one of our very oldest. Christmas bashing actually pre-dates most of what we know to be a traditional Christmas. In truth, these modern merry morons are merely acting like our most intolerant Christian ancestors – the Puritans. They didn’t like Christmas, either – over 400 years ago.
In Elizabethan England, Christmas was the main holiday of the year. When good Queen Bess was on the throne, the locals really knew how to party. First of all, Christmas lasted 12 days – the 12 days of Christmas, from the song. Secondly, nobody went to work, so if you wanted your doublet fixed, you were out of luck until January. What people did was roll out of bed and head for the nearest tavern. They drank and gambled and chased women (who generally tried not to run that fast.) They sang bawdy songs, ate, laughed, joked and then drank some more – and this went on every day. They dressed up as supernatural creatures and animals and danced in the streets or watched the acrobats, the bear-baiting or one of Will Shakespeare’s new comedies. It was called Topsy-Turvy time — when the servant became the master and the shepherd became the sheep. The Elizabethans celebrated by honouring the Lord of Misrule, a local dimwit or barmaid who rode backwards on a donkey through the streets to the steps of a church or cathedral where he or she was crowned, in front of the cheering, jeering mob. Basically, it was all one big, queen-sized debauch. Obviously, our ancestors saw Christmas as a time to have fun, much as we do. So it was only a matter of time before somebody tried to put a stop to it.
Enter the Puritans. Without overstating it, the Puritans were a gang of uptight, intolerant fanatics who wanted the world to do as it was told, and they wanted to do the telling. They were so narrow-minded they could look through a keyhole with both eyes. They believed life was a serious business and anybody who wasn’t serious about it needed to be whipped into shape – literally. They also believed they had all the answers, and were willing to provide them even when nobody was asking for their opinion. Actually, they compare very well with our contemporary Christmas bashers — except the Puritans were better organized. They looked at Christmas, circa 1570, and practically burst an internal organ. One unnamed source wrote “There is nothing else [at Christmas] but cards, dice, tables, masking, mumming, bowling and such fooleries…” It was clearly the work of the Devil. As early as 1583, some churches were setting penance for “keeping the superstitious day called Yule,” and by the turn of the 16th century, the common folk were well-advised to stay off the streets after the middle of December. The times were changing in Merrye Olde England: it was getting a lot less merry. By the time Cromwell and his Puritan crowd actually came to power, anybody who wanted to celebrate Christmas did it at their peril, and in the privacy of their own hovel. Within a couple of years, there was nothing much left of Christmas, and on December 24th, 1652, it was formally banned. The proclamation read, “That no observation shall be had of the five and twentieth day of December, commonly called Christmas nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches.” It would take Christmas just about 200 years to recover.
So you see, all those oh-so-enlightened Christmas bashing freaks who wander the earth, setting the world straight every December, are just following in the footsteps of their Puritan ancestors. They’re actually celebrating their very own, very old Christmas tradition. That’s why I wait for them so eagerly every year. They’re as much a part of Christmas as Santa Claus himself.
Wednesday: A Modern Christmas, or how Santa Claus finally came to town.