[This isn’t really a post about philosophy, but since its the Christmas period I feel obliged to write something related. What I plan to do here is to analyse our culture’s worldview by looking at my favourite non-Christian Christmas song (‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’). Unfortunately, my training in philosophy compels me to write a short summary in the introduction to the biblical framework of idolatry that I use for completeness sake — its largely just the understanding of idolatry from the reformed tradition. I have been much helped in my understanding of this by reading “For Their Rock is not as Our Rock” by Daniel Strange. (Which is really an update and summary of the thoughts of many earlier thinkers.)]
Christmas is a time of celebration, and as a Christian what I celebrate is the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came into our broken world to identify with sinners and ultimately to die for their sin. But everyone celebrates during Christmas, and clearly not everyone is a Christian, so it begs the question: what exactly are they celebrating? Some Christians may immediately shoot back: “Materialism!” (i.e. the insatiable consumption of goods. Not to be confused with the metaphysical hypothesis of the same name.) Perhaps some really do see Christmas as an opportunity to satisfy their endless desire for consumer products, but when we see other non-Christians decrying the same materialistic strain during Christmas, we know that this cannot be the root of their celebration.
Man and Worship
The bible’s thesis about humans is that we are all worshippers — all of us have been made to know and to worship God and it is as we come to him that we find our deepest longings and needs met, when men reject God they do not cease to worship but the bible says that they begin to deify and idolise something in creation. Men “claiming to be wise, [have] became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” (Romans 1:22-23) Idolatry is not confined simply to physical idols made of wood or stone — idols are whatever our hearts, the core of our beings, find rest, comfort, identity and indeed salvation in; they are whatever we long for and sacrifice and worship.
These idols are counterfeit gods — that they are counterfeit means two things: (1) they reveal something about the sinful hearts of men who created them (2) they reveal something about the God of which they are a counterfeit. To understand what one worships points us to the sin of man, but because we are made for God, even the idols we make resemble God as a cheap imitation. Christopher Wright thus notes:
“The fallen duplicity of man is that he simultaneously seeks after God his Maker and flees from God his Judge. Man’s religions, therefore, simultaneously manifest both these human tendencies.”
A New Christmas Liturgy
What we find in the modern celebration of Christmas is an almost literal exchange of the worship of God for the worship of other things. The best way to understand the new worship is to look at our new liturgy, one manifestation of which is the secular Christmas songs that are heard alongside the old hymns in shopping malls. Some songs are of course, utterly frivolous — ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Frosty the Snowman’ don’t really reveal any of the deep longings of humanity. Others, however, do reflect some kind of deep longing, such as ‘White Christmas’ and ’Last Christmas’. The song we will look at is ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. I confess this is partly because its my favourite non-Christian Christmas song — the tune is excellent and the lyrics are utterly poignant. But more importantly I do believe the song reflects something of the heart of modern Christmas. For those who don’t know the song or do not recognise the title:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light
Next year all
Our troubles will be out of sight.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the Yule-tide gay,
Next year all
Our troubles will be miles away.
Once again as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Will be near to us once more.
Someday soon, we all will be together,
If the Fates allow
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow,
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
(These lyrics are from the original song sung in the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis”)
‘Once Again as in Olden Days’
The first two stanzas hint that we look to the Christmas holiday as an opportunity to rest, to escape from the myriad “troubles” that we face. The world is broken and messy — we are bogged down and exhausted by turmoil at work and relationships and there is the expectation that we will find rest at some place. I think many of us expect this rest to come during Christmas. Even secular people who bemoan the consumeristic materialism of our age and during Christmas as well seek rest from the spiritual exhaustion of chasing after the next flashy consumer product. But what exactly is the rest that we look forward too?
The heart of the song, I believe, lies in the third and fourth stanzas — here we see what we worship, what we long for during Christmas. There are two interconnected elements (1) a sense of nostalgia and (2) the warmth of family and friends. When we come to Christmas, we are overcome with nostalgia for the innocent times of our childhood, perhaps memories of when as children we looked forward to Christmas as the time when there would be parties with our families and all seemed rosy. If we never experienced this in our childhood, Christmas sells us the idea that we can recreate that experience which we never had. Consider the first line of another song, ‘White Christmas’: “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas, just like the ones I used to know…”.
There is something sublime that we look for during Christmas, something intimate and precious. We think that we will have it by revisiting the olden days, by gathering our dear friends and family back again. It is to these that we have turned to seek and find our rest. Yet anyone who has been to any Christmas party since their adolescence knows that the hope of recreating what we thought we experienced is a lie — we are made to long for it, but it never finds its fulfilment as we attempt to recreate our past or gather our loved ones.
C.S. Lewis gives an insightful analysis of this longing:
“Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
The last thing we see in the song is the bleakness of the secular worldview. The possibility of reunion is left to blind fate and until the next Christmas, we drag ourselves through the year. Some versions of the song have edited and changed the line “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow” and replaced it with the utterly facile “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough”. The original better reflects the sentiment of Christmas — it is the time we huddle as we peer over the dark precipice of the coming year of bustling emptiness. The final instruction is deeply poignant: “So”, in light of the muddle of our world, “have yourself a merry little Christmas now”. We must create and seek these precious moments now, before they are taken forever by the dead fates.
That Little Town of Bethlehem
No, this hopelessness cannot have the last word. The Israelites of old held in their hearts the promise of a day when those who walk in darkness will see a great light (Isaiah 9:2) but indeed this is the longing of all our hearts. We all long to cast off this sense of emptiness and dread and guilt that we feel and to be reconciled to something. Christmas reignites these longings, but we have been looking for this reconciliation in recreating our childhood, by being surrounded by our loved ones — soon we are alone again and the cave is even darker now that the small candle has gone out.
But the image of that town, that manger, draws me in again. The theological paradox which is the incarnation, God become Man, becomes strangely warm. In the still of that night, Christ was born. He was born into a life of labour and loneliness, ultimately dying forsaken — he would become one that men would shun and reject and spit on. But he holds a strange attraction to all who have known brokenness in some way both within themselves and without. Chesterton rightly said that this is “the place where God was homeless and all men are at home”. Christmas day comes and the same strange longing comes to me again as it does to everyone else, but as I think of Jesus it hits me afresh, ‘Ah! This was what I was celebrating all along.’ And then I sing:
O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.