'Tis the season to be jolly,' but 'jolly' about what?

'Tis the season to be jolly,' but 'jolly' about what?
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Each year we notice that what used to be called Christmas decorations are put up sometime around Thanksgiving. In effect, they bypass the preparatory season of Advent, a more austere few weeks designed to emphasize the long waiting period that is usually necessary if we are to understand something that is really glorious. Advent recapitulated the whole long period of waiting for a plan to develop, for something to come about.

The old carol about this season implies that we are sometimes to be precisely “jolly.” Its logic implies that other seasons have other things, also important, to deal with. If we only had “jolly” seasons, we would not have any real “jolly” season at all. We would not notice the difference between one season and another. We see that to appreciate something, it is often advisable to be without it for a while. We are made for reality, but too much reality all at once overwhelms us. Some things we must take gradually.

We can, moreover, only be “jolly” if there is something in our world that is worth celebrating. But is “our world” worth celebrating? It depends on what we think the world, the cosmos, is. If matter is a trap for our spirit, as the old and new Manicheans teach, then we can only be “jolly” if we escape from it.

But even if creation is a good thing, as it is, it may not be exactly what we are looking for as a steady diet. We notice that non-human things do not really know what they are. And if we learn what they reveal about themselves, it is only because we learned it by examining them for what they already were without our help. We marvel at the intricacy of finite things. Pascal was both awed and frightened by the infinite spaces of the cosmos. The more astonishing thing is that we, as human beings, have a capacity to know what is not ourselves.

I was recently in Southern California. I recall passing by the automated billboard of the local college. It announced up-coming seasonal events. We were invited, not to an evening of Christmas carols, but to “A Concert of Celebration.” The notion of “celebrating” celebration is, for the most part, incoherent. We have to “celebrate” or honor something worthy, an event, a being, that elicits the joyful response that is revealed through music, especially Christmas music.

The culture is haunted by words it cannot express because it will not identify the event, the reason why the celebration, with its music, existed in the first place. A price is to be paid when we separate words and the reality to which they refer. It leaves the imagination free to fill words in with new configurations of what was removed from the account of reality to which the words and music originally referred.

Chesterton said somewhere that all the good things in the old pagan world were not lost. They were retrained and transformed into the new ritual. Christmas itself, including probably its date, with many surrounding customs, came from this assimilation. Good things ought not to be lost when better things come along.

We have seen an aggressive, often insidious, attempt to remove from the public culture any word, the pronunciation or singing of which might refer to, remind us of what Christmas initially meant, any reason why it is worth celebrating. Why, we wonder, is this removal so important to those who pursue it? Why isn’t enough just not to hold something? Why must the very word that refers to the event be proscribed?

If we look at Christmas music, the carols, the chants that referred to the birth of Christ, the “Silent Nights” and the “Adeste Fideles,” we see that at a certain point new songs came into vogue. White Christmases, chestnuts on an open fire, Rudolf, and silver bells had already shifted the sentiment of Christmas away from the crib and the angels singing on high. But there was little difficulty, in Chesterton’s sense, of associating these moods with the event of Christmas.

We now have a mandatory “happy holidays” and schools have “winter breaks.” The president, at this year’s lighting of the National Christmas Tree, was actually brash enough to recall the original meanings of Christmas greetings. In doing so, he knew that most people would recall the reality behind the Christmas words and songs.

But the effort to stigmatize anyone who used Christmas words, to remove even the Christmas words from sound waves and letters does reveal a deep, unacknowledged intolerance in the minds of these zealots. It was the very existence of these songs and words that had to be removed.

There is something unusual here. We have seen in recent years a neo-iconoclasm in which the very statues and buildings of some past event or person were destroyed. Similarly, the “hate-language” mentality that removes despised words and songs is a version of this iconoclasm of statues, paintings, and buildings. When one excludes a word and the reality behind it, it means that that reality persists now underground. Yet, as Aquinas showed, the best way to deal with something we think not to be true is to formulate it, state precisely what is our problem.

In the case of Christmas words and songs, we simply forbid their usage without acknowledging their meaning. By this prohibition, we implicitly admit the abiding power of what we dismiss. We also refuse to engage with those who know the meaning of Christmas in the truth of its own statement.

In other words, in not articulating or wanting to formulate what we reject, we leave ourselves with our own imaginations as the real source of our objections to Christmas words and songs. We do not face the issue of whether the reality to which they refer was true or not.

The Rev. James Schall, S.J., author of “A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning & Being Forgiven,” is professor emeritus at Georgetown University. His latest book is “The Satisfied Crocodile: Essays on G. K. Chesterton.”