Several years ago, I had the good fortune to spend Christmas just outside of Rome. There is a town called Rocca di Papa perched high in the Alban Hills, and I visited there by mistake one afternoon because I'd boarded the wrong bus. As I waited in the piazza for a new bus to take me back from where I came, I noticed a sign on the door of one local establishment. It read: “Partito Comunisto di Rocca di Papa.” Just below that was another sign, which read: “Buon Natale!” The local communist party wishing me a Merry Christmas . . . how delightful!
Christmas is like that, though. Everyone wants to be a part of it, even if celebrating it seems a bit of a contradiction. For all our culture's corrosive secularism — it's real, let's not deny or diminish it — I don't think there is a more thoroughly sacramental season than Advent. And I think our culture actually reflects that, even much of the nonsense of the tacky “Happy Holidays” sort.
In one sense, Christmas has become a kind of a pop-culture free-for-all. The week before Thanksgiving, my local “smooth jazz” (or is it “adult contemporary”?) radio station started playing “Holiday” music and has promised not to stop until December 25th. That's a lot of Trans-Siberian Orchestra. But presumably advertisers will pay for this. What better way to get holiday shoppers into a holiday mood than to play holiday music?
We've been complaining about this commodification of all things Christmas since at least 1947, when Alfred, the Macy's janitor in Miracle on 34thStreet lamented, “There's a lot of bad ‘isms' floatin' around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism. Make a buck, make a buck. Even in Brooklyn it's the same – don't care what Christmas stands for, just make a buck, make a buck.” Alfred didn't know how good he had it.
The new(ish) phenomenon of Black Friday, with its harrowing tales of trampled grannies and pepper spray wielding shoppers, has become an annual occasion for cultural self-flagellation. It's hard to shake the discomforting suspicion that the guy camping out in the Best Buy parking lot to buy a new TV he otherwise couldn't afford and the lady surprising her husband with a new $80,000 car (complete with giant bow) are not that different.Parsimony and prodigality, after all, grow from the same root.
Not all of our pop-culture gets it wrong. In A Charlie Brown Christmas, the eponymous Mr. Brown tries to discover, or perhaps to recall, what Christmas is about. It begins with Charlie Brown saying to Linus van Pelt, “Christmas is coming, but I'm not happy. I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel.” Eventually he's driven to ask in exasperation, “Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” Linus's famous response – quoting most of the second chapter of Luke's Gospel — leaves little room for improvement. That A Charlie Brown Christmas has been an Advent staple since 1965 demonstrates, if in a small way, that this culture of ours is not quite as shallow as it sometimes lets on.
And isn't that precisely what Advent is about? If the run-up to Christmas draws our materialism into the open, isn't that good? If Advent makes us reflect, even out of frustration, on what Christmas is all about, then Advent is doing what Advent is supposed to do: pointing us to the Mystery of the Incarnation in the Nativity of our Savior. And that's why I say Advent is the most sacramental season, even in our secularized society.
Is there any other time of year when our culture, for all its many faults and sins, at least acts as though things bear significance and meaning beyond their own utility? We surround ourselveswith symbols and signs: trees and lights, holly and wreaths. We sing carols and tell stories (or watch them . . . sometimes the same ones, over and over and OVER again.) We prepare special foods that we'd otherwise never eat. We give gifts.
Perhaps most telling, at no other time of year is our culture so concerned with preserving traditions; an implicit admission that beneath all the consumerism and commercialism remains the conviction that there is something deeper still — a persistent truth – toward which all this stuff points. We remain convinced, like Charlie Brown, that as Christmas approaches we're supposed to feel a certain way — that we're meant to be happy, even joyful, in response to . . . well . . . to something. And as fickle as “feelings” can be, they are not nothing. Even the most obstinate pagan can feel wistful at year's end.
So let's not absolve our culture of its vulgarities. But let's do remember that there is much in this season of anticipation that resonates deeply with our culture even as it contradicts some of our less noble inclinations. As people concerned with spreading the Good News, this should be a consolation to us; an incentive to redouble our efforts. Above all, let us not forget that this is a season of hope precisely because of the darkness of our sin:
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
Upon those who lived in a land of gloom
a light has shone!
Stephen P. Whiteis a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society.
This article first appeared on “The Catholic Thing” (www.thecatholicthing.org), copyright 2011, all rights reserved.