Right up until this very date, I annually forget “the true meaning of Christmas”. Then, thanks to a manifest lump of public comment ranging in texture from Christian warmth to cold paranoia, I remember that the “true meaning of Christmas” is to claim that everyone but you has lost sight of “the true meaning of Christmas”. Which is to say, Christmas means arguing about what Christmas means.
There are those who argue very agreeably to have their interpretation of Christmas considered. I have, for example, read some nice secular accounts of the season, which promote the idea of giving and/or reinforcing social ties. I have heard harmonious inter-faith accounts, which say that it’s a time to respect the spirituality of all.
Then, there are those who barrack for their “true meaning” more aggressively. Professional atheists like Sam Harris remind us that it’s a lie built on a flimsy foundation of tinsel. Sam, who is all about “truth”, boasts that he has never misled his small daughter with the corrosive fiction of Santa. This, he says, would mean “lying”, a harmful practice in which he apparently never engages.
I remember that the “true meaning of Christmas” is to claim that everyone but you has lost sight of “the true meaning of Christmas”.
And, there’s Peter Dutton who recently donned club colours to remind us that Christmas exists to remind us that Christmas exists. He proposes that we must defend it strenuously against those who think it doesn’t—I’m reading between the lines here, but I believe this apparently dangerous category of people includes “politically correct” teachers and Muslims—chiefly through the medium of song.
Personally, I find these two latter arguments the most disagreeable. And not just because both the men advancing them strike me as extraordinary bores and one of them as a potentially bad singer. They are disagreeable because they consider Christmas a cultural event that must or can retain a static meaning.
Actually, all the arguments, even the nice ones, have this assumption at their foundation: Christmas has a meaning. While more tolerant arguments may permit that Christmas has fluid or multiple meanings, there are few prepared to entertain the possibility that it may not “mean” anything at all.
If this is your time to compare all cultural values against a single cultural event, you do not have my full attention.
Now, I’m not being a nihilist, here. I’m not saying “Christmas has no true meaning”, and urging you to burn your antlers. If this is your time to reset your charitable values, to attend a place of worship or drink to excess in public wearing nothing but a plastic sprig of holly, you have my merriest endorsement.
But, if this is your time to compare all cultural values against a single cultural event, you do not have my full attention. I can’t say that Christmas is truly up to that significant task. I can say that the belief that it has such significant and unifying potential is only going to end in disappointment, whether yours or someone else’s.
Christmas is, of course, a significant event for many. If it retains significant value for you—even if that value is temporary license to do a lot of shopping or listen to Mariah—that’s just fine and dandy. But the strength of your feeling, whether positive or negative, for Christmas is no guarantee that it can or must provoke a similar response in others.
Paradoxically, the risk you run when publicly declaring the “true meaning” of Christmas is that the event will cease to mean much to many at all. When, for example, Dutton insists that it has always been a time of carolling and shared values, he builds a memory that many of us will immediately recognise as false. I, for example, cannot recall that era that Dutton says he does in which Christian Australians would share a greeting such as he did, “enjoy the birth of our Lord!” In the working-class suburb of my childhood, where us Roman Catholics were well-represented, that sort of evangelical howl would have got you beaten up.
This is not to say that being beaten up for sounding like a US mega-church preacher is something I endorse; being beaten up for any speech act at all is plainly wrong. It is to say that longing for the past, in this case one that barely existed, has a fossilising effect on Christmas.
Christmas has whatever meaning you crave. This meaning can be as joyous, religious, secular, excessive or humanistic as you want.
For someone like me raised in white liberal traditions, Dutton’s claims make Christmas appear like a counterfeit museum piece. For someone raised in non-western traditions, his words make life in the west seem like a cruel, inaccessible thing under glass. For someone who shares Dutton’s opinion that “others” are responsible not only for stealing Christmas but the theft of many meaningful things, they seal themselves up in a display case. “I am the relic of true meaning”, they say. And these artefacts hope for conservation, or a long line of paying admirers.
Christmas has whatever meaning you crave. This meaning can be as joyous, religious, secular, excessive or humanistic as you want. But only if you play out that “true meaning” without the expectation that others will join you. Make your meaning with enthusiasm and sincerity and some of us may be swayed. Impose your meaning with cheerless moral intention, and it will ossify beneath cracked glass.