Some of you know that before there was Christmas, a Roman pagan holiday was celebrated on December 25th. The birth of the Zoroastrian deity Mithras, the “Sun of Righteousness,” was popular with the Legion. Should awareness of the shifting significance of this date dampen our awe at this holiday? Absolutely not. The Liberal Ironist has previously discussed his atheism; what he hasn’t done in this space is express his appreciation for “Christmas” in pretty-much all its manifestations.
Before I continue, a very Happy Holidays to those who feel left out of a discussion of Christmas. While it’s a bit hokey, I want to say something about what Christmas is, in all its seemingly-contradictory forms. Other holy days and holidays fall at this time of year, and some of these take on outsize importance within their own traditions because “the Holiday season” inspires a certain yearly rhythm in Western countries. Hanukkah, for instance, isn’t intended to be a central holiday in the Jewish tradition, but it’s shoehorned into an important role in our broader Western context that celebrates its most-affectionate holidays during the darkest days of the year. Does anyone think this is a coincidence?
The darkness without is the reason why Romans were already deeply invested in holidays on December 25th. The Liberal Ironist thought about this while attending a lovely holiday concert at the campus chapel this Sunday. The event involved several on-campus and off-campus choir groups, but was sponsored by one of the Christian organizations on campus. The music performed was almost exclusively-Christian, but an ironist can get something out of that, too. Richard Rorty, coiner of the term, thought as much:
“…Christianity did not know that its purpose was the alleviation of cruelty…But we know (this), for we latecomers can tell the kind of story of progress which those who are actually making progress cannot. We can view these people as toolmakers rather than discoverers because we have a clear sense of the product which the use of those tools produced. The product is us–our conscience, our culture, our form of life. Those who made us possible could not have envisaged what they were making possible, and so could not have described the ends to which their work was a means. But we can.” (Contingency, Irony and Solidarity 55-56)
Ralph Waldo Emerson had a less-ironic (and perhaps as a result, more-eloquent) way of describing the philosophical significance of Jesus:
“Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets…Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of divine emotion, ‘I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.’…” (“The Divinity School Address,” Essays and Lectures, 80)
Why am I concerning myself with these things now, and what does it have to do with my love of traditional Christmas music, and what does either have to do with the darkest days of the year? They definitely all tie together; there is a celebratory core in Christmas that an atheist can appreciate on its own terms.
Christmas is, if you’ll forgive an inexact cliché, about the power of positive feeling. This is true for the religious who are concerned with allegory, and it’s true for those just excited to give and receive presents. What is key is that people come together in spite of the brutishness of outside weather conditions, historical strain on the food supply or the general depressive effect of the short hours of sunlight. Christmas is special among holidays for its celebrants because its purpose in this season could not be more-extreme: It is a time for people to feel a joy that transcends the incidents of the year and which defies external conditions. This is only possible because we do it together. Whether Christmas signifies the birth of Jesus, time spent with family, the exchange of gifts or even its own rampant commercialization, it still works and makes the darkest and first truly cold days of the year the happiest for millions.
Not everyone feels this way. Many people don’t get that warm glow, feel overlooked somehow (though not all would put it that way), and just want to get through each Christmas. The Liberal Ironist has never felt that way, but to those who do feel left out I would suggest they meet the celebrants halfway. Our moods are usually not mysterious, but nor are they a rational response to circumstances; they are simply our response, and we can change this experience somewhat by thinking about the part we will play in the season. Giving gifts bring some of us a deep feeling of contentment.
So can singing carols with others. That was what got me on this subject. Again, this Sunday I heard a beautiful Christmas concert. The variety of Christmas music from the sublime to the deliberately-banal is evidence enough of all the room in this holiday for different sorts. The audience sang along for “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” and “Silent Night,” our few voices resonating in a space designed to turn voices into thunder. A men’s choir performed the closing set, including a beautiful and solemn number I had never heard before, Morton Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium.”
I had never heard Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium” before. If you have the time, please take a listen.
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.
This chant evokes a peculiar combination of humility and expressive awe which doesn’t come naturally to an admitted liberal ironist. I am ambivalent about the extent to which a non-believer has a right to religious sentiments; under what circumstances do exalted sentiments assume belief in God, miracles or an afterlife? Alternately, the non-believer may legitimately have an experience of some kinds of awe but still find himself parasitic on the naively-faithful for a language in which to express them. The Magnum Mysterium is an expression of both awe and gratitude at the realization that from humble origins, great things may come. This wasn’t always felt, this “estimation of the greatness of man;” it was a truth that had to be created. If a Roman Jew who lived in Palestine 2,000 years ago spoke of these things, and someone else understood him, here is miracle-enough already.