Another Advent season is upon us, and with it come the predictable laments about the crass commercialism and overconsumption of the season. These laments are (mostly) good and appropriate and, for the most part, go largely unheeded. We like to give and receive gifts, after all. And we find it oh so difficult to resist the siren’s call to the mall.
We also hear familiar strains about “keeping Christ in Christmas,” whether in the form of protests against secular vs. religious greetings (“Happy Holidays” vs. “Merry Christmas”), Santa Claus and his elves vs. nativity scenes, or simply a vague sense that Jesus plays altogether too insignificant a role in the season’s celebrations for most. For many, it’s hard to swallow how the birth of a humble king, born in a barn to a teenage peasant girl has been co-opted into a trivial narrative of shopping till you drop, of candy canes and reindeer and elves and mistletoe.
All this is fine as far as it goes, I suppose. It is appropriate to push back against the commercialization of Christmas. And it is important to think carefully about Jesus at this time of year and ask ourselves what the season really means—especially here, in the postmodern, post-Christian west where the grand narrative that guided long periods of our cultural development, that shaped human hope and imagination for long centuries is in danger of receding from our collective memories.
But lamenting can often sound a lot like whining. And whining gets old very quickly. What if, instead of lamenting, we looked at the mixed-up motives and general confusion of how Christmas is celebrated in our culture as an opportunity to identify and respond to human longing and hope?
To take one relatively trivial example, think of Christmas decorations. One lawn display I saw this week had baby Jesus in a manger with the familiar Mary and Joseph, a shepherd or two, and some angels but also with Santa Claus approvingly looking on with his elves and reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, and with the whole scene guarded by a perimeter of glowing candy canes, presents, and tinsel. Apparently Jesus was born at the North Pole :).
What might we make of this odd cultural artifact, proudly displayed in secular, post-Christian Canada in 2012? It doesn’t seem to fit. We have moved beyond primitive stories about the supernatural, the story often goes. There was a time when people believed in magic and God, in angels and elves and miraculous virgin births and stars leading the way to stables, but we are enlightened modern people who base our views on logic and reason, not old stories. We require proof. We believe what we can see and hear and touch.
Charles Taylor is a Canadian philosopher from McGill University who has written a massive and very influential book called The Secular Age. Taylor calls the rise of secularism/modernity a “subtraction story” where, as time marches on, human beings have gradually “sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge.” It is a story of gradual “disenchantment.” Where once we believed in a world full of spirits and supernatural causes, we now understand things primarily in terms of physical causes.
And yet…. With disenchantment comes disillusionment. Many thinkers have noted that this is one of the main characteristics of the postmodern world. Once the heavens are emptied, we look around and wonder what we are left with. Once the old stories are debunked, we find that the stories we are left with are devoid of meaning and hope.
Sometimes, we want our “illusions” back.
In this context, I wonder… Is the frenzy of colour and lights and confused mix and match mythology of our postmodern Christmas season an attempt re-enchant the world, to reimagine a hopeful future? Or even just a momentary respite from our disenchanted lives? In the absence of deeper, more meaningful stories, in the absence of belief in a personal God who stands over history, do we take refuge in smaller stories about flying reindeer and a jolly old man who lives far away who brings us goodies, in magic and hope and beautiful colours and music? Could the whole package be, at least in part, a kind of confused expression of religious longing?
If so, rather than complaining about commercialism or lack of religious content in public Christmas discourse, we could celebrate and help nurture the longing for God that we see, however and wherever it shows up. Like Paul wandering around the temples of Athens and noticing an altar to an “unknown” God (Acts 17:16-34), we could identify the hunger for hope in what we see around us at Christmas time. And we could retell the old, old story of God becoming human to rescue his world to a culture starving for hope, desperately searching for a re-enchanted world full of meaning and surprise and possibility.
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 595.