Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Reflections: Light only Shines in Darkness

Christmas is - and has long been - a predominately commercial holiday. In other words, it is marketed, increasingly early and more forcefully with each passing yuletide, in order to make people buy things.

Because of this the holiday is typically presented as pure happiness; everyone feels good, everyone sings, and everyone has a great old time. I suppose that advertisers have long realized that a holiday bereft gloom, loss, struggle, and pain is a holiday best able to sell all manner of trinkets.

The fact is, however, that Christmas, like any other time of the year, has it share of sorrow, loss, and pain. Loved ones die, people divorce, homes are foreclosed, and jobs are lost.

Christmas (as marketed) cannot handle these tragedies. It's sappy sentimentalism and consumer driven "feeling good" is simply not equipped to deal with real suffering in life. People who are seriously soul searching and struggling with real human experience are at lot less inclined to consume.

This is Ironic.

Christmas is, both in symbol and in origin, a celebration of light in the darkness, warmth in the winter, hope in the shadow of fear. Ancient pagan festivals from which Christmas evolved, like Yule, Solstice, and Saturnalia, were all filled with symbols of triumph, joy, light, and life in the midst of a winter filled with death and darkness.

Coming at the darkest time of the year (in the northern hemisphere at least), when the world is cold, the trees bare, the ground frozen, and the elements harsh, Christmas is a reminder that in the face of death life persists, in the dark of night light can still be found, and that in the death of winter, there is still food to eat and warmth to warm us.

We have chosen to use only half of the holiday symbols. We think of the joy, the light, the warmth, and the cheer. But there is no joy without sorrow, no warmth without the cold, no light without darkness. In order to truly celebrate Christmas, we are going to have to keep the other aspects of the season before us.

One may argue, of course, that the holiday is meant as some form of escapism from the dark side of life. Sure, many think of it that way; the advertisers revel at that fact.

In reply I simply appeal to the history behind the holiday, both pagan and christian. We can reject those. We can buy into the the Christmas that makes retailers a fortune and drives us crazy with commercial-induced stress. But if we do we are leaving something deeper and more significant, for something sappy, cheaper, and far less meaningful.

By embracing the pain, suffering, and grief symbolized in the dark side of Christmas, we are leaving aside the shallow "cheer" of consumerism and cheap tinsel, for the deeper joy that results from what some might call a "tragic-optimism" or even, perhaps, a "tragic-romanticism."

To clarify what I mean, let us compare tragic-optimism and tragic romanticism, with their commercialized counterparts. The commercial brand of optimism tells us that all things are right with the world, that only "grinches" get sad during the holiday, and that if we just spend enough of our money at Hallmark and Target, Christmas will warm our hearts with its eggnogy bliss.

Commercial romanticism tells us that if we just put up the right decorations, buy the right "goodies" and follow the formula, we can have the kind of Christmas we had when we were 7 years old.

What I mean by tragic-optimism, on the other hand, is a view that life is hard. People die, dreams are broken, prospects fail to materialize. The tragic-optimist understands that great sorrow is an inescapable aspect of life, and we would be fools to deny that. But, despite this, the tragic-optimist finds existence ultimately joyful. Life is good, being is good, it is all worth it. In spite of all the pain and suffering, life is filled with joy. And this joy is not experienced in spite of pain and sorrow, but somehow, in part, because of it.

This is where tragic-romanticism comes in. Tragic-romanticism, as I understand it, is the appreciation that pain, sorrow, suffering, and grief can add to the joy of life, by making there opposites all the more potent and complete.

In searching for a Christmas image or song that exemplifies what I'm trying to express, I found myself drawn to the Judy Garland performance of "Have yourself a Merry little Christmas." [the story of this song fits in well with my position here, check it out] The song is filled with pain. And yet, somehow, one cannot miss the hope and triumph in Garland's voice.

Real optimism should never be confused with the attempt to delude ourselves that nothing bad is going to happen. Bad things will happen to us all. We cannot, and we ought not, downplay that. But hope, as opposed to delusion, is the conviction that it is all worth it. Despite the tragedies we must encounter in life, living is a beautiful and joyous thing. It is this kind of optimism, this genuine hope that Christmas should really be all about.

Christmas is indeed about being joyful and triumphant. But to know joy, we have to know pain, and to be triumphant we must conquer something, presumably the tragedy and pain in our lives

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