John Zmirak received his B.A. from Yale University in 1986, then his M.F.A. in screenwriting and fiction and his Ph.D. in English in 1996 from Louisiana State University. He has taught at Catholic and secular colleges, including Tulane University. He has contributed to American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia and The Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought. He has served as Senior Editor of Faith & Family Magazine and a reporter at The National Catholic Register. His new book, The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism, is now available. Check his new blogs and archived columns at The Bad Catholic’s Bingo Hall.
To high-energy, sanguine, chipper citizens who like to step in and improve other people’s lives, the ever-earlier onset of the “Christmas” season is a gift from the baby Jesus. Now they can start before Thanksgiving to make up the lists of “improving” presents they will shower on friends and family: that diet book “you simply have to try,” the supply of intestinal bacteria cookies that will “knock out your Crohn’s disease,” that copy of The Theology of the Body your twice-divorced aunt cannot live forever without, the Spanx your sister really should be wearing if she insists on leaving the house, the box of nicotine patches that could “add decades” to your aging dad’s life.
The bloated, front-loaded Season is also a pretext for endless gatherings of people who wouldn’t otherwise choose to congregate—melancholic co-workers, emotionally distant relatives, the parents of children’s schoolmates, standoffish neighbors, and solitary bachelors who absolutely, at any cost, must be dragged from their odorous lairs to blink in the light. (“You’ll be alone on the Friday night before Christmas? Absolutely not. You will come to our Bobbing for Apples Soiree! We’ll be drinking cider and singing folksongs.”)
Suddenly public spaces begin to look creepily like those paintings of Hell by Thomas Kincade. (At least, that’s what those fuzzy daubings of teddy bears and leering children suggest to me.) Everything flickers, shimmers, flashes, even moves—as in those mechanical front yard dioramas where Santa endlessly cracks his whip over a team of hyped-up reindeer. In most displays, there isn’t the slightest hint of Mary, or Jesus—not even in spots where a menorah is permitted, which at least serves as a reminder that all these glamorous portraits of the sacred Winter season have some faint origin in ancient desert events and a Semitic religion. We really are in for four long weeks of Santaclaustide, as Evelyn Waugh dubbed sacred winter in Love Among the Ruins.
Not all of this is a loss, of course. To those of us with a solitary bent and a naturally Augustinian suspicion of mankind—especially when he shuffles forward and presents himself in groups—the snowing over of Christ’s-Mass, and the real presence of animatronic elves, presents a unique opportunity. Were the Season that everyone else is celebrating actually Christmas, and were they in fact excited by the advent of a Savior for their sins (I’m keeping a list), then we misanthropes would have to find a way to celebrate it, at risk of blasphemy. Just as it’s wrong to fast on Sundays, so we’d feel religiously obligated to attend some of the parties, to pin on a grin, to pile up gifts for our friends to return, and even to wear together those clashing, unflattering colors, red and green.
Happily, none of this is true. Not only is Advent not a festive season, but it hasn’t even started yet. Still, the noisiest neighbors’ yards are already pullulating with colors, and radio stations are even now pumping out the treacly voices of Johnny Mathis and Paul Anka, reminding us of the deep cosmic meaning that underlies each icicle. So the feast—whatever it is—that everyone’s celebrating isn’t religious at all, and we are perfectly free to absent ourselves, or dissent. It’s the moral equivalent of Basque Independence Day, and we don’t have to wave the flag.
In fact, we can make good use of our real religious convictions, and fend off the social chairmen who pester us, with solidly principled objections to the festivities. We can tell us ourselves we’re being “apostolic” and counter-cultural (when in fact we’re just feeling ornery) and check off a partial indulgence each time we refuse to indulge someone. Here’s a short list of ways that we misanthropes, cave-trolls, loners, and pessimists can make Santaclaustide more pleasant for ourselves, and instructive to others:
- Refuse to decorate before December 24—or better yet, leave your scary Halloween stuff up all through Advent. Then keep your Christmas lights glowing till February 2, reminding everyone who asks that “Groundhog Day is an Americanist travesty of Candlemas.”
- When people say, “Happy Holidays,” respond by saying, “Happy Generic Meaningless Winterfest!” Then explain how the war on Christmas is part of a systematic attack by secularists on all of civil society—culminating in the HHS mandate. Nod solemnly as they back away.
- When someone says “Merry Christmas” even five minutes before sunset on Dec. 24, remind them that “Advent is a season of penance, fasting and prayer, to remind us of the hopeless misery of the human condition that Christ came to rectify—for those who accept Him. But the path is straight, and narrow, and few do travel it.” Then smile and say “But hey, Merry Christmas!”
- Disrupt attempts by the relatives you dislike to enforce your presence at all-day, child-crazy festivities of gift-opening, football, or reruns of Meet the Parents, by insisting on attending the most traditional, distant liturgy you can hunt up. If there is a Latin Mass in driving distance, make some complaint about the missal used there and insist on finding an Armenian Catholic or Syro-Malankaran rite to attend—where even the sermon will be in Foreign. Drag everyone along to learn what “real liturgy” is like.
- If you must attend a festive Midnight Mass with the family, remind everyone you haven’t seen all year of the Church’s regulations concerning Confession before Communion. Then ostentatiously refuse to receive yourself, to point up the gravity of sacrilege. Kneel with eyes closed at the end of the pew, so all the pagans in your family have to climb over you.
- If you must play host to the family, insist on making this Christmas more authentic. No ham, no turkey, no stuffing—just Middle Eastern foods like roasted goat. No “secularized” Christmas carols, either: just Melkite and Maronite hymns, or (as a concession) a Gregorian chant CD of the Christmas Mass, played over and over again. Pop in a DVD of The Passion of the Christ, reminding the wee ones, “This is the reason for the season.” Then go smoke your cigar on the porch.
You’ll have ample privacy soon to meditate on the Four Last Things, or finish reading that novel by Malachi Martin. Next year, you’ll be left in peace.