by Glen Pearson
So much of the Christmas holiday season is predicated on things from other eras. Gifts, trees, carols, decorations, sentimentalizing snow, turkey, Santa, Bethlehem, trying to fill the kids with a sense of wonder, religious services, and community celebrations with lights – none of these were created by us but by our ancestors and we personalize them each December to fit our own holiday circumstances. In all of this the past can give meaning to the present.
Yet occasionally it becomes instead a mindless following of cultural expectations, or as Todd Stocker would write of it, “Sometimes we get so enamoured with the tradition of something that we forget the intent of it.” We can modernize the Christmas season all we want, but with each passing year it loses something of the past, of the meanings that such an important occasion brought to mind for our parents and grandparents. To those folks, surviving a Depression and a couple of world wars, provided them with an acute insight into why Christmas itself was vital for reasons far greater than mere tradition. In our consumer rush and modern penchant for casting off what we sometimes regard as illusions of the past, we throw the baby out with the bathwater, ending up with cultural habits often devoid of meaning. This is what author Lars Svendsen meant in his book, A Philosophy of Boredom, when he noted that, “Traditions have been replaced by lifestyles.”
Perhaps there’s only one thing that can keep us from losing the essence of the Christmas meaning – the future. For perhaps billions of people the world has become a more dangerous place, at least in their thoughts. So many things seem to be happening across the globe at the same time that it often seems unlikely that our leaders are really in control of the change. The list can, at times, seem endless: poverty, climate change, violence, terrorism, democratic decline, human migration, the loss of long-term meaning, gender inequality. Those who worry about such things can merely turn maudlin and look longingly at the past. Nor can they turn a blind eye to it all and seek to enjoy the present. What they need is to believe in the hope that only the future can bring, or as philosopher Søren Kierkegaard poignantly put it to his generation: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
In other words, both the past and the future matter to our present way of life; without either we turn into a humanity with no lights of wisdom in our heads and no path for which to follow.
It’s likely that herein lies the reason we make kids so much the centre of our Christmas observances – they are the future, and by focusing on them we reinvigorate our own faith in a better tomorrow. Without them there is no one to pass the torch to. Which makes it all the more important that we gift them with things of value on not just commerce. Somehow they have to take the world that we presently have, with all its strengths and weaknesses, and make it better. For that they will require tools that are priceless and can’t be bought in a store (as the Grinch learned) – love, faith in each other, respect, decency, adaptability, forgiveness, healing, and, yes, the belief in those transcendent things that outlast us all. If we can provide our children such essentials, then it won’t matter what’s under the tree.
The first Christmas story was infused by the sense that something different had to take place, something seismic enough that it could set humanity on a different course. The old path was no longer sufficient for a more enlightened future. Yet the answer wasn’t to throw out tradition, but to uncover the essence of it – the values that had survived for millennia and were still required to give humanity a fighting chance.
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
And that’s what we require now: a spot on the ticket, the knowledge that we can turn our world towards better instincts and our hearts towards the better angels of our natures. To give such treasures to our children and grandchildren is to pay our own downpayment on our hope for the future. Such things can't be bought because they are priceless. But they can be lived and in that truth is the essence of the Christmas message.