The Joy of Man’s Desiring

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For many of us, 2020 has been a difficult year. (Yes, I am aware of the understatement!) Covid-19, along with its ensuing restrictions and economic and personal upheaval, the rioting, election madness, and all the rest of the public horror has for many of us been combined with personal losses, especially the deaths of family and friends. To anyone facing the latter tragedies, the arrival of Christmas can be challenging, and supposedly suicides go up around this time each year as a result. Many Protestant churches put on “Blue Christmas” services, named after the Elvis song, for those alone and/or lonely this time of year. Such a reaction is perfectly understandable in the best of years—and 2020 is certainly not that!

There is another reaction to the gloom and despair, though, which I find much healthier. That is, to embrace it as antidote to the external madness. This idea can mean focusing on elements, and in ways, that normally we have little use for. For years I have urged Catholics to keep Advent, and avoid decorating until Christmas Eve—and then to keep it up for the Twelve Days—and in some sense until Candlemas. Similarly, I have called for the “secular Christmas”—with its Santa, reindeer, and all the rest—to be kept rigorously subordinate to the religious aspect. Certainly, I maintain all of that to this moment!

Nevertheless, 2020 being what it is and has been, I sympathize with those who, this year, have put out Christmas lights long before Thanksgiving. I understand completely that motivation, so well expressed by Jerry Herman in his musical, Mame:

For we need a little Christmas right this very minute
Candles in the window, carols at the spinet
Yes we need a little Christmas right this very minute
Hasn’t snowed a single flurry, but Santa dear we’re in a hurry

For I’ve grown a little leaner, grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder, grown a little older
And I need a little angel sitting on my shoulder
Need a little Christmas now

Even though the song came out long before “Christmas Creep” (one line even says “But, Auntie Mame, it’s one week past Thanksgiving Day now!”), the meaning has never been clearer than now. If nothing else, even the secular Christmas has a certain therapeutic value in this first openly post-democratic year. At a time when many mayors, governors, and other assorted commissars and gauleiters across the Western nations are telling their hapless subjects to “forget Christmas this year,” it is as though Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman have become resistance fighters.

In truth, the secular Christmas culture, with its emphasis merely on good cheer and nostalgic feelings—when separated from the Faith—has always been a bit of a sham. But when the Mystery of the Incarnation is kept at the center of things, then the rest of it takes its proper place. Indeed, at a time like this one, when our own customary Christmas celebrations may be altered or abbreviated by the current circumstances, it might help to recall that this is the one feast of the Church calendar that most of the secular world must observe, in one way or another.

All across the globe, even now, people are celebrating late Advent in various ways and preparing to observe the Twelve Days in countless others. We might well say that every nation’s truest self is most visible in its Christmas customs. It wouldn’t hurt to read up on those customs, past and present, as a way of putting our interior dispositions into the right mood—regardless of what the world may do. Similarly, reading liturgical texts for the feast from Rites other than one’s own can remind us of the universal response to Christ’s signal offering—Himself.

Especially now—despite how early we or those around us may have jumped the gun on starting the celebration of Advent—we’ll really need to keep up the Twelve Days. Here too, the Internet can help us explore all of the world’s customs in honoring each of holy days and nights. Even if there is nothing we can apply to our own situation, such exploration can help keep us “in the mood.” Obviously, the more liturgical observances we have access to, the better.

But even if we live in a benighted area deprived of such opportunities, we can read about them, watch them, and listen to them online. We can sing Christmas carols with our nearest and dearest—or even alone. We can contemplate the Nativity scene, the tree, the holly, and the mistletoe.

Of course, of those twelve days, two definitely have characters of their own. The first is New Year’s Eve; very many of us shall not be able to keep it this year as in time past. But whatever we do, let us bid farewell to 2020 in its last hour with a spoken or sung Te Deum, and welcome 2021 similarly with a Veni Creator Spiritus. Not only are there indulgences attached to the practice—it truly ends the old, and starts the New Year on the right note. But we need not neglect the secular aspect either. If the authorities do not allow us out, at the stroke of midnight this New Years Eve, pull up Guy Lombardo playing Auld Lang Syne, and indulge in as much nostalgic remembrance and hopeful planning as you like!

The other is the Epiphany itself, the Eve of which is the Twelfth Night. This is one of the feasts where, if I can, I like to take in both a Byzantine Liturgy and a Tridentine Mass. The blessing of water for the former, in honor of Our Lord’s Baptism, is beautiful. The latter speaks so lovingly of the Three Kings and, at times, one can also see the blessings of water, gold, frankincense, and myrrh performed.

Chalk may be blessed, and used to inscribe over one’s door the year and the initials of the Wise Men. Even better is when one can get a priest to use it himself, and bless the house. But with the end of this more intense part of the Christmas season, one may toss out the tree, which by now is often a fire hazard. But let’s keep up some of the holly and the mistletoe until Candlemas Eve, and the same with the Creche. Really, the last stand of Christmas is Mardi Gras!

For myself, as I write this, I don’t know how or with whom I shall spend Christmas Eve and Day, let alone New Year’s and Epiphany. Unable to go back to Los Angeles as I normally would, it shall be my first Austrian Christmas season. Several possibilities may come about, but I am not worried—and this reminiscence shall reveal why.

When I was twenty-three, it was obvious that I would not be able to spend Christmas at home. Worse yet, as a struggling young comic, I literally had no money to speak of, and none to buy gifts with.

A few days before Christmas, I sat at the bar of my club—an old actors’ club, which had seen better days—and nursed my port (a drink which has always tasted very “Yuletide” to me). Feeling rather depressed, I looked at the lovely decorations in that bar, and it hit me all at once that it did not matter where or how I spent Christmas—it would be Christmas regardless! Immediately, I felt far better than I had.

The following night, the club manager very apologetically asked me a favor. The club was hired out for a private Christmas party, but the company that was supposed to send a hatcheck girl had not done so. Much as he hated asking a member, would I mind doing it? He laughingly added that I could keep whatever tips I made—not knowing my financial situation.

Well, I made almost two hundred dollars that night (which was a large sum in those days). The next day was Christmas Eve and, save for two dollars that I gave to a mendicant, I spent all of the money on Christmas gifts. That night, I went to Midnight Mass; there I ran into an old friend and later went back to his place for eggnog. The following day, a third friend joined us; we went to a movie, and at last to a Christmas dinner at the late, lamented Michael’s Los Feliz. It turned out to be a wonderful Christmas, if not remotely what I had wanted. And I thereby learned an important lesson.

With all of this in mind, dear friends, however the Christmas holy days find you in this strange and worrisome year, remember that neither they nor Him Whom they commemorate can ever really change. They will delight and ultimately save us if we allow them and Him to do so. A very merry, happy, and holy Christmas to you all, and a safe and sane 2021!

[Image: The Nativity by Conrad von Soest]

Charles Coulombe

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Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine's European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan's Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.

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