25 December 2007

Just be merry

Navidad 2007 (by pablodf)

Now that Christmas has been reduced to leftovers and torn wrapping paper, let me say something about the first comment I received on my last post (the one about the Palacio Minetti). I felt it was appropriate to wish everybody a nice day — in particular, a "merry Christmas" to those who believe in the myth of Baby Jesus. One of my readers was apparently offended by my choice of words, and upon my ironic (but harmless) reply he proceeded to tell me that we "condescending atheists" are "disqualified" (from commenting on Christmas, I take it?).

Let's make a few things clear. Christmas etymologically means "the Mass of Christ". It's originally the commemoration of the birth of Jesus, the supernaturally-conceived son of the Judeo-Christian God, from an allegedly virginal Galilean Jewish woman called Maryām, about 2,014 years ago.* It's a myth, in the sense that it's not plain historical fact, but it doesn't need to be "real", in the strictest sense, to be meaningful. Christmas means different things to different people, including next to nothing but a consumerist spree and an occasion of food and drink binges for the majority of the Western world.

*As you must know, Jesus (if we're to use the Gospels as historical sources) must have been born in the spring or summer of 6 BCE or 4 BCE, not in the winter of 1 BCE as assumed by our calendar and our choice of date to celebrate Christmas. Shepherds don't tend their herds outdoors in the middle of winter; Herod the Great died in 4 BCE according to trustable sources, and the Roman governor Quirinus (the one that ordered the census mentioned in Luke) ruled in 6 BCE. The Gospel story was composed much later and is very badly done consistency-wise, both myth-internally and history-externally. This is something that Christian scholars have known for centuries, though you wouldn't hear it from your local priest.

The Christmas myth does nothing for me. I don't believe that one should cherish the "Christmas spirit" when one doesn't pay attention to Christ or his alleged teachings during the whole year, and then tries to sum them up in "let's be nice to each other, just once". Yet I know many people who believe in the myth, in its entirety or in a watered-down version; a number of readers of this blog probably belong in either group, and I wanted to let them know that I wished the best for their Christmas. I don't pretend to respect their myth as if it were meaningful to me, but I respect them.

In the end, of course, most people do the same things for the Christmas season, regardless of their beliefs. Everybody gathers (when possible) with the family, and eats a lot of high-calorie foods, and drinks a lot, and while some families quarrel, some others find this a suitable time for reconciliation and forgiveness. In Argentina, many (mostly older people) attend Mass early in the evening, and many (mostly younger ones) go out after midnight. Children open up presents. Grown-ups end up debating football or politics. Fireworks are launched. Hospitals' ERs get crowded with dozens of wounded from corks popping into eyes, burned from mishandling fireworks, and injured in alcohol-induced fights. At dawn, the streets end up littered with plastic bags, broken cider bottles, and passed-out teens. People take a second look at their presents and either decide to hang them in the walls or put them on their desks or wear them, or store them in some place away from sight. Children enjoy their new toy cars, videogames, toy firearms, and flashy T-shirts. Drowsy grown-ups pick up the leftovers and recycle them for Christmas Day lunch.

What this all has to do with Baby Jesus is beyond me, but if you choose to cling to that adorable myth, you don't have to be ashamed of it. We all have our inspiring visions. But a baby born two millennia ago from the immaterial touch of a ghost and doomed to be nailed to a wooden beam 33 years later because of my as-yet-uncommitted sins isn't a vision I can share, and political correctness isn't my forte. Hence, the different salutations: if you do believe in Baby Jesus, then celebrate his birth and be merry about it; if not, just be merry for whatever reason you can come up with. (The latter, of course, is what most people end up doing, no matter what their professed beliefs are.)

I understand there are cultural differences. I understand the United States has (or has had) this ridiculous "War on Christmas". It's not like that here, by and large. I don't know where that commenter wrote from, but for all the problems we have in Argentina, we don't have that kind of division running along our society. If I get a "merry Christmas" from anybody, I can tell him or her that I don't believe in Jesus, and all I'll get will be a blank stare meaning "well, and what's that have to do with anything?".

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