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A Very Muddled Christmas
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(Yeah, I've neglected this blog for a long time. Been feeling more than a little burnt out and in danger of simply repeating myself. However, here is a holiday entry.)

When Black Friday decks the malls with wall-to-wall shoppers some folks begin to pine for Christmas past, for a simpler holiday, a more spiritual celebration, just like the ones we used to know, before the greed Grinches took over.

Maybe once there was such a thing as a good old fashioned Christmas, but, looking back, I can't find it. As far back as I can recall, during the nineteen fifties, the holiday was commercialized. At least for me.

As a child what riveted my attention was my very own Robert the Robot. An actual futuristic robot. (Not the mechanical fellow from Forbidden Planet. Maybe a relation.) He rolled across the floor, and flashed his lights, and by an incredible miracle of technology he even talked. "I am Robert Robot." What did I care about what was going on in a stable thousands of years ago? That was history. Okay, maybe that weird bright star was mildly interesting. It might have been a supernova, and they're neat. But peace on earth and goodwill to men? What's that? Give me my Davy Crockett coonskin cap and a brand new cap gun. Do you suppose Davy had any goodwill towards those Mexicans storming the Alamo?

Strange what we take for granted. What could be more distasteful, or bizarre, than to celebrate the birth of one who abjured possessions by engaging in a frenzy of acquisitiveness? When it was said we should give away our possessions I don't think what was meant was that people who are well off ought to trade possessions back and forth. If we were to celebrate Christmas according to Biblical precepts we'd haul every coat we owned out of our closets and hand them over to the Salvation Army. I don't think that was ever the custom at any time.

In defense of gift giving it's been pointed out that the Christ child received gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh from the three magi. (Well, that was what I was told in Sunday School) I never could figure out the frankincense and myrrh. Frankincense sounded like Frankenstein and as for myrrh I had no clue. To my childish ears, it sounded pretty much like finding a tangerine in your Christmas stocking and underwear and socks under the tree. But what did I know? Maybe in those days Frankenstein and myrrh were what kids asked Santa to bring, like Robert the Robot and coonskin caps. Civilization wasn't very advanced way back when I was growing up.

Of course the gold was a different matter because it's fine getting money for Christmas so you can buy what you want. Provided it was real gold. Those chocolate pirate coins covered in gold foil were always a traditional stocking stuffer so I had my suspicions about the magi's "gold."

And what did Jesus do with his gifts? Are we told? Did he enjoy the frankincense and myrrh or did he play with them for a day and then just abandon them, leave them lying around the stable until they were stepped on by a cow or eaten by a goat? That's what happened with a lot of toys, like the flimsy plastic wild west fort set up that looked so cool in the advertisements but just fell down in real life? Well, the being abandoned part, not the being stepped on by cows and eaten by goats part.

Maybe Jesus just broke the frankincense and myrrh right away. That happens too. One Christmas an aunt and uncle gave me an airplane powered by a gasoline engine. The airplane could actually fly around in circles attached to a wire cord. I remember turning the propeller until the motor roared to life. It sounded too much like a monstrous, nuclear mutated wasp to me. The hideously buzzing plane taxied over the grass, took off, made one half-circle and smashed into the frozen ground, destroying engine and propeller, never to fly again. That was one of the neatest gifts I ever got.

But perhaps the frankincense and myrrh weren't broken. Some claim the gifts of the magi are still in a golden case in the Monastery of St. Paul of Mount Athos. My Robert the Robert and coonskin cap are not in a golden case anywhere, so far as I'm aware. More's the pity.

Back in the fifties I also wondered why magi and not Santa? Wasn't Santa around back in those days? Or wasn't he working the Bethlehem route? The magi had beards so they were very much like Santa because in those days in my part of the world no one but Santa at the department store wore a beard. Our old family doctor had a mustache and so did the equally elderly neighbor who showed us his collection of shark's teeth but mustaches were rare and beards unheard of.

So maybe one of the magi was actually Santa and his beard has grown bigger and gotten whiter in 2,000 years.. And he used camels instead of reindeer to cross the desert. The magi's camels inevitably made me think of the cigarettes my parents smoked, and vice versa. In June I'd notice my dad's pack of Camels laying around and begin thinking of what I wanted for Christmas.

On the other hand maybe Santa did use reindeer but had anyone in that part of the world seen reindeer? Maybe the guys who wrote the story simply didn't know what to make of bearded Santa and his strange beasts so they wrote "magi and camels" which is as close as they could get.

You have to admit that today's Christmas is a pretty mixed up holiday. So far as I can see it's pretty hard to square any of it with the Bible. And I didn't even mention the lights - on Christmas trees, outlining houses, strung up all over the streets. It is said that the early church adopted December 25th as Christmas to preempt the date of the celebration of Sol Invictus, the unconquered Sun, Mithras, whom our Byzantine detective John worships. A display of lights in the face of onrushing winter -- representing the light of the sun god -- seems more reasonable than spending money to celebrate the birthday of someone who didn't have much good to say about wealth. Maybe it's the lingering pagan part of our muddled up Christmas holiday that makes the most sense.

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