Sean Fitzpatrick is a senior contributor to Crisis. He’s graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy. He lives in Scranton, Penn. with his wife and family of four.
I had heard that this store went “all out” at Christmas, but I was still taken aback. Ten-foot-tall nutcrackers, sprawling miniature villages, plush snow unicorns, plastic pine trees encrusted with glitter and glass, jingle bell muzak at high volume, seasonally garish sweaters, gigantic drummer boys para-pum-pum-pumming, a marshmallow army of leering lawn inflatables, and a cornucopia of stockings, wreaths, and wrapping paper. Even by the time I reached the enchanted LED forest, I was still unprepared for what lay at the end of my journey through that holly jolly, Willy Wonka underworld of commercialized “Christmas spirit.” Then, there it was. Santa Claus in a cage.
There, in the back corner of that store, was an enclosed section of chain-link fencing behind which an old man dressed as St. Nick sat on a bench as two live reindeer meandered about. For a few shekels, a lady dressed as an elf would slip a child through a hatch, load his fist with pellets, lead him through the scat-speckled shavings, set him on Santa’s knee, and snap a precious memory as the reindeer made passes at the bait. The man looked sad. It was like seeing Santa Claus in the zoo, literally in a cage, on display at the rear end of that smorgasbord of gaudy, glitzy, expensive cheer—that vast display of a captive Christmas.
Christmas has become little more than a display and little better than a captive: an artificial, well-lit show of comfort and joy in prostrate submission to the market and its messaging. Commercialism has supplanted Catholicism. The mall has replaced the Mass. Peace on earth has become pressure and worth. The world has sold Santa Claus into the slavery of a Christ-less Christmas for thirty pieces of silver.
While still scratching at the surface of the sacrificial secret of Christmas, American culture stops short and settles for the superficial. Christmas has been boiled down to an explosion of getting and spending, sugared over with philanthropic chestnuts that attempt justification. The true spirit of Christmas, the spiritual sense of the season, has been locked up and the key thrown away. But Christmas is far more than a prisoner of consumerism and capitalism, and the Kool-Aid of “good will toward men” is insufficient to quench the soul’s thirst or force it to waste away behind bars.
Satisfaction, as T. S. Eliot’s Magi show, comes with remembering what has been dismembered.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
This poem and the reality of the Incarnation remind us that the Nativity was necessary for the cross and the Resurrection. Life and death are inseparable partners in the course of human salvation, and the Christmas spirit—being one that is sensitive to human salvation—is sensitive to life and death. The outrageous opulence of the secular spirit that has taken Christmas captive is one that rejoices without reflection, seeking humanity in hedonism, Bethlehem without Calvary, and Black Friday without Good Friday. But life without death is not of much consequence.
Though candy-coated and tinseled to a tee, this “Christmas spirit” is in an oppressive bondage to the almighty dollar and sentimental, PC social platitudes. It has none of the good grit that it should—the grit of God in a stall, of angels in a field, and of kings among peasants. In this good and glad grit, this happy hardship in brotherhood, comes a type of liberation from the established traces, from the slavery to sin and sales and social servitude—the liberty to be who we truly are.
The Christmas spirit, the true Christmas spirit, is about release and revelation, a stripping away of the scales and systems that bind us all, ultimately foretelling a freedom from sin and death. We are all in this together, and the true Christmas spirit is an attitude that shows the truth of our journey, our fellow journeyers, and our journey’s end, allowing men and women to recognize one another in the context of heavenly oblation, not earthly obligation.
Charles Dickens was attuned to the fact that people need to be freed of their fetters before they can follow the blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode—this is the faith that leads on to understanding and empathy. Thus, the ghosts and goblins in Dickens’s yuletide tales are more angelic than demonic, despite their devilries, for they shake men from their shackles. This was Dickens’s way of sharing his discovery that Christmas was more about graves than grandeur or gross domestic product. A Christmas Carol gives a clear articulation of this singular and spot-on interpretation of the Christmas spirit:
I have always thought of Christmas time… when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.
Christmas is for opening shut-up hearts. It is for rattling the cages of the world. Its spirit sees the human race as rushing towards a common goal, a common grave. It is a spirit that realizes that all men and women equally need a Savior, and as such are brothers and sisters despite station or status. That is the Christmas spirit, and it is a spirit that has been caged by a commercial culture that interprets “freedom of religion” as “freedom from religion,” distilling sacred holiness into secular humanism. But Christmas is too great to languish impounded. It will—and does—burst from its cage to break open shut-up hearts, as G. K. Chesterton observed:
The great majority of people will go on observing forms that cannot be explained; they will keep Christmas Day with Christmas gifts and Christmas benedictions; they will continue to do it; and some day suddenly wake up and discover why.