Monday, December 15, 2008

When Christmas Was a Humbug

With the economy bad and people believing the ripple effect has just begun, it looks like it's going to be a hard candy Christmas this year.

Everybody knows people who've been laid off. You feel sorry for them, and hearing their stories, you imagine how it could happen to your family, too. For instance, I heard that with homes not being built, new residential plumbers are flooding the repair and commercial industries. They're bidding too low, jeopardizing their own finances and those of the people being outbidded. You can see where the same thing would happen to electricians, masons and carpenters, which my husband is.

Sometimes it seems like a matter of hanging on. You hope the recession ends before the ripples reach you.

So it's a little harder to get into the spirit this year. I've cut back on spending, but I wonder if it's enough. We're doing fine now (In our household, we're in a perpetual state of recession, so this feels normal to us.) But what will happen next year? In addition to homes, there seem to be other things nobody can afford--college tuition, health insurance and gas--once the price goes back up, to name a few. I don't know much about bubbles, but there seems to be a lot of bursting yet to be done.

I was thinking about all this when I read a book review for Les Standiford's The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits. It's about how Charles Dickens created Christmas as we know it. At the time A Christmas Carol was written, it was a minor holiday, celebrated by some, considered pagan by others.

In this day and age, it's hard to imagine a "minor" holiday. Halloween is a month-long retail extravaganza. Thanksgiving is an automatic day off work. And here in Kansas City, people call in sick not one but two days for St. Patrick's Day, a holiday that doesn't even make it onto most calendars.

So "minor Holiday" is a phrase difficult to wrap your modern brain around. Maybe Valentine's Day is a good comparison. Everybody works/goes to school. At night, about half the people celebrate.

Apparently, back in the 1800s, Christmas was the same way. Then Charles Dickens introduced Scrooge, a man who spent his whole life counting money. Naturally, he didn't have time for Christmas. Christmas was a humbug.

A lot of people at that time agreed. They didn't like its pagan roots for one thing.

Reading the review made me curious about the history of Christmas.

I knew that winter celebrations were widespread in ancient times, but I'd never known why. On, I learned that, in Europe, people would celebrate the darkest, coldest days of the year because, well, things couldn't get any worse. Not that year, anyway. (Hurray! We've hit rock bottom!) They'd also slaughter their cows because they couldn't feed them through the winter. So that gave them another reason to celebrate. ("The cows are going to die anyway. We might as well eat them.") Add to that the fact that their wine had finally fermented, and voila, they had themselves a carnival.

When Christmas took the place of winter solstices, it was still a carnival-type holiday.

Then, in England and America, it sort of fell out of favor, thanks to the Puritans, who were always a barrel of laughs. Naturally, the Puritans hated Christmas because it didn't involve burning witches at the stake or hitting children with rods. They even banned it in Boston.

But in the 1800s, people like Charles Dickens and Washington Irving and Clement Moore started writing about Christmas and St. Nick. They described a holiday that was about family and giving--particularly to your employees and those in need. People read those accounts and decided maybe they'd like to celebrate Christmas after all.

I think it's interesting that people once scoffed at Christmas because of its pagan roots. To me, it's those ancient roots that show the spirit of the holiday. Even before civilization as we know it, people understood the need to celebrate light in the darkness.

During the winter, food was scarce and sickness lurking. It would have been a great time to retreat to their homes and hope for the best. Instead, they threw a party. They knew, instinctively, what we still know today: That when you have the least to celebrate, that is the best time to celebrate. When you have the least to hope for, that is the best time to be hopeful. When you have the least to share, that is the best time to share.

I'm trying to think of a logical explanation for this. But I can't. It doesn't really make sense. It just makes you feel better.

Look at Scrooge. He had a terrible life. His mother died in childbirth and his father never forgave him. He had a neurotic, serious personality, so he wasn't exactly the life of the party. Really, the only thing he was good at was making money. Logically speaking, that was the best talent he could have. It protected him from being sent to the poor house and the other dangers of poverty. But he was miserable.

He learned that money didn't make him happy. The only thing that would make him happy was sharing with people.

If you ask me, the spirit of giving has gotten a little out of hand, in terms of gifts, at least. Who can afford the $1,500 the average American family spends? Answer: Nobody, considering the average American household debt is $8,000. Sharing time together, on the other hand, and giving what you can is most important during a crisis like this one.

There's a theory that in order to survive the last ice age, humans had to learn to cooperate and share, and that is why we have altruistic feelings today. But I think we've always been this way, and surviving the ice age was just a fringe benefit.

It's one thing to give when you have too much of something, in hopes that, when you need something in return, those people will share with you. But that's not really how things work. Nobody gives a poor person a Christmas present with a note that says, "Hey, hobo, what goes around comes around: Remember that."

They just give. Like celebrating in the dark of winter, it doesn't really make sense. And it doesn't need to make sense. Instead, it makes people happy.