Christmastime is here, and with it all the usual seasonal zaniness of the Culture Wars. The religious right bemoans the “War on Christmas”, anti-capitalists attack the crass commercialism of the holiday, radical atheists talk about how the historical Jesus never existed (a 19th century claim no real religious historian takes seriously anymore but that’s still very popular in certain circles), and pseudo-activists complain about the imposition of religion (Christian religion, because that’s the only one they ever get outraged about) in the public sphere.
Christmas needs to be set straight. But who is really up to the task? Apparently not Kirk Cameron, whose movie was recently rated the worst film ever on IMDB and got a 0% score on Rotten Tomatoes, though of course most of the people doing the rating didn’t actually watch the film, and Cameron still earned several million dollars for himself from the project. Regardless, putting Christmas into a proper context and explaining what its all about doesn’t seem to be something a known fundamentalist Christian is going to be capable of doing in this post-modern world. And since Linus almost certainly choked on his security blanket long ago, or grew up to star in Obamacare ads, I guess it’s up to me.
Why me? How can I help make sense of the utter politicized insanity that is the U.S. approach to Christmas?
Well, for starters, I’m not a Christian. But, I’m also not the kind of blasphemer who will feel outrage at someone wishing me a Merry Christmas; quite the contrary, I’ll wish one right back at them. Or a Happy Hanukkah, or merry Solstice. I’ve never had anyone wish me a joyous Eid or a festive Kwanzaa, but I won’t have any problem with that either. You have to be a special kind of jackass to take someone’s well-wishes for you and respond with offense.
I won’t pretend to be religiously unbiased; I was raised hardcore Catholic up to my teen years (so I understand the language), briefly became an unbearably nihilistic teenage-atheist, and then began to experiment with consciousness-altering fringe-religion; the rest is history. To paraphrase the late great Hunter S. Thompson: I wouldn’t necessarily recommend a lifetime of experimentation with ecstatic mysticism and esoteric self-transformation for everyone, but it sure worked for me. I think pretty well all organized religion is a cargo-cult at best, or thought-control for collective culture at worst, sure; but I also think that Dawkins-style New Atheism is a complete crock of disgruntled chip-shouldering philosophical semi-illiterates who seem to me utterly indistinguishable in their fanaticism from any other bunch of True Believers. That will be the subject of a future article, no doubt.
So all that right there should make me either the worst or best possible person to save Christmas!
You might think my other big claim to being up to the task would be that I studied graduate-level history on the origins of Christianity, but that’s pretty much irrelevant here, as far as I can see. No one is ever going to convince anyone on the pro-Christmas side that they’re doing Christmas wrong by citing actual fact from religious history; nor is anyone going to convince any of the anti-Christmas camp with any of the same. I know it, you know it, and I’m pretty sure Kirk Cameron knows it (but his deep faith and thirsty bank account convinced him to try to skate down that doomed road anyways).
No, my other qualification, and the crux of everything I will now try to put into perspective for you all, is the fact that I’m a North American expat living in Uruguay. And here, I’ve seen Christmas done very, very differently.
First, a few facts about Uruguay: Uruguay is a tiny country in South America, and has some important differences with respect to other Latin-American countries. It’s been in the news a lot lately (you might have seen someone post on your social media stuff about how the now-outgoing president Mujica is the “world’s poorest president,” they legalized gay marriage, abortion, and pot, etc. etc.), but a lot of that media doesn’t really paint an accurate picture of the country.
For starters, I should note that it’s the least-unsuccessful “socialist” country in South America. That is to say, it has a strongly socialist government, but has maintained sufficiently sane political stability and economic policies that it hasn’t turned into a complete craphole like Venezuela, Bolivia, or Argentina. But neither is it the socialist utopia some people want to imagine. It has a political system that – while one of the most stable and least corrupt in the region – is still hopelessly plugged up with pointless bureaucracy, high taxation, very low levels of services, rampant nepotism and control by special interests that don’t necessarily reflect the democratic wishes of the majority. But because the leftist coalition party that governs here did not follow the populist model of Hugo Chavez like so many other leftist governments in the region did, and instead continued to protect private ownership of business and encourage international investment, for the last decade the country has managed to have very enviable levels of economic growth and an unemployment rate most parts of the United States would kill for. In other words, it’s more like a slightly run-down version of some of the lefty nations of Europe than what most people in North America imagine when they think “socialist-run third-world Latin country”.
It’s actually a lot like Europe in a few other ways too: its population is a multicultural mix of mostly European-descended immigrants (from Spain, obviously, but also Italy, France, Germany, England, Poland, Russia, as well as a notable Jewish, Armenian, some Arabs, and more recently Koreans and East Indians; as well as a population of the descendent of black ex-slaves who fled to abolitionist Uruguay from slave-state Brazil in the 19th century), who generally all get along with each other. In spite of having gone through a dictatorship in the 1970s and early 1980s, it has a strong democratic tradition, with a strong sense of valuing civil liberties. It has a highly-educated population. And most importantly to this article, it has been a secular state (with no official religion) for over a century now (unlike almost every other Latin country, where Catholicism is the official state religion). The church has very little power here, and the percentage of people who are actually church-going believers is tiny, comparable to Canada or most western-European nations. That difference explains why in places like Venezuela “Marxist revolutionary” Hugo Chavez had to make constant Christian allegories in his speeches (if only to placate his population), while in Uruguay you end up with pot legalization, gay marriage and abortion.
So as you might have guessed, going to midnight Mass to celebrate the birth of Baby Jesus is not high on the agenda of most Uruguayans’ Christmas festivities. At the same time, Christmas here is definitely Christmas (albeit in oppressively hot weather); it isn’t called “solstice season”, it isn’t downplayed, the Communist mayor of Montevideo pays for Christmas lights to be put up all over the main streets and a Christmas tree, not out of some kind of religiosity but out of a cultural tradition. I think one difference is that our Socialists over here are old-school socialists and not new-age postmodernists, and they recognize the value of cultural tradition. No one feels offended by or threatened by the idea of celebrating Christmas, in spite of only very few people actually caring about its religious facet.
At the same time, Christmas here isn’t about commercialism either. You might see more than a few ‘Christmas sales’, but this is not a country where you’ll find the kind of shopping hysteria that you see in North America, nor is Christmas reduced to an exercise in competitive consumerism.
So what, then, do the Uruguayans have to teach us all about the real meaning of Christmas? What do they think it’s really all about?
The answer may surprise you: blowing things up.
Here in Uruguay, Christmas is neither a religious nor a consumerist celebration; instead, it’s a heavy ordnance display. On Christmas Eve, people get together throughout the city (and country, I assume) with friends or loved ones, spending time with their families or with whoever they consider their closest people. They eat great food, drink quite a lot of wine and beer and whiskey, and sure, the kids get some presents. But the main event, at the stroke of midnight, is when absolutely everyone sends up as many fireworks as they can.
And I’m not talking little pea-shooters here. I mean full blown heavy-duty fireworks like you’d find at a city-sponsored 4th of July event in the U.S., only there’s no regulation of it whatsoever. Every Christmas, I get up on my roof-patio, and from my nearly-downtown location get to see a 360-degree panoramic view of the most spectacular fireworks display I’ve ever witnessed anywhere. They shoot them off the streets, off their lawns, from their roof, or from the balconies of their apartments. From one point of the city to another the sky is ablaze with competing explosives.
And yes, from what I’m told every year a few people get their hands blown off, a few houses catch fire, and so on. But that hasn’t stopped anyone; I don’t even know if there’s a law on the books or not about private fireworks, but clearly no one would dare to enforce it. In Montevideo, 1.5 Million people engage in a near-orgiastic display of pyrotechnics in the company of their closest, but also in an act of cultural solidarity.
And I think that’s the real meaning of Christmas. It’s not really about Jesus (though I understand that can be really important to some people, and I’m not saying it shouldn’t be, for them), and it’s not about buying a lot of stuff, and it’s definitely not about some kind of oppression that must be quashed. And no, it’s not really about fireworks, although those are quite the sight to behold. From a civilizational standpoint, it’s about a shared moment, part of the fabric of our culture that should unite us and not divide us. And from the personal perspective, it’s a chance to express a microcosm of that same shared cultural experience with the people we care about. Taking the politicization of a common holiday a little less seriously on all sides would potentially allow for some common ground in our divided culture; there’s some hope for that, I think, when what I believe is probably the best Christmas song of the last decade was written by a staunch Australian-born atheist. I’ll note too that “drinking white wine in the sun” is another apt way of describing Uruguay’s Christmas as much as Australia’s; I guess it’s a southern-hemisphere thing.
If the believers out there could ease up a bit on the need for some kind of religious triumphalism (and listening to those in their camp that want to use Christmas as an excuse to offend others), and the non-believers could ease up a bit on the sense of paranoia (and stop listening to those in their camp that will be offended at anything no matter what), we might all just be able to get that and relax about it, and see Christmas’ common civilizational value, the way the Uruguayans do.
Don’t miss last week’s column: How the Infection of Postmodernism is Now Killing Its Designers.
Kasimir Urbanski doesn’t write on a specific subject; he’s EveryJoe’s resident maniac-at-large. A recovering Humanities academic and world-traveler, he now lives in South America and is a researcher of fringe religion, eastern philosophy, and esoteric consciousness-expansion. In his spare time he writes tabletop RPGs, and blogs about them at therpgpundit.blogspot.com.