Tuesday, December 27, 2005


It’s too late to wish anyone Merry Christmas— it’s over, but here’s hoping that’s what was had by all.

It’s a rare moment when I think there are advantages to living in Canada, and these are often due to the few vestiges of British culture which still survive like blades of grass poking bravely up through the vast cement expanse of an airport runway or suburban parking lot.

One of these last desperate traces of civilization, the official Boxing Day holiday, alas, has disappeared in distinctive Canadian fashion: the laws which once decreed that no commerce should be allowed on Sundays and statutory holidays have been erased by being repeatedly broken. It’s a classic Canadian form of “court challenge”— you just keep breaking the law until you break the system’s resolve. Saves a lot of time and headache involved with actual statutory amendment enacted by actual elected legislators.

However, the cultural concept of Boxing Day still lingers— the day after Christmas when servants could relax a bit and the gentry would treat them to the annual holiday bonus, boxes stuffed with money and gifts. It’s still a day which conjures up, for some of us, images of hanging out and doing nothing, trying out the Christmas treasures, eating the left-overs. I celebrated today by rising at about 2:00 and soaking in the tub from 4:30 till 6:00 while drinking champagne and orange juice and reading about architecture. This strikes me as an appropriate way to pass a traditional “holiday” in the literal sense (Holy Day).

Unfortunately, Canadian society has succumbed to moving the traditional after-Christmas sales to Boxing Day, where they had once been staved off until December 27. Somewhere in the distance today were the sounds of cash-registers dinging (or whatever it is these computerized models do), but no one in our house was aware of it.

Canada is still blessed insofar as it lacks anything quite equivalent to the American abomination known in the retail world as “Black Friday” – the day after Thanksgiving when hundreds of thousands of people line up in the cold early morning to rush the doors of the malls and big-box stores for Christmas shopping deals. It is hard to conceive of a more unedifying sight than crowds pushing and shoving (sometimes trampling) each other in search of bargains and the hottest gift-fads, without which, one surmises, the birth of Christ would be empty and meaningless.

Canada’s Thanksgiving is in October (usually on or about Columbus Day), too far ahead of the Christmas season for a wild mob scene— besides, without a November Thanksgiving Hallmark-merchandising-opportunity to hold them back, Canadian stores have been stocking Christmas items since late September— so what’s the rush?!

Many might be prepared to say a lot of nasty things about people for whom Christmas has descended into this materialistic morass, but more than anything else I think they are to be pitied, for they have been victims of a terrible robbery. It is the province of the churches to teach the meaning of Christmas, and to raise the alarum about its abuse and perversion. It’s also the province of the churches to fill their own pews—which is where the initial failure lies, and the great robbery accommodated. If Christmas is rather less than “merry”— an exhausting, pointless, and expensive ordeal, as we often hear of it— some research into an antidote would seem to be in order.

I have given some thought over the past few years as to what might be the key ingredients to a Merry Christmas, and why I usually find it pretty easy to have one.

At the root is the question of appropriate expectations. When Christmas is all about the awe and excitement of small children, for whom every aspect of the season is cause for joy, the natural melancholy that comes with the end of the party and the turn of the year can be successfully suppressed, for quite awhile. But Christmas changes as children get older—the magic diminishes, and the sense of inexorably passing time increases.

If you’re lucky, you can accept that the highs and lows of seasonal celebrations are to be expected— relentless highs are artificial, and suppressing the melancholy is unhealthy. Those who are unprepared for, and resent, the post-gift-grab-and-turkey-blow-out depression, have failed to realize that they have set themselves up for this. It’s preventable. After due consideration, I’ve developed some simple prescriptions for recovering the Merry in Christmas. It starts with what might seem superficial (but isn’t) and then works its way to the deeper stuff. That sounds backwards, but it’s a way of easing into the optimal results.

Memo for next Christmas: plan well in advance to approach the Christmas season with new strategies relating to:





Note: the use of the word “Merry” to describe the perfect Christmas in no way implies that this is a formula geared to non-religious seasonal observance. It is the Christian tradition to be merry at the prospect of the Nativity. That’s the Nativity of Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, the Redeemer of all mankind, born into history at a time and place commemorated once a year by Christian believers. While it is possible for the non-believer to enter into some type of generic seasonal spirit with all good will and stuff, to be absolutely frank, if you are not prepared to at least contemplate the historical reality of this birth, and the significance attached to it by Christians, your participation is something of a delusion, and you deprive yourself of its riches.

Christmas 2005 has seen some fanning of the flames of the Culture Wars on the part of those who object to the dilution of the holiday’s factual identity into some bizarre No-Name Seasonal Warm-Fuzzathon — the complaints are well-founded (if not always well-argued), and the controversy warranted. But among the voices in favor of keeping “Christmas” in the public vocabulary are those who have argued that non-Christians should be content with trees and carols and greetings called “Christmas” because these things have lost their religious meaning anyway, so their use is palatably secular.

Please, people— your kind of help we don’t need. It’s about the coming of Christ, and the birth of his Church. Deal with it. And don’t insult Jews by pretending it’s their season too—they’d be the first to tell you it is no such thing. Hanukkah is not a season, but a minor event in the Jewish calendar, significant on a scale with St. Patrick’s Day for Christians. Christmas is not pagan in origin, as some multi-culti types claim—it successfully usurped and more or less obliterated a pagan seasonal festival, co-opting some of its trappings (like trees) which were easily absorbed into existing authentically Christian motifs.

This is not to say that paganism can’t capture the flag back again. It’s working very hard at exactly that, in the guise of benign-looking secular banalities and orgies of materialism. These things are not “merry” as applied to Christmas—they are fleeting but corrosive distractions.

Recover a truly Merry Christmas, by starting with:


The importance of music to the spirit of Christmas cannot be overstated.

Choose wisely. Ban mercilessly.

I can’t remember when it dawned on me, but at some point I came to realize that the most important ingredient in the Merrying of Christmas in my life has been, by far, the discovery of styles of music that are imbued with the true meaning and spirit of the Nativity.

Our house was like everybody else’s in the 1950’s— Christmas music was the usual mix of classic carols and more modern pop hits. We got the big cabinet stereo in about 1958 and our first Christmas LP album was a little bit of a departure—an important one. It was the Robert Shaw Chorale singing traditional carols a capella. The sound was clear and rich and unadorned. Other versions paled by comparison.

Yes, we got our Bing Crosby album too, and over the years my father kept bringing home the annual pop artist collection “Great Songs of Christmas,” put out by Goodyear (?!), that gave us Barbra Streisand warbling “Silent Night” and Bob Goulet crooning I forget what— joined by Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, and, oh yes, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They were pleasant enough, but even as a child I understood that they lacked what the Robert Shaw album had — had I been able to articulate it then I might have given new meaning to the term “Christmas balls.”

Then in the early 1960’s my sister sent away to Life Magazine for a set of books on the Pageantry, Glory, and Merriment of Christmas, with its accompanying LP called “The Life Treasury of Christmas Music”— and a treasure it was. The record changed everything about our sense of how Christmas ought to sound. Its selections included Gregorian chant (which we already knew about, but took for granted), and an international array of medieval dance rhythms on period instruments, Renaissance polyphony, organ solos, 18th and 19th-century carols, and a little touch of Huron from Ontario.

From here we developed a taste for early music in general, but especially that of the Christmas season, which introduced us not only to new notions of harmony and the joys of percussion, but to the fuller spectrum of religious truths which are so often the subject of medieval popular song: our forebears did not hesitate to place the miraculous birth of the Holy Babe within the context of his larger purpose, a life destined to end in agonizing redemptive sacrifice. Furthermore, they were not shy about speculating how strangely the circumstances of the Nativity must have struck those ordinary folk lacking the benefit of an Archangelic visitation— including Joseph himself, the subject of numerous songs that speak to his cluelessness and resentment of the implausible claims of his pregnant fiancée.

Christians of an earlier time could meld a greater awe and faith with a more intimate human relationship with their Savior than modern man achieves, and all without need of the glossy sentimentality so typical of our musical chestnuts and greeting card art. The wider, more realistic perspective of our religious ancestors from centuries long past, as expressed in their music, is the best possible antidote to the artificial high and the post-indulgence deflation too typical of the modern Christmas celebration. Life was hard, and they accepted, even celebrated, the melancholy with the joyous.

Want a merrier Christmas through MUSIC? – Here’s the prescription:

Listen to NO Christmas music written after 1900.

Be very selective about Christmas music written after 1700.

Just try it, for one season at least—yes, you’ll have to give up “White Christmas” (but that will relieve you of the execrable “Mele Kalikimaka” in the process—double bonus).

You’ll hear plenty of old favorite carols and pop schlock in the stores and elevators—try to filter it out of your head, but if you feel called to absorb some Frosty or Mama Kissing Santa Claus, confine your listening to the muzak of public places.

At home, keep to the older musical traditions, whose texts are rich in the Biblical context and lived experience of the need for redemption through the Divine Child and his generous earthly parents.

Recommended introduction to the world of real Christmas music:

Christmas Now is Drawing Near – by Sneak’s Noyse [Saydisc Records]

A Tapestry of Carols – by Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band [also Saydisc]

A Garland of Carols, and Fire & Sleet & Candlelight – by Coope, Boyes and Simpson [No Masters Voice]

On Yoolis Night or anything recorded by the Anonymous 4

The Carol Albums - by the Taverner Consort under Andrew Parrott

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols – lots of recordings, the one from King’s College, Cambridge being the most famous; the one from the London Oratory is different, and very pleasing.

Thys Yool – A Medieval Christmas – by the Martin Best Ensemble [Nimbus Records]

An American Christmas - by the Boston Camerata under Joel Cohen [Erato records]


Buy stuff online. I’ve had great luck with it, mostly using catalogues I’ve been ordering from by phone since before I had a computer. There are two benefits to this: (1) It keeps you out of malls, which are symphonies of schlock, crass and brassy pageants of crap-for-sale in the din of lousy music and frantic people with cranky kids. (2) If you get the right catalogues and websites, the stuff is a lot more interesting than what’s in the stores.

Have a look at Acorn, Signals, Wireless, The Smithsonian, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Creative Irish Gifts, Coldwater Creek (women’s clothes, jewelry, decorative stuff), Land’s End (good basic clothing, some household items). And there’s always Amazon and Barnes & Noble for books, music, and games. Harry and David for great food (especially fruit). Hammacher-Schlemmer has a few interesting things for people of ordinary means, tucked in between the junk for zillionaires. Also visit your favorite blog-sites and find fun political novelties to suit your and your friends’ opinions.

I’m not putting links up for these sites, just to emphasize that no commercial considerations have encouraged me to list them—someday when I get my web-act together maybe I’ll run their ads.

Want a merrier Christmas despite the SHOPPING? – Here’s the prescription:

Do whatever it takes to stay out of malls and monster stores. Online shopping is leisurely and peaceful and, in my experience, efficient, creative, and reliable.

If you really have to hit the stores, try something out of the mainstream, like gift certificates from a gourmet cheese and deli shop, or cooking school. They smell good and tend to be located in quiet corners of the world.


You’ll find everything you need to decorate your home, inside and out, slipping stealthily into the stores in late September, early October at the latest. IGNORE IT.

If you must buy ahead, do it in late November and stow it until at least my birthday (December 11).

Start with some decorations which are attractive and festive but are clearly consigned to Advent: a Jesse tree, an Advent wreath, an Advent calendar (on a religious or wintry theme, revealing angels or townsfolk and such— remember that Spongebob Squarepants and Scooby-Do have NOTHING to do with Advent—no cartoon calendars!), the Christmas crib (permissible early, but keep the baby in storage until Christmas Eve, and if possible place the wise men and shepherds so they can be walked toward the manger over a period of weeks—kids love to do this, but space doesn’t always allow for it). Think purple, not red and green yet (even poinsettias will cooperate with you in this).

It is fair to say that the true Spirit of Christmas is not invoked by lighting up your yard like a Vegas whore-house— try to keep it under control. The latest fad seems to be these inflatable nylon giants: snow families, teddy bears, etc. They’re generally sort of cute, but bloated (literally) and ostentatious and a little creepy. And remember— accidents happen— what could be more pathetic than a flaccid Father Christmas lying face down on your lawn.

The centerpiece of any indoor decoration is going to be the Christmas tree. Anyone for whom it is not an untenable financial or physical burden, or a danger to your health (like needles make you break out in hives), should get a real tree—please! The fakes are getting better, but they have one big problem: they’re fake. We try to avoid that in all respects this time of year.

When it comes to decorating the tree, many individual tastes will play their part—and many instances of no taste at all. Your best bet? Decorate your tree only with things that any small child would like to (1) eat, (2) play with, (3) gaze at for an hour. (Theoretically, anyway—if you don’t use actual toys, then plausible, well-made replicas.)

Supplement with religious symbols, memorabilia specific to your family, animal life (birds, nests, small furry things), anything made by your children. Nothing glads the heart and catches the eye like old-fashioned blown-glass figures and objects, dotted here and there between the less shiny and more natural objects. Garlands of wooden beads, popcorn, cranberries, little gold and silver stars are way more warm and friendly than ropes of Wal-Mart twinkle-garland and sheets of “icicles”.

Everybody likes vases and pots of greens around the house—pine, fir, holly, boxwood, ivy, juniper— which should be real if your allergies can handle it. There are beautiful accents to be found in the shapes and warm colours of fruits and berries, for both the vases and tree ornaments (fakes are getting pretty good, and less likely to bring fruit flies than the real thing).

Want a merrier Christmas through DECORATION? – Here’s the prescription:

Keep it warm (colours); keep it real (if possible), natural and simple (outdoor lights and displays); keep it in reserve till well into Advent. Approach it all with an eye to childish delight. Avoid anything that looks like the work of an interior designer – real people don’t live like that.


The best way to guarantee a Merry Christmas is to precede it with a real Advent, traditionally a season of preparation only slightly less somber than Lent. In fact, Advent was once colloquially referred to as “St. Martin’s Lent” since it was originally established to last from the feast of St. Martin of Tours, November 11, to Christmas Day (about two weeks longer than the modern Advent season).

There are still those who try to observe the spirit of Advent fairly strictly, avoiding all parties, trees, decorating, etc., until Christmas Eve. In this mode, our forebears postponed celebration until the actual feast of Christmas, and then enjoyed not just an explosive day of excess and abandon on December 25, but on that day inaugurated a 12-day Christmas “season” in the truest sense.

The modern world makes this arrangement problematic. In “olden times” the whole community agreed that the daily grind would come to a halt for the duration of the festivities, so no one was penalized for slacking off, or concerned about losing business to others when little business was conducted anywhere. Today, however, no employed person is allowed to neglect work for a twelve-day stretch after Christmas— at best, we get one day’s grace before most of the community is called back to the full schedule of work obligations. Luckier folks see their offices close for the whole period from Christmas to New Year’s, but only when the calendar cooperates and there are just a couple of work-days between the two holidays.

For this reason most of us are drawn into abbreviating even our shortened Advent, and start the decorating and partying by the middle of December, in the knowledge that big parties after the 25th have a way of seeming anti-climactic. It’s hard to know whether that is cause or effect— whether we have created that weird plummeting of joy by having given in to the pre-Christmas emphasis— but it is nevertheless reality, and our collective devotion to work prevents us from turning back the clock on this issue completely.

Still, the recovery of some sense of Advent – restraining the impulse to start Christmas in September (as the stores would have us do), to get the lights and the tree up in the first week of December and then have the poor old tannenbaum out at the curb with the other garbage on the 27th, and to spend the whole of Advent in a stressful buying-spree that takes till Lent to be paid off — by taking time to meditate on the coming mystery, on how profound is our need to be saved and to reconcile ourselves with God and each other, is the shortest, straightest path to a truly Merry Christmas.

The first step is to tame the calendar—make the effort to schedule the festive activities as close to the 25th as your routine allows; mark the January calendar with Twelfth Night and do your best to keep the tree and decorations in place until then; schedule some relaxed social gatherings for the weeks AFTER Christmas, see friends and family, watch football, hang out, eat left-overs and drink mimosas. Can’t be beat.

First make Advent a genuine season (not just Christmas foreplay), then make Christmas a genuine season (not just a food-and-toy orgasm).

While you’re not partying and shopping like mad in early December, find some contemplative reading material about Christmas. I have several books that have a prayer or reading per day of Advent (Bishop Sheen compiled one)-- and guess what? I’ve never gotten through one yet. But even if you can’t rely on making time for a reading every day, it’s still worthwhile to keep some appropriate material close at hand for the spare moments that present themselves. There are old books of Christmas poems and stories— some are anthologies, others are from one hand such as Washington Irving’s, or Charles Dickens’ short stories that aren’t about Scrooge. Listen to or read Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Take a random quiet moment here and there if you can’t manage the daily meditation.

Want a merrier Christmas, period? – Recover ADVENT.

Discipline your calendar, feed your soul, believe in two seasons instead of one or two blow-outs, spend within your means, remember why we do this at all—“Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Holidays” give you no guidance on this matter.

Even if your faith, or your lack of it, makes you resistant to involvement in something called “Mass,” you can’t get around the fact that what we celebrate this time of year is called “Christ’s Mass”— it belongs to him, the little bundle in the straw whose humble, helpless entry into our world tells you all you need to know about how the faith to which he calls us is like no other movement or cult or philosophy that has ever captured the heart and imagination of mankind.

And therefore be merry,
Rejoice and be you merry,
Set sorrows aside--
Our Savior, Christ Jesus
Was born on this tide.

A Virgin Most Pure, from A Tapestry of Carols