Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,
Jack Frost nipping at your nose;
Yule-tide carols being sung by a choir
And folks dressed up like Eskimos.
Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe
Help to make the season bright;
Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow
Will find it hard to sleep tonight.
They know that Santa's on his way,
He's loaded lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh;
And every mother's child is gonna spy,
To see if reindeer really know how to fly.
And so I'm offering this simple phrase,
To kids from one to ninety-two;
Although it's been said many times, many ways,
"Merry Christmas to you."
This is "The Christmas Song," one of the season's favorite standards for holiday listening whose words and music by Mel Torme and Robert Wills filled our hearts and homes way back in 1946, and have continued up to this present Christmas. There is hardly a line, even a phrase, in the song that does not open up other images of Christmas, yielding very strong feelings and memories of Christmas past with their kaleidoscope of family members, some no longer with us, as well as old friends; dinners, presents, snowball fights, caroling and expeditions through neighborhoods and nursing homes; candles and mistletoe, tree trimmings, and great food; nativity scenes in our churches and neighborhood, and concerts featuring the universal favorite, Handel's Messiah; great expectations on Christmas eve for the mysterious visit by "that jolly ole elf himself," Santa Claus; and perhaps even a performance of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker" with its musical enactment of childhood fantasies at Christmas-time.
Whether or not those particular images have been personally experienced by individuals, they float around in the psychic air of our western culture. They pop up on television. They call to us through our radios, and they envelop us in our shopping malls. Again, whether or not individuals are religious, these images of Christmas surround us and appear earlier and earlier each year. I think this is not just because they make for good advertising copy, but also because on the deepest level, people find some comfort in the images of Christmas. In spite of the crudest machinations of exploitive marketing, even in spite of the protests of our cynicism and the greed of our materialism, even though we may have endured countless dysfunctional family visits, yet the images seem to zoom in on our highest nature that often lies dormant beneath our lowest, darkest moods.
They can do this because they are "mythic." Together they attach to each other and form a pattern that we recognize as "Christmas." Together they create the "myth" of Christmas. By "myth," I mean a symbolic story. Together, these images form a narrative whose story is greater than the sum of the individual images. These mental pictures join in a dance of creation in which any particular image fades out of sight only to reappear later within the symbolic story of Christmas. Santa Claus is not an integral part of the myth that could probably stand alone without the man in the red suit; and the same could be said of Jack Frost, Frosty the Snowman, flying reindeer, and the rituals and parades and shopping and gathering, etc. These images may fade in importance, disappear or be replaced by new images that attach themselves to the myth For example, how can we now not remember
"The Grinch That Stole Christmas?" My point is that the "myth of Christmas" is a very dynamic symbolic story, a myth that absorbs images, dispenses them, creates new ones, and continues to narrate a cultural event that touches the lives of many people everywhere.
But the "myth of Christmas" is not the "Christmas myth." So what is the Christmas myth? Let me tell you a story, but not just a story, rather a symbolic story -- a myth that is the kernel of what we call Christmas. It goes like this.
Now it happened that at this time Caesar Augustus issued a decree
that a census should be made of the whole inhabited world. This
census -- the first -- took place while Quirinius was governor of
Syria, and everyone went to be registered, each to his own town.
So Joseph set out from the town of Nazareth in Galilee for Judaea,
to David's town called Bethlehem, since he was of David's House and
line, in order to be registered together with Mary, his betrothed, who
was with child. Now it happened that, while they were there, the time
came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to a son, her first-
born. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger
because there was no room for them in the living-space. In the country-
side close by there were shepherds out in the fields keeping guard over
their sheep during the watches of the night. An angel of the Lord stood
over them and the glory of the Lord shone round them. They were
terrified, but the angel said, "Do not be afraid. Look, I bring you news
of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people. Today in the town
of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. And here
is a sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and
lying in a manger. And all at once with the angel there was a great
throng of the hosts of heaven, praising God with the words:
Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace for those he favors.
(Luke 2:1-14; The New Jerusalem Bible)
This story comes to us from the late first century. Tradition reports that it was written by a physician named Luke as part of a two-volume work (The Gospel of Luke and The Book of Acts), addressed to a Greek-speaking Gentile named Theophilus ("lover of God"), likely for the purpose of explaining the inclusivity and universality of the events surrounds a Jesus of Nazareth, whose life arose out of Judaism, with a significance that touches the humblest and most powerful of persons. This two-volume work makes up more than 27% of the New Testament, and as you can therefore imagine, strongly contributed to the Christmas myth.
I do not mean to imply, however, that Luke made up the story. Something happened in history. Luke the physician is using bits of history, legend, poetry, and theological commentary to call forth our attention. Something was "in the air" at that point in history, trying to become conscious to make sense of an emerging higher order of humanity, an order that transcended the brutish survival preoccupations of tribalism, violence, fear, and hostility so prevalent before the turn of the age.
Just as the same is true even today that this "new humanity" certainly is not all-pervasive, so also two thousand years ago, there seems to have been only pockets of the world's peoples in which a new consciousness stirred. This evolving consciousness could conceive of one world, one humanity, one universal yearning for justice, mercy, safety, happiness, and healing for the body, the mind, the spirit, and the brokenness of the peoples' social web of being.
Luke expresses these yearnings and possibilities by inserting them throughout his Gospel. For example, Mary speaks of her child who is to be born as an act of God in which,
He has routed the arrogant of heart.
He has pulled down princes from their thrones
and raised high the lowly.
He has filled the starving with good things,
sent the rich away empty. (1:51-53)
Or again, Luke has Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, to anticipate a new era in which there will be,
light to those who live
in darkness and the shadow dark as death,
and to guide our feet
into the way of peace. (1:79)
These promises of a new way of life were anticipated by the earlier Hebrew prophets who eight centuries earlier glimpsed a vision of their prophetic calling like this:
The spirit of the Lord God is on me
for the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to bring the news to the afflicted,
to soothe the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
release to those in prison ... . (Isaiah 61:1-2)
These ideas, although nestled within the provincialism of the old order, promised a New Being for all people. When I look at this turn of events in the history of the world, I also consider not only what this means socially, politically, and spiritually, but also psychologically. And for this, I am reminded of Carl Jung's essay, "Christ, a Symbol of the Self," in which he says this:
Like the related ideas of atman and tao in the East, the idea
of the Self [i.e., the God image within] is at least in part a
product of cognition, grounded neither on faith nor on
metaphorical speculation but on the experience that under
certain conditions the unconscious spontaneously brings forth
an archetypal symbol of wholeness.
(Collected Works, Vol. 9ii, para 124)
In any case, this emergence of a symbol of wholeness is what the Christmas myth is about. And it is why this myth does not quietly sink into obscurity. We may not understand it, but its hold upon the human mind lingers and is embedded within the myth of Christmas itself. The human mind did not make up this myth, and its deep mystery remains hidden under the silence of the stars.