Christmas, Plainly
Our best childhood Christmases are set in the same country; we all lived there once.

From the cover of The Christmas Plains, by Joseph Bottum


LOPEZ: Why have you “given up on perfection in Christmas trees”?

BOTTUM: Because I live now in the wildly imperfect land of South Dakota, and the spruce and pines of the Black Hills just aren’t the model cones and ideal shapes of the trees we used to shop for in the Christmas-tree lots of Washington and New York, the big cities in which we lived back east.

Or maybe it’s just because I’m imperfect and need an image of that even in my Christmas trees. I don’t know, exactly, but the trees we go to the forest to cut now have more character than perfection.

But that’s all right, and the key, I think, is that part about where we live now. If the first theme I stumbled upon while working on The Christmas Plains is the way in which Christmas words are a model for all language in the unity of truth, the second theme is contemplation of spiritual geography.

Like our Christmas memories, our geographies are more universal the more particular they are. The writings of the Church Fathers — the books of the Bible itself, for that matter — are filled with geographical metaphors for spiritual concepts. Should the Ark of the Covenant stay in the country camp at Shiloh or be moved to the city temple in Jerusalem? Is God best found in the lonely cell of a hermit out in the desert, or among the throngs of people in a crowded cathedral?

We can call these metaphors and symbols, for they are; but they are also something more than that. These are spiritual realities tied to the land and the home and the places where we live. Christmas, in our childhood memories, often has this more-than-symbolic feeling to it. I can’t remember whether my parents got a balsam tree for Christmas the year that I was five, or six, or seven. The memory is loose in time.

But it’s precise in place. I remember where it sat in the corner of the living room, hiding the TV (a second advantage, my parents thought; they hated our watching television). I remember the strong scent and short needles and the stickiness of the sap. That tree is located for me, in the house out on the South Dakota plains on which I was young, and it speaks to me still of a particular place and what it meant.

And that, surely, is a universal experience. Be from someplace, I keep shouting at my readers, and the ones who survive the deafening noise may appreciate the call to see those Christmas memories as a model for how we might understand the world all year. We’re placed, in God’s providence, in particular cities, particular prairies, particular towns that can have, that should have, a spiritual meaning.

LOPEZ: What’s your issue with “tidings of comfort”?

BOTTUM: I do rather go after that poor carol, don’t I? And I’m not sure why, because I sing it all the time in the shower (which is the only place my family will let me sing anymore).

Still, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is one of the goofier manifestations of the season. Even the title gets regularly mangled, turned from “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” (meaning that God should keep the gentleman merry) to “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” (which seems to imply that God needs to send the drunken revelers to bed).

And think of that rhyme in a later verse: “From God our Heavenly Father a blessed angel came, / and unto certain shepherds brought tidings of the same: / how that in Bethlehem was born the Son of God by name.” I mean just as poetry, the thing is a train wreck. By name, forsooth: filler for rhyme of the most incompetent, naive kind.

The weird thing is that it doesn’t matter. It’s a marvelous song, a wonderful song, and its naivety is part of its charm. Even the chorus is wonderful: Tidings of comfort and joy.

I only wish from time to time I got the comfort. Most of my Christmases something breaks, some wild catastrophe happens, and something goes amiss. But that’s okay. I’ll take the joy, since that seems to be the part of the Christmas combination that’s chiefly on offer.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.