‘Christmas comes like a fire every year — a burning declaration of warmth and brightness in the December cold and dark,” Joseph Bottum writes in The Christmas Plains. “It’s a stance, really, a theological choosing of sides,” he continues. “Against the rising chill of the fall, God gave us this burning flame of the Christ child, and with that impossible generosity, we will stand. Why should it be a surprise that such theology has consequences for our winter psyches?”
Our winter psyches and our culture thirst for that generosity and for words that go deeper than shopping and busyness.
From the plains of South Dakota, his childhood home, Bottum talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What about Christmas in the plains of South Dakota is relevant to the hectic lives of urban dwellers?
JOSEPH BOTTUM: The funny thing about our Christmas memories is how individual they are — so tied to particular places — and yet, at the same time, so universal. All our best childhood Christmases are set in the same country; we all lived there when we were young.
And though mine had horses in it — and empty prairies swept by an icy wind, and lonely country, and the forests of the Black Hills far off on the horizon like a distant and mysterious promise — still they were just like everyone else’s Christmases. Filled with wonder, and strange scents, and sharp details, and wild frenzy, and the impossible titanic emotion of it all, like a wildfire burning in the middle of winter. Like a watch fire in the midst of a blizzard.
Come, I found myself urging readers while I was writing The Christmas Plains: Come with me, down in the flood of memory, which are my memories, but yours, too. For in those memories lies some deep understanding of Christmas we need, all of us, to fathom once again.
LOPEZ: You talk about beautiful things and yet confess a fondness for inflatable decorations around this time of year. How is there consistency there?
BOTTUM: Christmas is the first claim of Christianity — it’s the declaration that the divine actually entered this world, that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And the idea is so huge, so weighty, so overwhelming, that everything else we think or feel has to bend to it. It’s an enormous star that suddenly appears in the human galaxy, and its gravity begins drawing every planet into its orbit.
The danger here is that everything can collapse into it. Christmas is so huge it would devour the universe, if it could. It would devour even the Christianity that gives it meaning. And this is what our friends who complain about the commercialization and overindulgence of Christmas rightly see. Without the liturgical calendar of Advent, without the structure of the Christian year, we end up with Christmas catalogues arriving in the mail before Halloween. With secularized silliness like the greeting “Happy Holidays!” With reindeer, and candy canes, and Santas, and everything, anything, but the Christ child.
And yet, we can have the penance of the Advent season. We can have the crèche. We can have the carols of weight and theological substance: Mild he lays his glory by, the Wesleyan carol “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” reminds us, born that man no more may die.
And if we do have all that, if we locate ourselves within the great Christmas tradition, why can’t we simply enjoy all the rest? I love Christmas, Kathryn. I love the swirl of words in it, like snowflakes through the yellow circle of a streetlight late at night. I love the inflatable reindeer, and the houses insanely covered with lights, and the fruitcakes as heavy as uranium and nearly as radioactive, and the tinny Muzak, and the frenzied shoppers, and all the rest.
I like beautiful things at Christmas better than shoddy commercial junk, because I think it’s easier to see the honor being paid to God in the beautiful and the carefully made. But I love even the most gimcrack trash of the season — because I don’t think people are necessarily far from wisdom even in their greatest foolishness. In our confused and stumbling way, we are honoring God, expressing our love and joy, when we pile onto the season’s mad bonfire all that Christmas silliness.
It’s a festival, a wild, crazy thing, just like what the Middle Ages knew. And if it swirls out from its center in goofy antics and mounds of presents, so what? Know that at its center lies an infant in a cattle shed, and enjoy all the rest of it.
LOPEZ: “Christmas is the illuminated path across the wilderness of life, our map to this world, and if we follow it — if we surrender, joyfully, to it — Christmas will lead us to where we need to go.” How can December 25 lead us anywhere? How is that not just silly artsy spiritual talk?
BOTTUM: Two themes emerged for me as I was writing The Christmas Plains — two claims about how our attitudes during the Christmas season can become models for our attitudes “all the year ’round,” as Dickens would say.
The first is the joy of words. Christmas preserves for us an odd and fascinating vocabulary: Bethlehem and sleigh bells, crèches and chestnuts, Wise Men and mangers, Santa and tinsel, poinsettias and shepherds, candy canes and wreath — all those words and phrases we know and yet use almost only at Christmas. They have a glitter and an oomph to their meaning, from their association with the season.
Ha’penny, for instance. I use it only in the Christmas jingle about how Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat. Please put a penny in the old man’s hat, it begs. But If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do. / If you haven’t got a ha’penny, then God bless you! And because of that nursery song, the word ha’penny conveys to me still a strange little extra sense of the season, and charity, and God’s love of the poor.
And why not? Why not have richer, deeper, more illuminated words? This is what we understood words to do when we were young and first learning language. This is the promise of what the medieval philosophers called “the unity of truth”: words and thoughts and reality all cohering, all growing together.
Maybe it’s true only in the words the angels speak as they sing hymns of praise around the throne of God, but we can surely do better with words than we have done. Poetry is what all language wants to be when it grows up — and our Christmas words have a kind of poetry built into them. Let that seasonal language, say I, be the model for how we speak and understand words all the long year ’round.
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.