It Continues To Look A Lot Like Texas

Christmas is one of the most visually bizarre times of year in Texas, even in years like this one where it’s been cooler and rainier than usual for a lot of the year.

It puts me somewhat in mind of what people in the southern hemisphere must experience in those places where December and January are summer months and Christmas Day is sometimes the hottest day of the year.

Texas is in the northern hemisphere, but its subtropical continental climate means that it’s British summertime temperature as often as it’s freezing, and there are years in which Christmas Day gets comfortable T-shirt weather.

It makes all of the polar-type Christmas decorations look rather odd.

People’s lawns turn that drab brown of Texan grass in its dormant winter period (I’m still used to grass being green all the time), the air conditioners are humming, the postman is in shorts, and dotted about over the landscape are these forlorn-looking inflatable snowmen, Santas, reindeer and penguins.

The stores are all playing Jingle Bells and Let It Snow and Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer, and climate is not cooperating in the least. An open sleigh, even one with twelve horses rather than one, is not going to do much dashing through the drab brown grass. The weather outside is frightful only in the sense that 80°F in mid-December is absurdly overheated. And the reindeer died of heatstroke.

It really brings home how much of our Christmas trappings are Northern in origin. Visually at least, the Western Christmas has its roots in Scandinavia and Germany, places where sleighs were once a normal way of getting around in the winter, where the likelihood was that there would be snow for Christmas, and maybe for months either side, places where reindeer might actually be a normal livestock animal, places where it’s dark for almost 3/4 of the 24-hour period and lights are vital.

It makes me wonder what Mediterranean Christmas traditions look like. What do they do in Spain, for example, or Greece – places where the only white at Christmas is the plaster walls of the houses?

St. Nicholas may have become Santa Claus and Father Christmas in the north, with his reindeer and sleigh, but in Southern Europe, where he’s still St. Nick? How would he get around in a place in which the idea of a sleigh is absurd?

Climatically, Texas has far more in common with Southern Europe or North Africa than it does with the fir trees and reindeer of Scandinavia, so it would make a sort of sense for decorating traditions to borrow more from those lands than from the frozen north.

Yet visually speaking, the frozen north has become Christmassy in a way that doesn’t pay any attention to climate. The Texan landscape may be brown against a clear blue sky, but somehow snowflakes and reindeer and the dark green of Christmas trees seem right to us. It seems to us as though the climate should adhere to our ideas about Christmas rather than the other way around.

On the other hand, though, the Texan climate ought to bring home to us how unnatural all our ideas of snow and the bleak midwinter are to the real story.

The Bible says that the shepherds were living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks at night. In Israel, as I understand it, shepherds only live out in the fields during the summer months, which means our ideas of the Light of the World coming at the darkest time of the year may technically be wrong.

But this is when we celebrate the coming of the Messiah and the inception of God’s rescue plan for fallen human beings. A light shining in the darkness. The warmth of Divine love in the midst of the coldness of a Northern winter. Richness in the leanest time of the year; joy in the middle of bleakness.

It somehow seems a more appropriate metaphor for the coming into the world of God Incarnate than in the pleasant green of a lazy English summer, or in harvest gold, or in spring blossoms. Scripture is silent on when exactly the Birth took place. In a sense, it doesn’t matter. God perhaps knew that one day even places like Texas, Argentina and Papua New Guinea would be celebrating His Advent into the world, so He didn’t tell us in order to help us not make a fetish of the trappings.

So I will use the very forlornness of the inflatable snowman decorations to remind myself that it’s not about snow and ice and the coming of the man in red, but about grace and mercy and the coming of the Word in flesh.

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The Time Between

The time between Christmas and New Year has always seemed weird to me, ever since I became an adult. As a child, you don’t notice the weirdness so much, because school Christmas holidays typically span the entire time from before Christmas Eve to after New Year’s Day. It’s all holiday time.

Conditioned by these years of school, it comes as a rude shock to the system that your employer wants you back at work between the two holidays, especially here in America where Boxing Day (26th December) is not a thing. When Christmas Day falls toward the beginning of the week, you might well only get the day itself off and be expected to put in the rest of the week working; Christmas Eve, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve, everything.

In the Mediæval period, our modern Christmas Day was only the first day of a 12-day holiday period. The most important day, certainly, but only one day – the day when most of the religious part of the Christmas celebration was done and got out of the way so that the community could relax and celebrate without needing to be on their best behaviour.

Spiritually, too, a time to reflect on the meaning of the Christmas event without being distracted by the preparations. With Christmas beginning on Christmas Day and lasting for a full twelve days culminating on the 5th January, there’s plenty of time to fully digest the spiritual implications of the birth of Christ, and in addition, there are a whole cluster of Christian feast days scattered through the period: St Stephen the first martyr on 26th December, St John the Evangelist on 27th December, Holy Innocents Day on 28th, commemorating Herod’s wicked slaughter of the baby boys in Bethlehem after he realised the Magi had tricked him, the Feast of the Circumcision on 1st January, right up to the eve of Epiphany on 5th January.

In the modern secular age, all of the little feasts have been more or less forgotten, unless you happen to go to a very traditional church. The holidays have been reduced to two: Christmas, which is the holiday for children with Santa and flying reindeer and presents, and New Year, which is the holiday for grown-ups with parties and excessive drinking.

In addition, all of the attention is on the run-up to the holiday. After Christmas Day you won’t hear I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day or Feliz Navidad on the radio again for another year, thank goodness. We’ve done that now. Time to move on to the next thing. All of the stores are already taking down the red and green Christmas decorations and replacing them with pink and red hearts for Valentine’s Day, telling us that they’ve already milked us for all they can get out of us over Christmas and it’s time for us to be spending our money on the next big retail holiday.

And in our rush to move on, we might just miss something.

Undistracted by preparations, we have a chance to focus on meaning. We squander it at our peril.

All Hallows Eve

It’s the time of year when my kids start bugging me again about Halloween.

Growing up in a Christian household in England, the festival on the 31st of October was always a complete non-event. The schools, as I recall, never wanted to make too much of a big deal about it because of the dark, spooky, scary nature of the “festivities”. I don’t remember the shops doing anything at all. You might find a pumpkin in the greengrocer’s, but fruit and vegetables were a lot more seasonal back then anyway. And we certainly didn’t do anything about it. I don’t even remember trick-or-treaters coming to our house. But then again, we lived on a fairly busy main road and kids didn’t really play out in front of the houses.

I remember some of my friends talking about trick-or-treating, though. I had only the vaguest of ideas what they were on about; the idea was apparently that you dressed up as a witch or a ghost or something (that part was always especially hazy) and went around knocking on random strangers’ doors. To an incredibly reserved and withdrawn child that found introducing himself to strangers about the most nerve-racking thing in the universe, this was worrying, right there. When they opened the door, you were supposed to say “trick or treat”, and then the people were supposed to give you sweets. Or play a trick on you. Or if they didn’t give you stuff, you were supposed to throw eggs at their house or something. Again, that part was a little hazy.

To my ignorant child brain, the reaction to all this was always “do the people on whose doors you’re knocking know to do this? Because I’m pretty sure my parents don’t”. The part about playing tricks was especially worrying, because I could never work out whether I was the one supposed to play the trick or get tricked, and either way I wanted no part of it. Even in my university years I always resisted joining in on any prank wars because I always felt guilty about playing tricks on other people. I still do.

As I got older, I eventually figured out a little bit more of what Halloween was supposed to be about, and that more than confirmed to me that I wanted no part of it. If you were a teenager in 1980s and 1990s England, any Halloween events that there were (and there weren’t that many) were resolutely horror-themed. Goblins and ghosties and long-leggity beasties, and all that. I’ve never really been that into horror at all, even though it’s often one of the most moral genres of film and literature in terms of the end message. I don’t enjoy being scared. I’ve spent far too much of my life in a perpetual state of low-level scaredness, and the thought of deliberately inflicting scares on myself is not a good one.

Anyway, I was a follower of Jesus. What fellowship does light have with darkness? I knew Whose I was, and I knew that all these dark pagan things that an English Halloween celebrated were the antithesis of my faith, and I wasn’t about to enter in. A festival honouring and celebrating all the powers of darkness and evil? Mmm, let’s not, eh?

Cut to the present day, now that I live in America and have kids in American public schools.

American Halloween in perhaps the hardest holiday for me to get my head around the why of. At least with the Fourth of July I understand the reasons behind it, even if it is the Day of Feeling Weird About My Country. But Halloween… Why?

Why celebrate it at all? And more, why is it so crazily inescapable? In Walmart, around the beginning of September, right after the Back to School stuff that’s been there since May comes down, everything turns black and orange and you’re leered at from on high by skeletons and zombies and grim reapers. Adults’ clothes all become black and orange or horror-themed. As I said, I don’t like horror, and I look dreadful in orange.

More bizarrely still, the Halloween aisles’ costumes for kids aren’t the deaths and wolfmen and vampires and whatnot that I automatically associate with the day, but Captain Americas and Thors and Barbies and Princess Elsas.

I suppose there’s something to be said for the fact that if you insist on making a big deal about it, at least it’s not unremittingly dark. But every neuron of my subconscious brain is screaming at me that it’s unnatural. Like sugar-coated hemlock pills, or bubblegum-flavoured deadly nightshade. Creepy and dark isn’t supposed to be fun.

Even stranger, there are the churches’ thinly-disguised versions. The “trunk or treat” events in which your kids go from car to car in the church parking area collecting sweets in a safe, family-friendly black-and-orange environment. Now, you can call it a “fall festival” or a “harvest thanksgiving” all you like, but we all know it’s a disguised Halloween. Harvest is something else entirely; Americans know it as Thanksgiving Day. Given the Halloween non-experiences of my formative years and the resolutely dark nature of the beast in my home country, you can understand my hesitation about the whole thing.

I was happy with Halloween basically not existing. It still seems one of the craziest holidays in the whole calendar, and one of the weirdest reasons to have a celebration in existence.

In my later teen years, when Britain started to catch the American Halloween disease, churches in Britain started to go back to the Christian calendar whose date Halloween stems from. It’s a broken-down version of “All Hallows’ Eve”, that is, the day before the feast of All Saints. Churches would ignore the 31st of October and hold All Saints parties on the 1st of November, though many still did nothing either way. And the All Saints parties were as resolutely light-themed as the secular Halloweens were dark.

Regardless of your personal theology of sainthood, honouring some of the great servants of God both living and dead seems a much better reason to have a celebration. You could argue that the direction that American churches have taken Halloween is an equivalent, and that’s certainly reasonable, but the whole thing seems weird, pagan and strange to me.

My kids, of course, don’t care about all my personal hesitations. All they can see is that they’re being denied an opportunity to have fun and get sweets. But here I am, still back at “it isn’t supposed to be fun”. I’m deeply uncomfortable with the whole thing. But my kids deserve a better explanation than “we just don’t do that”, and I’m stumped for one.