Now that it’s all over bar the dieting I have been thinking about how we as a society approach Christmas. Have you noticed how fewer and fewer people comment on the commerciality of Christmas these days? I haven’t heard that moan for years. We seem to have accepted that we really do need all that time to prepare all the amazing foodstuffs, buy all those expensive presents and attend all those events that make the Christmas season the stressful and over indulgent time it has become.
Perhaps this is down to how rich our society has become, (did you know that if you have assets of just £2,000 you are in the top 2% of the world’s wealth?). However, I think there is something else happening here. A society without faith loses something very important that is essential to its collective soul – public ritual. Our obsession with the glitter and glitz of the Christmas season, the partying and the present buying, are a manifestation of a society that is desperately trying to recapture the sense of magic we used to feel as small children about Christmas. Why should we need this ‘magic’?
As society becomes resolutely more secular certain elements of what make us human become lost or buried under our faith in certainty and proof. One of these things is obviously our innate recognition of the spiritual. We need something to believe in. It could be our families, politics, celebrity or it could even be our faith in the tangibility and explainability of everything in the universe. But none of these things deliver one key element of religion – mystery and magic.
Try telling me there is nothing magical about a candle lit carol service, or trooping out at 11o’clock under the stars for an ancient ceremony (midnight mass). To those who have no religion that element of mystery is missing from Christmas and there is something about public ritual and ceremony that speaks deeply to our psyches and our souls.
So secular society creates public rituals which take the place of the spiritual ones – it creates spaces where it can play.
In this context don’t think about play as only confined to the activity of children – that’s one type of play, Frivolity. (If you need a refresher on the other seven see Definitions of Play) Our Western 21st century life is very taken up with particular forms of play and very dismissive of others. Power play, play as fulfilling your Self, play as Learning and Imagination, all of these are overly valued by our society. We love playing. But we have fewer outlets for our deep need for expressions of Communal Identity and Ritual that were in the past fufilled by religion – so we go to rock concerts, and festivals, and at Christmas time we plunge ourselves into public displays of present buying extravagance and decorate our homes with light shows that would shame Oxford Street.
Being able to understand this obsession with extravgant play as something that is emerging despite society’s best attempts to rid ourselves of public religion helps us to begin to respond to it. It is an expression of lack, and an expression of a real desire for being together and being involved in ritual. So instead of condeming we can approach it compassionately, we can look beyond the tinsel and wrapping paper to the reason for this outpouring and once we are able to do that we can perhaps look at how our faith either provides a solution or is failing our society by not providing a solution.
To paraphrase Isaiah we can cease to judge by what we see with our eyes and not decide by what we hear with our ears. In this way we will be moving towards the example of our Messiah and what better season for us to do that?