December's post, Three Christmases,
featured memories from Harry Leslie Smith & Ruth Wolff.
Now for number three:
3. In The Skeptical Feminist: Discovering the Virgin, Mother, and Crone, Barbara G. Walker (b. 1930, Philadelphia) describes the "typical middle - class American Christmases" of her youth:
40 - 42: "I used to be mystified by the slogan, 'Put Christ back in Christmas.' As far as I was concerned, Christ had never been in Christmas very much except as its mispronounced first syllable. At best he was only the infant portion of the formal mother - child symbol, representing the foundation of human -- not divine -- love.
"Had I been aware of the old pagan name of the Yuletide festival, matrum noctem or Night of the Mother, and the meaning of its ancient pre - Christian madonna and child idols, I would have understood more about my own special feeling for Christmas.
"My family treated Christmas as an intrinsically secular holiday celebrating the best in human feelings of kinship, love, joy, kindness, and appreciation of blood bonds without any reference to the Christian myth except for an appearance at church services. Our celebrations had their own rituals, meaningful for us, and a generally Dickensian - English, old - fashioned Christmas atmosphere of indiscriminate goodwill. My mother was the Fezziwig who made it work.
"My mother was the youngest of three sisters, all of whom raised their families within reachable distance of each other in different suburbs of the same city. Consequently aunts, uncles, and cousins were inevitably involved on Christmas Day. Christmas Eve, however, belonged to our household alone.
"Of course the festival began long before that: as soon as we began drawing up lists and keeping secrets, when mysterious packages were hidden away on high closet shelves and when rolls of bright wrapping paper and ribbon appeared. About a week before Christmas my mother and I had a wrapping session. Sitting amid a litter of paper string, tape, tags, cards, and assorted decorations, we happily toiled together for hours over the gifts, remaking prosaic boxes and other objects into things of satisfying, if ephemeral, beauty.
"The end result was magic: perfectly ordinary things transmuted into shining, dreamlike talismans. . . . There can be no doubt that the gift - giving custom was and is the major source of children's happy memories of Christmas, the custom that fixes it in their minds for life as a benevolent, enjoyable time. Nonetheless, our traditions included much more than gifts.
"The real excitement began on Christmas Eve, the matrum noctem of our pagan ancestors, who revered the mystery of birth above the character of the one born. I would wake on the morning of December 24th with the pleasantly squiggly inner feeling that this would be one of the best days of the year: a day of fun, irradiated by anticipation of the morrow.
"The first project was setting up the tree . . . For a few years when I was very small, I believed that Santa Claus trimmed the tree in the night because it appeared like magic on Christmas morning: a whole fairy - tale world of light and color where an ordinary end table had stood the day before. My parents soon dispensed with Santa Claus, however, and enlisted my aid in building this particular fairy - tale world."
[I would love to simply type up this chapter in its entirety because Walker so beautifully and thoroughly describes the perfect Christmas! I'm sorry to leave out a single detail, though I should probably move along a bit more quickly and gloss over the next few pages, in which Walker describes so many lovely activities and customs, but one in particular that was entirely new for me this year: " . . . lighting the bayberry candles in the bathtub where they could safely burn unwatched all night!]45- 46: "On the whole ours were typical middle - class American Christmases: not unique, not sacred, not particularly religious. They could easily be criticized as commercial, and overindulgent. My mother used to say, 'Christmas is for the children.' Children were hardly expected to comprehend the improbable doctrine of a woman impregnated by a god without sexual intercourse or to recognize in the resulting infant a future man whose death would be ordered by that same god to induce himself to accept human beings into heaven. Perhaps such doctrines would have strained even the uncritically receptive childish imagination.
"My cousins and I were not burdened by any such incredulities. At Christmas we simply and openly reveled in our childish acquisitiveness and sensual enjoyments, through which, somehow, the festival was transmuted into beautiful memories and tender sentiments, which we carried forward in time to our own children.
"I suspect that even people who think they put Christ in Christmas treat it, in practice, as a celebration of family feeling, bodily indulgence, and a catering to children's shallow joy. At Christmas most people pity the poor and lonely because they lack material goods and human relationships, not because they lack the salvation supposedly engineered by the Christ child, which was said to belong to all. In this we demonstrate an awareness that Christ is not going to make anyone happy in honor of the season. This responsibility must fall on human shoulders."
47 - 48: "But perhaps the very fact that Christmas has gone secular and commercial is directly related to the practical reality of its more recent implications. . . . Children really are delighted by their gifts. Grown - ups really do enjoy watching their pleasure. The decorations really are pleasant to contemplate. The family feasts really are fun. The warmth of friends and relatives reaching out to one another really exists. Though a Christ child may be taken as mere myth or symbol, children are certainly real and motherhood certainly is, psychologically and physiologically, the fountainhead of love: a fact that stands in need of much wider recognition in a patriarchal and alienated society. . . . Perhaps, after all, Christmas is not about gods or miraculous births or world - saving infants threatening evil kings. Perhaps it is only about people."