‘Tis the season to be jolly~ fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la~~.
Jolly. Joy. Jubilee. Christmas is a time to celebrate. The colors, the music, hot chocolate warming a set of cold hands, the tinkle of the salvation army bell, the crowds and floats of the Macy’s parade, chestnuts roasting on an open fire (yes, I had to throw that one in); the air of December twenty-fifth moves us to celebration. Of course, not all celebrate the same things. The Christian will obviously celebrate Christ. The Jew, Chanukah (of course not the same day but the same month). And the atheist and agnostic still celebrate family and friends, or maybe one just celebrates the day off. Regardless of what the object of celebration is, Christmas is a time to be jolly, joyful, jubilant.
Often the Christian message that I hear in this season of December is a message that contends against the swing of culture toward materialism and for bringing the day back to celebrating the one who started the holiday, Christ. It is a true and profound message. But as I contemplate this message of anti-materialism slash gratitude of the Ultimate Gift, I’ve come to realize one thing. I’m not good at celebrating. In having processed the message of anti-materialism, I have become a poor participator of festivities. I have subconsciously filed in my mind all extravagance into the category of frivolities. And I have to say, I blame Christianity.
The culture of Christianity has historically found difficulty in accommodating the extravagant. It has often, for the sake of ultimates and essentials, sidelined the extravagant. And along the way, function has taken over form as the better half of the created order. If an object has no usefulness or function, it is difficult to find a place in the realm of modern Christianity. Art, in particular, is a victim of this tendency. The artistic has become at times unnecessary. People have asked, “Why pour resources in such a frivolous endeavor when there are essential needs in this world?” Christians have said, “Fashion is so extravagant that it’s so unimportant compared to the essential needs of injustice.” Yes, it is true that the artistic, music, paintings, dance, comedy, musicals, films and fashion, are all things that do not scream ‘urgent’. But for some reason, the culture of Christianity has concluded that the extravagant is never essential. Jed Perl, the art critic of The New Republic, writes in his article titled, “Put In Your Oar“, that the arts are sometime shoved into places of being efficient, but he contends that the arts are necessarily inefficient, and that its extravagance is essential:
In perilous times, those who love the arts quite naturally go on the defensive. They try to prove that the arts are in fact cost effective. They are playing a dangerous game. Too much can too easily be reduced to crowds and numbers crunching. Some argue that public arts funding boosts tourism. Others theorize that arts education improves children’s brains. And in publishing, the defenders of the now-endangered mid-list author argue that you will only find the next bestseller if you take a chance on what may initially look like modest books. I am certainly not advocating fiscal or institutional irresponsibility. In my experience, creative people are among the more fiscally responsible citizens, simply because they cannot afford to be otherwise. But I think we must insist on the fundamental inefficiency of the arts, on their essential extravagance.
I do not know where Perl’s faith lies, but he does offer the modern culture of Christian functionalism some good advice. Extravagance and essential are not antonyms. To always pit extravagance against the notion of essential is to lose the full Christian worldview. It is to make Christmas decorating a wasteful endeavor. It makes gift giving worthy only if the gift fits the functional needs of the recipient. It turns us into robots of efficiency. It makes us incapable of being jolly, joyful, and jubilant. So at the turn of this Christmas day, I will remember the One who came to save those who would believe, but I will also learn to sit, frivolously enjoying the Christmas lights, music and company, and at times enjoying extravagance, because that, I believe, is the glimpse of the world into which He saves us.