The Heart has its Season
Published: Sunday | December 24, 2006

From a coldly rational point of view Christmas is as ridiculous a notion as mankind has ever deluded itself with. A man marries a supposed virgin, discovers she's with child, learns from an angel in a dream that she has conceived by the Holy Spirit, and they travel to his hometown where there's no room at the inn so the Lord our Saviour is born in a manger?

Why, that's about as believable as the idea that a point of singularity spontaneously came into being, then spontaneously exploded to create a universe of inanimate matter, which spontaneously combined to create self-perpetuating life, which spontaneously evolved to create conscious minds.

Even the Bible is shaky about Christmas. The Gospels of Mark and John are silent about Christ's birth, while Matthew and Luke tell different stories. Matthew says nothing about a census, manger, inn or shepherds. Luke does not mention Magi from the East following a star, Herod's massacre of young babies, or the flight to Egypt.

The Gospel Nativity stories were, of course, just starting points. It wasn't until 350 AD that the church decreed December 25 as the birthday of Christ, sealing the Christian appropriation of the Roman winter solstice feast of Saturnalia.

Medieval artists added oxen and donkeys to the manger scenes and extrapolated Matthew's 'magi from the east' bearing 'gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh' into three wise Kings of the Orient named Balthasar, Melchior, and Caspar.

Pagan paraphernalia

Then came pagan paraphernalia of yule logs, holly, mistletoe and decorated fir trees. And finally, capitalist touches like greeting cards and gift-carrying Santa Claus.

Shopkeepers should be more cynical than most about the whole thing. To be sure, the extra festive spending is essential for a decent annual profit. But I continually marvel at the sheer junk people choose to waste their money on. Take the new trend of Bratz and such branded colognes and perfumes for children. It's bad enough that cartoons are rotting children's brains, but they're now cleaning out parents' pockets. The mere sight of Sponge Bob or Dora pictures is often enough to set off wails of 'Mommy, I want that!"

If it was up to my inner Ebenezer, such rubbish would be banned, starting with that insufferable symbol of juvenile manipulation named Barbie.

They merely stamp the name on any pepto-bismol pink item and the price not only doubles but little girls start bawling for it. 'Bah humbug, make Barbie illegal!' is my instinctive reaction to this blatant brainwashing. But when I express dismay at the latest nonsense, my managers laugh at my weak-hearted capitalist ethic. "Mr. Chang, we are here to sell and if we don't carry what people want they will simply go buy it elsewhere."

Barbie perfume

Anyway, who am I to try to force my tastes on others and tell them how to spend their own money? It may seem insanely stupid to me, but Barbie perfume clearly makes lots of little girls and their parents quite happy.

At any rate, it's completely counterproductive for someone in my situation to waste time pondering such things. The bottom line is simple really. Just as politicians who don't tell voters what they want to hear lose elections, merchants who don't give customers what they ask for go bankrupt.

It's all enough to make sceptical stooges sneer with derisive laughter at the stupidity of the human race - until you see the look of wonder on a child's face as she listens to the story of baby Jesus, or sings along to Christmas carols, or waits eagerly on Christmas morning to open her presents. And let's face it. Despite all the tawdry tinsel and grumbling and money complaints, is there any other time of year when so many people are so happy? It really is the most wonderful time of the year.


What really captures the magic is the music. After all, Christmas carols are perhaps the most univer-sally popular songs known to western man. Classical music appeals only to a minority elite and pop tunes come and go and vanish. But Christmas carols are timeless and loved by nearly all.

I used to rail against schlock like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Jingle Bells and The Christmas Song. But if getting older doesn't necessarily bring wisdom, it at least teaches you not to waste time and energy fighting unwinnable battles. So now I merrily hum along even to totally inappropriate stuff.

Yes, 'I'm dreaming of a white Christmas just like the one I used to know' is sheer nonsense to us Jamaicans raised in perpetual greenery. But, what the heck! It's a pretty little tune with pretty sentimental words. So why shouldn't I enjoy 'treetops glisten, and children listen'?

Sacred songs

The true heart of the matter is found in the sacred songs. Works like Silent Night and Joy to the World not only contain some of the most beautiful words and music ever written, they are among the most evocative expressions of man's hope for a better world. Many would scoff at the idea of Christ and yet embrace the concept of 'Peace and goodwill to all men'. But to reject any belief in a higher power is to repudiate the very foundation of charity. For if there is no God, is love, too, not just a delusion?

Still, I can never agree with those who proclaim that all beliefs, but theirs are wrong. 'In My Father's house are many mansions', says John 14:2. But if the Christmas star is not the only light for man to follow, it's one of the brightest he has known.

No carol so unforgettably expresses the essence of Christmas as the lovely O Holy Night. To me it's one of the great songs, ranking with Amazing Grace in its ability to imprint on the emotions what the mind alone is incapable of grasping. "The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing," wrote the great Blaise Pascal. When you hear words and music like this, you know he is right.

"Long lay the world in sin and error pining,

Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices

For yonder breaks a new and glorious mornÉ

Truly He taught us to love one another;

His law is love and His gospel is peace.

Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother

And in His name all oppression shall cease"

Yet, who knows. It all might be just a comforting illusion. Maybe Bertrand Russell was right that "Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; É his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms."

But the longer I live the less I trust cold logic in isolation. For one thing it's the 'unreasoning' believers in the hereafter who most actively care for their fellow men in the here and now. As the historian Michael Burleigh asked, 'When have committed rationalists ever operated soup - kitchens, hotlines for the suicidal or hostels for crack addicts?' All atheists like Russell can offer is a 'firm foundation of unyielding despair', whatever that is. Even the empty 'Sex and drugs and rock and roll is all my brain and body need' boasting of high school hedonists sounds more meaningful.

Pure reason is even more useless on a personal level. It's not often you hear anything profound from Hollywood. But I have to agree with the actor Charlie Sheen. Anybody that doesn't believe in God hasn't looked into the eyes of their child.

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