Punk Catholic Thought of the Year
This will probably be my last Punk Catholic post ever because I take longer and longer these days to come up with these topics. So if this is solely what you come to this blog for, well, you'll have to find someplace else to lurk.
I was going to post this on the last day of 2010, to mark a special anniversary that perhaps only six readers still remember; but now I'm glad that fell through, because that means I get to publish it on the traditional day of the Feast of the Epiphany. This post, you see, is all about tradition . . . and personal epiphanies.
When my grandmother was a teenager, her family spent a year in Spain, where the big winter feast is not Christmas Day, but Epiphany. Spanish children are taught to leave their shoes on the ledge outside their window on the night of 5 January, so that the "Three Kings" can fill them with candy as they pass by on their way to Bethlehem. (Obviously, it's the children's parents who fill up the shoes--but don't break it to the little ones just yet! Especially not these days, when they're asking for much more than candy . . .)
It's a centuries-old Spanish version of the modern Santa Claus tradition--and my grandmother tried to get her own children--and then her grandchildren--to believe in it, too. And note that she hadn't even been young enough to buy that story. In fact, she was old enough to "plant" the candy.
But traditions are not easy to transplant from one culture to another (even if they are Catholic traditions from one Catholic culture to another Catholic culture); and since Santa Claus and his toys managed to reach local shores before the Three Kings and their candy did, her dream didn't have a chance. It's easier to pass something on to the next generation when all other parents are your co-conspirators and all other children are willing to be conspired against. My grandmother would have had better luck shipping us all to Spain, as she had been.
And I kind of wish she had. There are some things that only games like this--plays like this, I should say--can do for us, and we are losing more and more of them.
If online trends are to be believed (and you really shouldn't ask me because the few Catholic blogs I still read can hardly be representative of the whole Catholic blogosphere--much less the entire Catholic Church), then more and more hipster-generation parents are refusing, on principle, to take part in their culture's holiday play. I do see where they're coming from: I'm not very happy about what Santa has come to mean, and every time I see another Joe in a Santa Suit holding the attention of a dazzled crowd, I think of Queen Elizabeth I dealing the fatal blow to Catholicism in England by replacing devotion to the Virgin Mary with loyalty to the Virgin Queen . . . and of Aldous Huxley having the characters in Brave New World invoke the name of "Our Ford" instead of "Our Lord". And I get why parents who are serious about raising their children in the Faith would insist on passing on only the literal facts (and certain handpicked legends) about the bishop and gift-giver St. Nicholas of Myra.
Then I remember the Three Kings and their gifts of candy (now toys), and realise what it would mean for an entire culture to lose such a tradition.
These little "holiday plays," as I call them, are very much like the Passion plays of the Middle Ages, when everyone in town would have a role to play in the retelling of Jesus' Passion and death. Everyone was simultaneously part of the audience and part of the cast--a sense of drama which was still very much alive when a certain playwright from Elizabeth I's reign mused that "All the world's a stage . . ." and had his characters doubling as actors for all sorts of plays-within-a-play.
He also wrote of the Seven Ages of Man, which reminded me, when I finally read that famous monologue, of a more seasonal joke about the Four Ages of Man: (1) when he believes in Santa Claus, (2) when he doesn't believe in Santa Claus, (3) when he is Santa Claus, and (4) when he looks like Santa Claus. (If someone would like to add three more to those so that we have another Seven, feel free!) All such "ages" are roles acted out on the stage of life: only death finally unmasks us all. And to be in on the "conspiracy" of Santa or the Three Kings--to understand that it is all just a play and still to fulfill one's role perfectly--is to be part of a tradition that is alive in a way that literal facts are not.
I hope that hipster-generation Catholics are not so concerned about being right, reasonable and (God forbid!) respectable that they sacrifice living tradition for something easier to explain to the anti-Santa Christian literalists (a.k.a. our little Fundie friends).
So the Punk Catholic Thought of the Year is . . .
When a child asks, "Is there really a Santa Claus?"--the proper response from a Catholic parent is, "Yes."
And if any well-meaning convert tries to tell you otherwise, remind him that he's not a Protestant any longer, okay?
Image Sources: a) The Three Wise Men, b) Los Reyes Magos