(Not So) Silent Night

Bethlehem Wall

Last night I was, um, treated to a special broadcast from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the 2011 First Presidency Christmas Devotional, which included a reenactment of the story of baby Jesus in the deserts of Utah and some sermons from top leaders, including President Thomas S. Monson, in between a few carols from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They ended with “Silent Night.” It sounded a little like this…

Listen on SoundCloud

…or not. (Who needs an actual electric guitar when you have fancy audio software?)

The photo, incidentally, is a scene from the modern-day Bethlehem, some of the colorful Christmas decorations put up by the natives to make their prison walls a bit more festive and homey. It was uploaded to Flickr by someone named Tracy Hunter, part of her 2009 Palestine set.

It occurred to me to wonder last night how many, out of the millions of people world-wide who must sing “Silent Night” every year, have ever experienced a truly silent night. Or a dark one, for that matter. As is suggested rather forcefully by the graffiti art above, I think we have become adept at walling out all the violence and squalor that might otherwise threaten our cherished domestic tranquility, especially this time of year when we so fetishize hearth and home. It would perhaps be in poor taste to mention the 3000+ inhabitants of the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, which is adjacent to a new 4-star hotel. For homeless Palestinians, it seems, there’s still no room at the inn.

Dash away all

“What the hell are we going to do with all these?” I asked, staring at the eight freshly severed heads lined up in the blood-stained snow. Their eyes had filmed over and the moonlit shadows of their antlers stretched like a phantom woods across the tundra. “They won’t keep,” said the sniper. “The magic has ruined them, as it ruins everything. Watch.”

He took a salt shaker from his pocket and sprinkled each of the heads. The effect was almost instantaneous: first the fur and then the flesh melted away, leaving nothing but the bones. The snow around them turned white again as we watched. I felt the hair rising on the back of my neck.

“This is your first time, isn’t it?” he asked. I nodded. The antlers were branched icicles now on skulls of crystal, skulls that shrank, antlers that withered, as if the temperature around them were 200 degrees warmer than it was. The skulls grew rounder as they shrank, and the gleaming teeth turned sharp as knives.

“These ones never actually belonged to the Caribou Mother,” he said. “They are the children of Sanna — the Inuktitut name for Sedna. That’s the kind of evil we’re up against here.”

The Iraq War veteran bowed his head. “Thank you for this victory, Jesus, temporary as it is,” he said. “I am your crusader.”

I shifted uncomfortably and looked at the ground. Some of the best soldiers in our unit happened to be pagans. We had signed up to defend North American airspace against terrorists, and that’s what the recruiter assured us we’d be doing. Rumors of a holy war had been dismissed as just another paranoid conspiracy theory from society’s perennial malcontents.

The marksman laid a hand on my shoulder. “The Pentagon can say what it wants,” he said, “but this is a war we Christians have been fighting for 2000 years. It took centuries just to kill off Saturn! Declaring December 25th as the birth of our Lord and Savior did little to fool the forces of darkness — the longest night of the year still occurs just a few days before, despite our best efforts.” He sighed. “This Santa character is a real shape-shifter. Give me a Sunni insurgency any day.”

He squinted at the faint pink glow that signalled high noon in the High Arctic. “Welcome to the War on Christmas.”

Video by Rebel Virals (hat-tip: Rachel Maddow Show)

For readers from outside the U.S. who think I might be exaggerating just a bit, see “Jesus Shoots Santa in Controversial Lawn Display.”

Sweet baby Jesus

Our government at work.

Martin E. Marty, the very prominent historian of Christianity, pointed out in a speech at Penn State’s Altoona College two years ago that state sponsorship of Christianity may not be such a good idea — unless one’s interest is in seeing Christianity wither and die. That’s what’s happening in all the Western European countries with state-sponsored churches.

Of course, the various Advent traditions haven’t been much affected by this withering of faith, since they long predated the imposition of Christianity. In central Europe, the demon Krampus (pictured above, courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons), who accompanies St. Nicholas, is still widely popular, as is the shaggy horned monster Klaubauf, Knecht Ruprecht, and many others. The American Santa Claus — a conflation of St. Nicholas and Father Christmas — has spread throughout the world, even to non-Christian countries like Japan, where Christmas trees and lights and gift-giving have become commonplace. One could chalk this up to the modern commercialization of Christmas, but in fact the exchanging of presents during the midwinter holiday goes back at least as far as ancient Rome, where it was a central feature of the Saturnalia celebration.

One can point to many signs that might indicate a decline in Christian values in contemporary American culture: the deep ignorance of the Bible among both secular and religious Americans; the decline in support for social welfare programs and the ever more popular equation of greed with moral virtue; the continued popularity of violence and warfare; the widespread lack of awareness of the very basic fact that Easter is the most important Christian holiday and movable feast. (Does anyone even still remember what “moveable feast” means?) But I strongly doubt that wishing folks “Happy Holidays” out of consideration for their possibly non-Christian sensibilites amounts to a war on Christmas, as certain demagogues have claimed in recent years.

As for officially sanctioned displays of nativity scenes, we should be careful what we wish for, as officials in Barcelona discovered a couple of years ago when they tried to ban the popular caganer figure from public displays. Catalonians told them loud and clear: Don’t crap on our holiday traditions!

Merry Christmas.

Subscribers must click through to see the highly edifying video (which is a couple years out of date, but what the hell).