Cultures need myths to survive
Christmas is the sole surviving day on which most Britons mark any part of our deepest myth, the Christian story. It’s confusing, expensive, and given that only a minority of the population will be centring the biblical narrative in their celebrations, largely irrational. Or is it?
A people are made by their myths. Carl Jung said that a person disconnected from their culture’s myths “is like one uprooted, having no true link either with the past or… with contemporary society”. Alex Evans, author of The Myth Gap argues the same applies to cultures. He has come to the conclusion that societies can only thrive in turbulent periods with the help of Big Stories. For people and cultures to be resilient, they need myths to locate themselves inside.
Not all myths are created equal, however; if the story is divisive — them and us, winning at all costs — they can accelerate our worst tendencies. Instead, Evans argues that the myths we need for uncertain times will do three things: 1) conceive of a ‘Larger Us’ that overcomes division 2) give us a sense of a ‘Longer Now’ that allows us to think generationally and 3) help us imagine a ‘Better World’.
Buried under a landfill of tinsel, the Christmas story stubbornly does all three. It’s there in the carols we drunkenly mumble through. ‘O Holy Night’, originally translated as an abolitionist anthem, reminds us that the “slave he is my brother”. ‘It Came Upon a Midnight Clear’ puts the constant claustrophobic present in the context of “Two thousand years of wrong”. And the mournful ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’, the most existentially honest of carols, yearns for the saviour to “bid envy strife and quarrels cease”, a wish for world peace which in a minor key sounds profound, not cliché.
Christmas reminds us that a revolution can start with tenderness, that good things can happen in hard times, that unlikely groups can come together, and that the people we are told to value as important usually are not. It is shot through with yearning and darkness and hope.
Our two greatest modern myth writers were both Christians. Tolkien believed that “legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’, and…present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode”. C.S. Lewis, converted in part by this argument, went further: “the heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact.”
If our myths root, ground and orient us, then — far from being frivolous — telling and retelling the myth of Christmas (and the wider story to which it’s the prologue) might in fact be a deeply sane thing to do.