by Elizabeth Oldfield
Saturday, 25
December 2021
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Why celebrating Christmas is the rational thing to do

Cultures need myths to survive
by Elizabeth Oldfield
Credit: Getty

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.

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Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
6 months ago

“the sole surviving day on which most Britons mark any part of our deepest myth, the Christian story.”

Is it such a myth? Historically there seems a very great deal which is documented. From there we get the Bible, which is to a great deal stories set in that time which have significant meaning, likely happened or were from things said or done, and an amazingly intellectual philosophy which uses it all to create an ethos.

Myth is more like Athena born whole out of Zeus’s head, Asgard, Juggernaut, Stonehenge nu-age ‘Hippies’ in linen robes, with willow staffs and vegan offerings.

I would call Christianity more of a historically based ‘Morality Tale’ and philosophy and Religion of utterly vast cultural and historical and intellectual, uniqueness – primary in the formation of the entire West, and so us, and thus the modern world.

To call Christianity an ‘Deepest Myth’ shows how the modern people have become shallow and very poorly educated, without ability to think beyond platitudes, and reducing all to the simplest analogy. The Twitterising of deep concepts.

David Yetter
David Yetter
6 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I gather you are unfamiliar with the story of C.S. Lewis’s conversion. A decisive step in it was Tolkien’s remark, “Jack, it’s a myth, but it’s also true.”
Respect for myth as a mode of communicating truth is not shallow, nor is it modern, and has of late seemingly required a good education to adopt. Regarding myth as mere untruth is shallow, terribly modern, and very easy to embrace with the sort of miseducation dished out in most quarter of the Anglosphere these days.

David Zersen
David Zersen
6 months ago

The great English heritage of art, music and literature that arose from the events surrounding the birth of Jesus celebrate a reality more profound than myth.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
6 months ago
Reply to  David Zersen

No it is not, it is not true, Jesus was not born of a virgin etc, so the best that can be said of it, is that it is a myth.

stephen archer
stephen archer
6 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

And the basis for your categorical assertion? Were you present at the birth or just personally acquainted with Mary and Joseph?

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
6 months ago

“Christmas is the sole surviving day on which most Britons mark any part of our deepest myth, the Christian story.”

The interesting part of the above sentence from the piece is “any part of”. That bit seems superfluous. However, what those three little words do do is suggest that most Britons give a nod to all and any of the aspects of the life of Jesus, including his birth and death and rise again, ONLY on Christmas Day. Those three little words seem to convey the impression that any other attendance at church during the year, including at Easter, is completely non-existent for most Britons (pandemic notwithstanding). By “surviving day” I suppose is meant a national holiday. Then, naturally enough, most Britons may be said to mark the day. In that case, “any part of” is a useless phrase to add to the sentence.

There are, thankfully, many Sundays throughout the year, also surviving days, on which, I am sure, most Britons, at some point, attend a church service as, one might say, be expected of them, with Britain being a land dotted with church spires and towers. They … haven’t gone away, you know.

Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
6 months ago

The writer joins hordes of the supremely smug in denouncing Christianity to mythology status. In do so, they perpetuate the fallacy of begging the question. Not a logical position to fire slings and arrows at a minority whose Biblical beliefs founded the major tenets of the very social order on which you stand.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
6 months ago
Reply to  Marcia McGrail

Mythology doesn’t simply mean ‘untrue’ – that is an imputed negative meaning.

However, there is not a scintilla of evidence for, the factual ‘truth’ of the key tenets of Christianity, certainly not that the ‘Son of God’ was born of a virgin, any more than the Greek myths, Islam etc.

Last edited 6 months ago by Andrew Fisher
Bob Taylor
Bob Taylor
6 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

He’s not to be looked to as a theological source, but N.T. Wright is looked to as a major historian. Your “not a scintilla” know – it – allism might be given quite a challenge by his book, The Resurrection of the Son of God.”

John Murison
John Murison
6 months ago

Spot on. What a brilliant posting for Christmas Day.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
6 months ago
Reply to  John Murison

“Not all myths are created equal, however;”

I think that came from a Chinese Fortune Cookie, so add more from a quick search, that we many have more to ponder on:

“**_The best way to get rid of an enemy is to make a friend.
**_He who expects no gratitude shall never be disappointed.
**_We must always have old memories and young hopes.
**_ People learn little from success, but much from failure.
**_ Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.
**_Big journeys begin with a single step.
**_One that would have the fruit must climb the tree.
**_Success lies in the hands of those who wants it.
**_The usefulness of a cup is in its emptiness.
**_Hardly anyone knows how much is gained by ignoring the future.
**_If you want the rainbow, you have to tolerate the rain.
**_A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not why ships are built.”

Unherd, I think your next dozen articles are listed right above…..

P.S., sorry, writer, to be so snide, but reducing Christianity to a popular myth, and on Christmas, is a bit OTT.