“But is old, old, good old Christmas gone? Nothing but the hair of his good, old, gray head and beard left?”
With those words, a popular American writer launched into a protest about how Christmas simply isn’t what it used to be. Then he diagnosed what’s gone wrong:
“The world has become more worldly,” he wrote. “There is more dissipation, and less enjoyment. Pleasure has expanded into a broader, but a shallower stream; forsaking deep and quiet channels ... of domestic life.”
The antique language may give the game away. But if shallow worldliness, and too many pleasures of the wrong kind, sound like distinctive 21st-century disadvantages, consider that our essayist, Washington Irving, was grumbling about such newfangled disorders in … 1818.
This complaint, it seems, is just another cherished Yuletide tradition, hardly altered in nearly 200 years. It’s been almost a quarter century since I last felt compelled to excavate Irving’s “Old Christmas” essays. Then, too, a sour national mood made me want to reassure readers that they needn’t despair just because the approaching holiday doesn’t seem like “what it used to be.”
Christmas has basically never been “what it used to be.” Somehow, that feeling is the point of Christmas, and always was.
Certainly, this past year (or so) has been hard — marred by violence and strife of various kinds, near and far, from police shootings to terrorism to an unwelcome uptick in ordinary street crime.
Our politics, too, have been wounding. If you don’t cringe a bit looking ahead to the rest of the 2016 election debate, you are either part of the polarizing problem or you’re not paying attention.
But just for a moment, just this week, it’s suitable to recall that Christmas always arrives in a frustrated and troubled world, offering a fleeting and bittersweet sense of perspective.
Whether in its religious language or its many secular translations, the essential message is precisely that the world is a godawful mess — in need of an awe-inspiring intervention.
Depending on your preference, the rescue story can be cosmic and miraculous (a Savior in a stable) or comic and merely magical (a jolly old elf or Grinch in a sleigh, a bumbling guardian angel, a dancing snowman, etc., etc.). But it always starts with a world rather in need of a lift.
Our species is haunted by the ghost of a lost paradise. Every culture has a tale of some golden past when things were as they are supposed to be. Christmas and its discontents are part of all that. It’s a strangely comforting reminder that there really is something wrong with the world — but not with us for feeling that way sometimes.
Nostalgia, at any rate, suits the season. And one Christmas nearly half a century ago now, America enjoyed an unusual yuletide vision when it really needed one. It’s worth remembering, if only to confirm that we’ve endured tough, and tougher, times before.
In 1968, America had been through the bloody Tet Offensive, which darkly foreshadowed the disaster that stalked the nation in Vietnam; the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy; devastating race riots in various cities, and street battles between police and war protesters outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago — plus a bitter presidential election that included a large role for segregationist populist George Wallace.
There was more, but suffice it to say that America rather needed a lift as 1968 wound down.
And then, almost by accident, Christmas brought what you could almost call a message from on high that gave a weary world a whole new way of looking at itself.
The Apollo 8 mission that orbited the moon in December 1968 was something of a last-minute improvisation by NASA, whose effort to fulfill President John Kennedy’s goal of a moon landing by the end of the 1960s was running behind schedule. Launched Christmas week, it became the first manned spacecraft to leave Earth’s orbit, and its astronauts became the first human beings to behold our planet whole, suspended like a frosty-blue holiday ornament in space. They took the first iconic “Earthrise” photograph.
On Christmas Eve, while orbiting the moon, the Apollo 8 crew appeared on television, beaming back grainy live images of the lunar surface below the space capsule as the three astronauts took turns reading the first 10 verses of Genesis.
Today Apollo 8’s scripture service would doubtless be controversial in at least 8 different ways. But it worked tolerably well back then as an inclusive, ecumenical choice. There’s nothing like a creation story to awaken one’s sense of the way things “used to be.”
The Christmas Eve broadcast from the moon may have been the most widely watched event in human history up to that time. It had a certain wonder about it, at least for certain 16-year-olds — a kindling of shared pride in humanity’s ingenuity and of a shared humility all at once. The actual moon landing the following summer, remarkable as it was, felt in some ways like mere elaboration.
America may not have a similarly magical national moment this year. But the point worth remembering is that the miseries and of that bygone era coexisted with the magic and remained when it had passed. Yet the nation endured and life went on, just as it will in the face of today’s troubles and triumphs.
But there’s nothing wrong with wishing for a return of the good old-fashioned Christmas spirit. That wish is the good old-fashioned Christmas spirit.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.