Authenticity, Ascetism and Christmas History


In Charlie Brown’s Christmas, the plot revolves around the commercialization of Christmas and the need to find its “true meaning,” which in that case and most others refers to the biblical story. We might see this 1960s vision of Christmas commercialization as a reaction to the deliberate and pervasive fostering of the consumer economy in post-World War II America, but the fact of the matter is that Christmas stories about its “true meaning” have been prevalent since at least the middle of the 19th century. BY the mid-20th we had “It’s a Wonderful Life”, the honest loving George Bailey contrasting with Mr. Potter as Mammon’s own archangel. It’s there in “Scrooged” again in 1988.

On the more “commercial Christmas” side we have Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a 1939 Chicago advertising gimmick that became a Johnny Mars song and eventually a 1964 animated special about misfits fitting in, and I suppose recycling (misfit toys), which sort of subverted its original commercialism. The 1980s A Christmas Story had a more clearly consumerist metanarrative in keeping with the “Let’s outspend the Soviets” ethos of the era, and even “Home Alone” leaned heavily of the “shopping spree” money shot montages so prevalent in every 90s vehicle from “Pretty Woman” on. I suppose only “Edward Scissorhands” – both misfit and misfit toy – held onto the anti-consumerist, let’s-get-back-to-true-meaning-of-Christmas tradition.

Our culture is studded and specked with attempts to return to true meanings, to original conditions. The past has an aura of authenticity and the present always seems sullied by base motivations. Distance makes the past look more ideal, but this is myopia, not an accurate perception. New England Puritans banned Christmas in the 17th century because it was too raucous and fun, and because it had elements of social turnabout (fool becomes king for a day, rich have to feed and serve the poor, trick or treat, that sort of thing) later transferred to Halloween, which disturbed their social/religious order. Any hand-wringing about the true meaning of Christmas is simply the latest iteration of a very deep cultural practice. Indeed, the true meaning of Christmas is really Easter, since the December holiday leans heavily on the Roman Saturnalia. Many of the European Christmas traditions we share, like Christmas trees and yule logs derive from Nordic animism. From the Puritan perspective, this holiday was compromised from its very inception.

Think about the Puritan bicycles you see everywhere nowadays. They look like racing bikes with their sleek frames and skinny tires, but they have no gears and more amazingly, no brakes. Fixies – fixed gear bikes are a trend among bicycle enthusiasts. Part of the trendy appeal of these bicycles is their authenticity – taking us back to the days when there were no brakes or gears.

Yes, the first velocipedes had no gears and no brakes. They also didn’t have pedals, so why don’t the enthusiasts go for the full monty? Screw the sprockets! The answer of course, is that this bicycle asceticism, like all puritanisms, only uses history as an excuse. It is not an historic enterprise – it is a political reaction to those of us who are retardaire or unhip or just plain old and thus cling to the wasteful and myopic world of brakes and gears. There is an element of cilice or hairshirt as well, where authenticity is measured by discomfort.

photograph copyright Felicity Rich 2007
Asceticism is always a political enterprise that insists it is more “real” than the others. “Real” in this case refers to a previous “original,” or more authentic condition. But this doesn’t work well in real history, because there is always a previous condition. To follow the cilice and hairshirt line, the traditional Latin Catholic mass is purportedly more “real,” but to a historian like myself it is simply a preference for a certain period of history, namely 1545-1965, about one-quarter the church’s timeline. Latin was not the original language of the church and the priest with his back to the congregation appears in the second millennium of the liturgy. Altars don’t move against the back wall until the 7th century at the earliest and they don’t generally have crucifixes or candles until the 11th century. Even the cult of Mary doesn’t appear until the 4th century. Liturgical reformers in the 20th century were inspired by the first millennia of Christian liturgy; their opponents by the second. We like this period of history and you like that one. It isn’t even an issue of conformity and orthodoxy. The Council of Trent was the first successful attempt at curbing regional liturgies and texts and Vatican II was the second – both were equally orthodox in that sense. “Real” or “original” or “authentic” aren’t going to answer this political argument. “Radical” means returning to the root, but history is a big old knotty mangrove with dozens of “real” roots.

The issue has plagued historic preservation since the beginning, when many of the 18th and 19th century restorers sought to bring a building back to a perfect condition that had never actually occurred in history. It plagues us still, when we are seduced by an original design or architectural rendering which represents not the reality of the building as built, but an artistic image of the perfect building. The Chicago Building by Holabird & Roche opened in 1905 and it had tacky (possibly illuminated) lettering stuck on the cornice. Preservation wanted to return it not to this original condition, but the more perfect conditions of its design. Notre Dame in Paris had an entire neighborhood cleared out from in front of it in order to turn it into a civic icon. Even my beloved Gaylord Building sacrificed some of its early 20th century history in a rehabilitation that resuscitated its latter 19th century glory. The Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio was rehabilitated to its 1909 appearance because that was an exciting time and how the site was going to be interpreted – as a studio – determined that original Wright designs from 1911, when he converted the studio to apartments, could be trashed in favor of a restoration.

Actually, our preservation/building conservation world has changed since the Gaylord Building and Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio were restored in the 1980s. Today we are less likely to follow Viollet-le-Duc in making Notre Dame brand new beautiful perfect 12th century. Today we embrace the messiness of real history and rehabilitate buildings with warts and all – the patina of age, not the purity of design or the clarity of a singular interpretive message. No longer Puritan, but catholic with a small “c” in the sense of encompassing everything. Building conservation today is much more ecumenical, and less evangelical than it was even when I started in the field. The 21st century world of building conservation, has in large part eschewed puritanical restoration for a community-values based enterprise that brings the past into the present and future.

That is the ultimate authenticity, and the true meaning of Christmas is the love within whatever you are doing right now, because every moment you are making history every bit as authentic as anything that has happened before.

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