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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

How Sam Keeper Stole The Christ Out Of Christmas

I've been trying to figure out just what Christmas means.

"Oh Christ," you're mumbling now, possibly without irony. "Here he goes again. Not only is this a horrible Christmas cliche, it's going to be another article where Sam takes something totally bloody simple and turns it into something complex."

Take another swig of eggnog and relax. I know what I'm saying seems pretty silly. Christmas, of course, is about the birth of the child who would go on to become known as the King of the Jews. That, and Santa, and presents, and rampant consumerism. But I'm not much of one for consumerism, and, more egregiously, I have some serious doubts about a lot of the elements of the Christmas story, what with virgin births and angels and so on and so forth. (Besides, I've already covered why you might not want an angel showing up out of the black sky on a cold winter evening... those shepherds must've been scared out of their minds.)

And yet I celebrate Christmas.

How do I justify this contradiction?

Well, the easy way would be through force of habit. I celebrate Christmas because everyone else in my family does. That's a rather weak answer, though, and one that I'm just not satisfied with. If this was force of habit alone (and a love of getting presents) why do I spend so much time considering what I want to get or make for each person? And why do the trappings of Christmas--the lights, the songs, and so on--fill me with such joy? (Well, when they're actually occurring right before Christmas. In Novemeber they just sort of fill me with irritation.)

Late last night, when I should have been sleeping but instead was fiddling around with an art project present, it occurred to me that perhaps the way to go about this is to view Christmas the same way I viewed Halloween: through its emotions and stories. So what do the Christmas stories we tell to each other tell us about ourselves? What is the spirit of Christmas?

Personally, I think it's empathy.

Isn't the gift giving and the caroling and so on all about how we relate to others, after all, and how we try to bring happiness into their life? That's the driving idea behind the old maxim that it's the thought that counts: what matters is that we attempt to feel empathy toward our fellow humans.

I think this is largely borne out by the stories that have made their way down to us through various media. We don't here a lot, for example, about Herod anymore. I think that's largely because his side of the story is more about politics and jealousy than it is about empathy and togetherness. Now, the idea of a savior born in a manger, "no crib for a bed," surrounded by shepherds and wise kings called alike to come together to mark the occasion. It's a stunningly beautiful story, when you really ponder it over. And it's the same kind of motif that Dickens was working with in A Christmas Carol. Ultimately the stories that seem to have really left an impact on our culture and inspired the most responsive art are the ones that emphasize an empathetic shared experience of joy and peace. Hell, there's a reason why people periodically repeat the story about the soldiers on the front lines of the First World War ceasing their hostilities and celebrating Christmas together.

We can perhaps see this even more fully in contrast to other holidays. Here's the allure, I think, of A Nightmare Before Christmas. Halloween is, after all, a profoundly individual holiday. It's about personal experiences of terror and personal expressions of strangeness and outsiderhood. So Tim Burton's tale is, on one level, about how spooky things and holiday things don't necessarily mesh well, but on another level it's about the disconnect between one whole mode of experience and another. Easter, as well, has another sort of tone to it--one of wonder and awe at the rebirth of the world after Winter and the rebirth of the Son after Death. It's no strange thing to see the similarity between the season and the stories we tell.

So, where does this leave Christmas for heathens like me?

Well, like I've discussed before in my Gaga articles, I think there's an incredible value in refreshing and retelling stories even if we don't take them as literal truth. And the Christmas story is a truly beautiful one. I don't think there's any danger of the Christ being taken out of Christmas, as the usual scaremongering right wingers have no doubt declared this year, right on schedule. No, the stories we tell on this season are too deeply encoded in the holiday and its emotional power.

If anything, they should be worried about modern consumer culture's tendency to suck the empathy out of the holiday. That's a far more sinister attack than the works of any atheist, because it attacks not the surface level of the story but the deep roots that give the story strength. Scary stuff, man.

I'll leave on one final anecdote. The other night I watched The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with a couple old high school friends. Now, there's some pretty brutal stuff in that film, to the point where I would hesitate, for all its brilliance, to recommend it to most people. It's the kind of thing that I wouldn't really be able to get through normally. But a certain sleepless film student was sitting there with me, literally holding my hand. Just that human presence and shared feeling was enough. So, on one level, the experience really had buggerall to do with Christmas.

But on another level, the kind of empathetic response we shared is more a part of the season than all the other trappings of Christmas combined. And if we can get back to that core, I think we can reconcile the Christian and the Secular traditions of the holiday, and drink our eggnog in unison.

Merry Christmas, everyone. And have a wonderful holiday.

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