With the world in turmoil and the possibility of catastrophic consequences from an attack on Iraq looming, it is difficult to muster much of a sense of Seasonal enthusiasm. There is something more than a little false about the traditional bonhomie, shop-till-you-drop, tinsel and baby-Jesus-manger glitter stuff. That’s not meant as a killjoy comment (I intend to quaff with the rest of you), more an observation about how strangely un-expectant our consumer culture can be. It isn’t about anything in particular and it changes almost nothing. It is cheerfulness without anything to really cheer.
In a very good op-ed piece in The Guardian, the Rev Dr Giles Fraser (vicar of Putney and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford, who earlier warned us ‘never to trust a Christian cowboy’!) propounds a genuinely revolutionary thesis. The problem, he says, is not that Christmas has become ‘too materialistic’ – the usual self-important Christian whinge – but that is not materialistic enough. Fraser points out that at the heart of the Christ-mas is the profoundly materialistic conviction that God is mysteriously but indissolubly wedded to flesh, to matter, and therefore to everything that really ‘matters’.
Kitschmas, he says (following the example of Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being), is that vision of the world in which nothing unwholesome or indecent is allowed to come into view. It is “the absolute denial of shit”. The Christian message is the opposite of that; the scandalous proclamation that in the flesh of Jesus Christ the sacred can no longer be protected from the profane – and vice versa. That is both a great threat and an immense hope.
We live, many of us, in a culture that has few tools and resources to get to grips with what is meant and evoked in the imaginative Christian language of incarnation. If such a language is to be rediscovered it can only happen (and this is a theological point as much as a pragmatic one) in relation to a real engagement with the mess and glory of what actually happens, what seriously matters, in the world. Kitschmas is a defence against that – but we don’t need to attack it. Most people already know that it is pretty meaningless. What they want are not sermons or pieties but clear signs of some alternatives. Then they might just be prepared to give a second thought about whether there is something truthful amidst the tinsel.