As I’m writing a not insubstantial check for the rent, as I do every 25th, I am participating in a Christmas ritual. Having grown up with trees, presents, cookies, and a general warm glow about the holiday where you got things for free and didn’t have to do any work (home or otherwise), it is hard to believe that this kind of Christmas is a modern invention. Some years ago I wrote an unpublished book about the holidays. In researching it, I learned that Christmas was only gradually accepted as a day of celebration. For many it was too popish, and for others it was too frivolous. It was the day when tenants paid their rent to their landlords—and here is the tradition in which I’m participating—for landlords who don’t make money from their tenants are no lords at all. Indeed, this commercial transaction gives the lie to the common lament that Christmas has become commercial. It has been commercial for a very long time.
Some suggest that Charles Dickens—who wrote not just A Christmas Carol, but several stories about Christmas—is largely responsible for our sentimental image of the holiday. Individual traditions of the day go back to Medieval or earlier times, but the conglomeration of events that occur around December 25 come from many sources. Human beings, entrepreneurial by nature, recognize the economy of bringing various disruptions to the flow of money onto a single day. Indeed, the day after Christmas is often a day to rival the holiday itself, with people returning items and purchasing more. Soon enough Epiphany will ring in austerity. In watching for economic recovery, Christmas is a mere indicator of financial health. There need be nothing more to it.
As I was sitting in my windowless cubicle this week, receiving little email from academics (who are the main business partners for publishers) already out on a semester break, my thoughts turned toward the deeper meaning of the holiday. Business is business. Meetings with recurring set dates popped up for Christmas reminding me of events that, one senses, are only reluctantly cancelled. The true entrepreneur can’t wait to get back to the office. I’m busy looking deeper. The trappings may be modern, but the idea of celebrating in the darkest time of year is very ancient. We are hoping for something better. We are looking for a new start. Christian or not, anyone looking over the sprawl that we’ve made of everyday life can appreciate the symbol of a baby on the day the rent is due.