[This illustration is from a box of Mazda Christmas lights, date unknown.
My partner, Richard, collects antique lighting instruments and
paraphernalia. You can see some of his thoughts on lighting at his site
called Richard Board's Web Site: A Filament of Your Illumination.]
I've decided to mount this pompous little piece and revise it on the fly ... so if you read on, be forewarned that I have just finished a dissertation and all the hogwash has yet to leave my system. That said, somewhere buried herein is a point in which I truly believe.
Some of my friends wonder how someone so thoroughly entranced by Christmas would allow himself the inauthentic luxury of a fake tree. It doesn't bother me in the least, and I hardly ever thought about the problem until a theory that I toyed with while writing my dissertation suggested an answer. So this little essay is designed to worry the notion of authenticity as it intersects with Christmas.
In modern life, we cannot assume the authenticity of something no matter how close to us it may be. On the one hand, we invent "new traditions" with alacrity; on the other hand, we distrust anything named traditional. So when we can demonstrate our underlying fear that something is inauthentic, we conclude that it is thereby not valid. But, at bottom, this anxious circle of self-doubt evades understanding of what tradition is in the first place.
Of course, tradition for the modern man is a rather different thing than tradition for the traditional person. In olden times, tradition inhered in everyday life; our being and our names for our being were inseparable from the complex of culture in which they were founded. In modern times, tradition is something we can consume ... or not consume if we choose instead to fritter our dollars away on a new Mazarotti or a pension plan. So if we can choose whether to consume it, we distrust that it is what it claims to be. In other words, we demand of that which authenticates us that it authenticate itself first off. And when we find any inconsistency, we conclude that neither its self-authentication nor its authentication of our being are valid.
So the artificial tree screams out, "Inauthentic." It's not a REAL tree. If you REALLY believe in the spirit of Christmas, you have to have a real tree.
But this argument is logically inconsistent. The earliest Christmas trees didn't have electric lights, so why don't we use candles? Would electric lights on a real tree invalidate the spirit of Christmas also? We don't need to go too far down this path because the nature of the logic against which I am arguing is pretty clear. It argues that a valid Christmas requires authentic ornamentation.
But I would argue that this argument confuses two types of validity; I argue that we need to understand the difference between authority and authenticity. Authority is that feature of a cultural artifact which imbues it with the power to legitimate, while authenticity is that feature of a cultural artifact which causes us to recognize that it possesses authority. So the authority of Christmas compels reflection upon joy, responsibility, love, and giving. The authenticity of Christmas derives from those symbols which we create, or recreate, in order to signal both to ourselves and to our friends and guests that we accept and apply that authority. But cultural artifacts change with time; so the artificial Christmas tree is a late twentieth-century mode of symbolizing the authority of Christmas by reference both to the history and traditions of authentic Christmas and to our modern interpretation of that history and those traditions.
We fill our home with holly and Santa Clauses, ornaments and sweets. The totality of what we do is our symbolism of the season. We seek to invoke in our friends and guests both the spirit of Christmas (that is, its authority) as well as the remembrance of how Christmases past has felt, smelled, tasted, looked, sounded. We cannot really be "Victorian," but we can make the visceral connection to the Victorian contribution to Christmas by means of symbols, tricks, visuals, odors, and, most of all, good cheer.
In that sense, our Christmas is authentic. And so is the Christmas of anyone who seeks through their celebration to invoke what authority Christmas possesses for them, whether that authority refer to Santa Claus, to Christ, to the love of family and friends, or to the generalized spirit of a season of giving. And although our Christmas necessarily lives in this modern era where we fret about authenticity, we seek in every way to reinvigorate the "memory" of a traditional time when authenticity was inseparable from being.
If you made it this far, then congratulations on surviving the brain freeze of a genuine academic! If you haven't had enough, then I promise another little essay shortly on the meaning of the word "Victorian" in the title of our annual Christmas party