Our stories and rituals make us who we are. If you want to get to know someone, listen to their stories. If you want to understand people, observe their rituals and the games they play.
Stories, games, and rituals are serious because these are central to our identities. But there is a spirit of play at work here. The meaning of culture is not obvious. The point is to play along.
Our Christmas rituals show us the weirdness of culture. We put trees in our living rooms and talk about flying reindeer. Somewhere behind all of this is a baby in a manger. The connection between the North Pole and Bethlehem is not clear.
It is always difficult to explain culture. We repeat what our parents told us. We play the games everyone else is playing. We quote the movies others are quoting. There is no secret meaning behind all of this. It’s the playing and repetition that we enjoy.
Why, for example, do we keep singing “The Twelve Days of Christmas” or “Jingle Bells”? Nobody I know has ever ridden through the snow in one-horse open sleigh. I’ve never seen a partridge in a pear tree. And in California it makes no sense to dream about a white Christmas. But we don’t take this stuff literally. The point is to join the chorus.
Which brings us to the odd ritual of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” In 1743, the king stood up during that part of Handel’s “Messiah.” For some reason, people keep standing up when the choir sings that tune.
This is how rituals work. We repeat things in community with others. And meaning emerges. We don’t know why, but for some reason certain songs, rituals, and even beverages abide.
Why eggnog, for example? We only drink it at Christmas. Each year as we sip it, we get the flavor of Christmas. As we toast Christmases past, the taste of the season deepens.
Speaking of beverages and things that abide, last week in Santa Cruz they celebrated the 20th anniversary of the movie “The Big Lebowski” with “Dude Abides Day.” “The Big Lebowski” is not a Christmas film. But its cult status shows us how culture works.
Somehow that film inspires people to drink White Russians and go bowling. It’s hard to say why the film has this power. But the same problem holds for most of culture. Some games and stories abide.
Repetition and nostalgia weave meaningful patterns. Nostalgia is longing for what endures. It prompts us to repeat things. And the more we repeat something, the more meaningful it becomes.
This process is fluid. New stories are added as new generations take their turn. Through repetition the new rituals become familiar, even when they are tacky or absurd. They “tie the room together,” like Lebowski’s rug.
Our stories overlap and intermingle. There is no coherent story supervening upon the whole. Christmas just is that strange mixture of Jesus, Mary, Santa and the reindeer. To this mixture we’ve added Scrooge and Tiny Tim, Mr. Potter and George Bailey, Jingle Bells and the Hallelujah Chorus.
Now some Christmas critics see all of this as humbug — a silly, mixed up waste of time. They are right that much of this makes no sense. Others, the strict traditionalists, will reject anything that takes the Christ out of Christmas. They are also right that the religious significance of the birth of Christ has nothing to do with eggnog or “Jingle Bells.”
But here is where we might learn something from the Dude. The nugget of wisdom found in “The Big Lebowski” is about taking it easy. Let’s not get uptight about Christmas, of all things. This is the season of making merry, playing along, and taking it easy. If you don’t like eggnog, have a White Russian. And if you don’t agree, well, as the Dude says, “that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”
This time of year, people are trying to find a little light in the darkness. They are looking for songs to sing and games to play. This is not the time to nitpick the details. In January, we can argue about ultimate reality. But before that we’ve got a lot of singing to do.