R.S. Thomas: Commerce Cannot Overtop the Christ Child

A Christmas carol confession – sometimes it’s easier to remember a carol’s parody than its original words:

While Shepherds washed their socks by night,
All seated round the tub,
The Angel of the Lord came down,
And gave their socks a scrub.

England’s laxative-producing Beecham Company issued a Christmas Carol Annual. For one year’s edition, according to the anecdote, the senior Beecham asked his son to write a parody of a familiar carol that would plug Beecham’s unplugging pills. The son – later, Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961), noted orchestra conductor – came up with:

Hark! The herald angels sing
Beecham’s pills are just the thing
Two for a woman, one for a child,
They will make you meek and mild.

Commerce Cannot Overtop the Christ ChildBeecham’s parody was not the first step in the commercialization of Christmas. That step was taken when it was decided, in the fourth century, to observe the birth of Jesus in the bleak mid-winter. At the time of the winter solstice, the celebration of Sol Invictus, the unconquered Sun. During Saturnalia, the wine-laced, toga-dropping Roman festival honoring the god Saturn.

Ever since the linking of Christ’s Birth with Saturnalia and Sol Invictus, caroling, partying, and spending have run on parallel tracks, with accelerating speed in recent decades. Black Friday. Cyber Monday. Accompanied, predictably, by ever increasing spurts of sacred spleen.

R.S. Thomas, on the other hand, simply says that the commercialization of Christmas can never overtop the Christ Child:

Erect capital’s arch;
decorate it with the gilt edge
of the moon. Pave the way to it
with cheques and with credit –

it is still not high enough
for the child to pass under
who comes to us this midnight
invisible as radiation.

Poem of R. S. Thomas quoted in this post:

“Erect capital’s arch” – “Christmas Eve,” No Truce with the Furies (1995), 13.

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The Commercialization of Christmas and a Poem of R.S. Thomas

rs thomas with birdwatching glassesPredictably, mid-October finds me beginning to Scrooge, by late-November I’m in high Scroogery.

Stores displaying faux mistletoe and fake holly: “Bah humbug!” Elevator music featuring old chestnuts: “Roast them,” I say, “on an open fire.”

Stores opening on Thanksgiving Day: “Gluttony,” I cry, “make way for greed!” Black Friday: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

But . . . but Scrooge would lack coins to count, retirement funds to track, if all people followed his tightfisted example.

“Because of the odd / Breeding-habits of money,” even non-spenders benefit from holiday-season spenders, whose credit card swiping keeps Wall Street smiling. Only those who have nothing to save and little to spend are left in the lurch. For all the cant of the trickle-down camp, money continues to slither up.

Although R. S. Thomas lived far from shopping malls, and I’m all but positive that he never shopped online, he recognized that . . . .

Christianity has tended to be transformed or adapted in every country into which it has made its way. Perhaps the saddest transformation here has been its increasing commercialization: the rush, the false gaiety, the perfunctory exchange of cards and presents; the colossal expenditure of energy and cash on the wrong things.

Thomas understood, of course, the rippling economic benefits of spending. It was “the colossal expenditure of . . . cash on the wrong things” that Scrooged his Christmas.

Indeed, he probably thought that $50,000 given to help the poor would have a wider economic impact than $50,000 spent on a diamond pendant.

But . . . .

But Thomas recognized that we must not allow our Scroogery to blur our vision. The Christ Child is too big for even the biggest economy to suppress:

Erect capital’s arch;
decorate it with the gilt edge
of the moon. Pave the way to it
with cheques and with credit –

it is still not high enough
for the child to pass under
who comes to us this midnight
invisible as radiation.

Prose and poems quoted in this blog:

“Because of the odd / Breeding-habits of money” – “Not in Baedeker,” W. H. Auden, Nones, 47.

“Christianity has tended to be transformed” – “The Qualities of Christmas,” R. S. Thomas: Selected Prose (third edition), 44.

“Erect capital’s arch” – “Christmas Eve,” No Truce with the Furies, 13.