The Modern Quest for Enchantment

Christmas is at last upon us. I say at last because even the most devout of Catholics, however keen on keeping Advent strictly they may be, are doubtless aware of the Yuletide decorations up in stores since mid-September. Of course at that time they shared the stage with those for Halloween, creating a strange Tim Burtonesque feel. Nevertheless, it is a strange phenomenon that the retail decorations for those two holidays seem to go up earlier each year; I am old enough to remember when the Christmas retail season began at Thanksgiving (often signalled by the arrival of Santa Claus at the end of parades commemorating that day), and that of Halloween commenced in mid-October. One might be tempted to think it was all a matter of store owners simply trying to cash in. But while that may be a part of it (and is certainly responsible for the creation of that grotesquerie called “Black Friday”), I truly do not think that that is all of it. For one thing, Christmas is also creeping forward. Again, zealous Advent-observers tend to try to keep Christmas going until the Epiphany — and perhaps even a shred of its spirit until Candlemas. But storekeepers put out the Valentine’s Day hearts the day after New Year’s. Nevertheless, more and more house Christmas lights are staying up until the Epiphany and beyond. No, I believe that — in, with, and under retailer’s greed — there is simply a widespread desire to make what has become a single season of celebration last as long as possible. In a nutshell, against an outside world that becomes ever crazier in Church and State — even among those who intellectually support one or another aspect of that craziness — there is an unconscious desire for something. I believe that desire to be for nothing less than enchantment.

Wikipedia, that source of all truth in this internet age, gives two definitions for this word: “Incantation or enchantment, a magical spell, charm or bewitchment, in traditional fairy tales or fantasy,” and “the sense of wonder or delight.” For the modern mind, daily besieged as it is by its own ignorance, and external tedium and terror, it is the second definition that is sought: if a few Wiccans and Ceremonial Magicians pursue the first, it is for most part really because they too seek the second — wonder and delight in a world that appears to offer only their polar opposites. In that light, one can see why modern folk would prolong Halloween and Christmas as long as they can. Both holidays have the power to send us baby boomers back to childhood as fast as the little legs we once had can carry us.

These exercises in nostalgia and imagination are amplified by the natural world: the autumnal transition; the dreamy atmosphere of coloured leaves and harvest homes; half-believed tales of witches, ghosts, and elves; indeed, all Ray Bradbury summed up with his poignant and evocative title, The October Country: “…that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain…” Rod Serling put it another way in his introduction to the first season of the Twilight Zone: “There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.” As the oft-stated phrase has it, “the veil between the worlds seems very thin at this time of year.” Whatever reality it may or may not have, this strange realm lying in the back of our minds culminates in Halloween.

For the Catholic, Halloween ushers in November — All Saints, All Souls, and the Month dedicated to praying for our beloved dead. We hope that they at least made it to Purgatory, and pray those who are that bleak yet hope-filled realm, whether they are ours or not. Yet some echo of this stirs even in the heart of the non-Catholic; He Who is Lord of Time as well as of Space decreed that the horrific war of a century ago should end at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The result was the birth of a whole international cultus of Remembrance of the gallant dead of that great conflict — two minutes’ silences, ceremonies at war memorials, guard-changing at tombs of unknown soldiers, parades, and, depending where one lives on the planet, the sprouting of red poppies or blue cornflowers on thousands of lapels and other items of clothing. In time, the memories of millions more slaughtered in subsequent conflicts were added. Many people to whom the notion of any kind of prayer, let alone for the dead, is utterly alien, are forced to recall those who “shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old…” Even the Protestant churches of Germany observe the last Sunday of the year as Totensonntag — “Sunday of the Dead.” Here too, the reasons are military rather than theological; Frederick William III, as King of Prussia and so head of the State Church ordered the practise in honour of the Germans who died fighting Napoleon.

Autumn makes way for winter, and the rather sombre and sometimes frightening enchantment of which we have been speaking makes way for another, far brighter and more joyous variety as the coloured leaves are replaced with snow and bright lights. For believers, it is Advent; for everyone, it is obvious that Christmas is coming. Of course, the nostalgia runs rampant among us older folk — of Santa’s laps once sat upon, of Christmas pageants in schools (even in public schools, oh horror of horrors), of Salvation army ringers, and friends and relations now long gone. Memories are stirred by watching those children who even now believe in Santa, his elves and reindeer, workshop at the North Pole, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph, and all the rest of it. No matter how much one tries to retain the spirit of joyful penance motivated by the violet vestments at Mass, a bit of the light on innumerable store Christmas trees and decorations cannot help but wear off. Yet even in the most mawkish sentimentality, a touch of the glorious truth occasionally seeps through; this writer can remember feeling moved almost to tears by hearing the line “I played my best for him!” in The Little Drummer Boy, ordinarily not one of his favourite songs. When one is disgusted by the commercialism of it all, he cannot help but be touched by the fact that even in its muddy rapacious way, the secular world still must pay some note to the coming Birth of Christ, no matter how it may try to conceal it with innumerable mutterings of “Happy Holidays.”

At last Christmas Eve arrives. Regardless of everything to the contrary, it is striking how truly the magic prevails upon that night. One is conscious of countless Christmas customs being practised across the globe, regardless of the level of belief in this or that country. Whether one goes to Midnight Mass or tracks Santa’s progress with NORAD while the image of a jolly Yule-log plays on television, even the Christ-less Christmas provides some enchantment — no matter how fleeting. A Christmas Carol (in its many cinematic versions) and It’s A Wonderful Life have justly held their longtime popularity. But how deep and satisfying is the real thing!

No love that in a family dwells,
No caroling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare—
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

—“Christmas,” Sir John Betjeman

Christmas Eve passes into Christmas Day — for both believer and non-believer a festive and wondrous day. But the difference is first felt the following day, when many a tree from a secular Christmas is to be found in the trash. The following Twelve Days lead to one feast after another for Christians, culminating in the glorious Epiphany. On Epiphany Eve and the day itself, I try to go to both the Tridentine Mass (with blessings of chalk, gold, frankincense, myrrh, and holy water) and the Byzantine Liturgy, with its elaborate blessing of the latter substance — so like our own blessing of the font on Holy Saturday. But in the midst of this Christmas cheer, the two segments of society come together once more on New Year’s Eve. There mingled nostalgia for the past and hope for the future illumine a night that is at once much all other New Year’s Eves, and unique unto itself. The champagne may pop, and Auld Lang Syne play, but there will be only one 1964 or 2018 or 2047. The next day shall be the feast of the Circumcision or the Solemnity of the Mother of God for the Catholic and a mere hangover for the secular; but as that nights goes on, “the hopes and fears of all the years” truly meet.

The Christmas season lingers on until Candlemas, with its images of light shining in the darkness. As February winds on with cold and snow, the civil world tries to light the dark with ubiquitous Valentine’s Day Hearts and the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. St. Valentine may receive short shrift from most of those who celebrate his day; but romantic love is as close as most secular-minded folk can ever get to the enchantment they seek — if Christmas is a disappointment for many of these, imagine how many more are left cold on this feast. Again, for the Catholic, such romance finds its final fruition — if it comes — in a Sacrament. But for the rest, their whole hope is left to an all-consuming passion that, if found, burns itself out fairly quickly for most.

As regards the other two holidays, it is hard for young people to-day to imagine what heroism we were taught to read into Lincoln and Washington! Such heroism as in other countries is praised in King Arthur, Bl. Charlemagne, or St. Louis was loaded upon this duo, whose pictures appeared in countless classrooms across America. There was an enchantment of sorts in the American-history-as-salvation-narrative that we were taught: from the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock; to the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Liberty Bell; the sacred flag itself, with its arcane ritual and symbolism — the Star-Spangled Banner, for which so many brave men have died; the struggle to preserve the glorious Union and free the Slaves (or else the alternative mythos held away down South, no truer or falser than our own); and so on down to our then-present role as sole defenders of liberty and freedom against Communism. Some few, perhaps, looked at the United Nations as the magical forerunner of a world united and at peace, with its charter as the completion of our own declaration and constitution; rather more placed their faith in space exploration as a way of exporting all that was good and true in us out to the cosmos. All of these half-unconscious dreams and yearnings were summed up in those two men — much as Catholics revere our favourites Saints, or the Monarchs and Knights of old.

Mardi-Gras in my youth was unheard of in either New York or Los Angeles, being then confined to Louisiana and the Gulf — though it regularly attracted busloads of tourists from duller regions in search of a bacchanal. Where, then as now, local Catholics saw it much as our Medieval forebears did (and practising Catholics continue to do so wherever in the world it continues its delightful sway), as a joyous preparation for the rigours of Lent, the visitors saw only the outward display: the colours, costumes, parades, balls — and of course drinking, eating, and sins of the flesh. This has continued, and even grown — especially the latter, at least in the French Quarter (it remains a solidly family affair in New Orleans outside the non-native overrun Vieux Carre; of Mardi-Gras as it is in Mobile, Biloxi, or the Cajun-country, the incoming pleasure- and thrill-seekers are generally unknowing and uncaring). Without Lent, Mardi-Gras is meaningless; but the sheer-though-passing freedom the unthinking visitors feel in the “City that Care Forgot” is real enough, in its way. Quite apart from the sinful aspect (real and powerful though that is), it is the sense of ritual and tradition, the momentary sampling of a culture that takes the culinary arts as seriously as making money, above all, a town that does not regard misery as virtue — that is the enchantment that lures secular folk there, year after year.

After Lent arrives, at some time or other Spring makes its appearance — in the cold northern United States the snowdrops first appear, followed by daffodils, tulips, and then a riot of flowers. To believer and non-believer alike these gifts come, albeit with different meanings. For the former, the arrival of Spring flowers in the midst of his Lenten penances is a constant reminder that the Resurrection is fast approaching. To the latter it means that the drudgery of Winter is over at last; if he is at all sensitive to such things, of course, the beauties of the blossoms are not lost on his eyes and nose, and at the very least he feels the innate joy of being alive.

Before Easter comes, St. Patrick’s Day arrives, and yet another divided-yet-connected celebration. For the non-Catholics as to at least some of the Catholics, the oceans of booze and tons of corned beef consumed upon that day offer yet another relief from the mundane. But as with Mardi-Gras, there is more to it than that. Celtic folk-music in general and Irish in particular has elements of all that we have touched upon — wild joy, breath-taking sadness, stirring heroism, otherworldly experience, and blistering humour — again, enchantment. But for the Catholic, it goes further still: who of us cannot see in the incredible story of St. Patrick a blunt reminder of God’s desire and ability to arrange things for our own salvation, if only we will cooperate with Him?

Holy Week makes little more impression upon the secular-minded than did the whole of Lent. But in my youth, Easter was another matter altogether: such folk took as much notice of it as they did of Christmas. It was THE celebration of spring, as bunnies, chicks, and Easter lilies reminded us in their abundance. People who had not fasted at all during Lent still would be horrified not to have lamb or ham at a special Easter dinner — as though someone had deprived them of their Thanksgiving turkey! It was a time of for wearing and displaying new clothes, often enough in an Easter Parade — a custom still observed in a weirdly transmogrified way in New York City. All enchanting indeed, as exemplified in Irving Berlin’s secular ditty, “In Your Easter Bonnet;” but nothing to compare with the sheer transcendent thrill of the Easter Vigil. As with Christmas, the pleasures of his non-religious friends were mere side dishes for the Catholic, concerned as he was (and is) with a truly supernal main course.

So too with great feasts that follow and dependent upon Easter: Ascension, Pentecost, Corpus Christi, and the Sacred Heart — their peculiar and particular joys, the respective mysteries they represent, are lost upon those without the Faith. All they may look forward to at this time of the year is Memorial Day. This is a peculiarly American remembrance of our war dead, and provides the American Legion and the VFW with innumerable opportunities to turn out on parade, and Arlington and the other national cemeteries to transform themselves into centres of secular sacred rites. Many Catholics partake of these; there is nothing wrong in this, as the existence of the Catholic War Veterans should remind us and our neighbours that we too have shed our blood for this country. But how much more rewarding, how much more sacred on every level, is a Solemn High Requiem offered on that day?

Memorial Day is the traditional opening of Summer. Although most working Americans are lucky to get an entire week’s vacation during this season (in contrast to the four to six our European cousins often enjoy), it is for many the Season of Enchantment, as seaside beaches, lakeshore resorts, and mountain lodges fill up with holiday makers anxious to escape the tedium of everyday as long as they can (most children in this country still escape the drudgery of schoolwork for almost the whole time). It is punctuated with the great feast of our national religion, the Fourth of July, which still encompasses whatever remains of the joy in our country earlier described. Fireworks, parades, barbecues — the whole lot of it are still ritually performed and enjoyed. But here too, for the Catholic, there is far more available. St. John’s Eve (if one is fortunate enough to be in an area where some of its magical Halloweenish spirit — like bonfires — remains); St. John’s Day; the Precious Blood; the Transfiguration; and the Assumption: all of these, as with the feasts of Spring, bring joy to the Catholic who observes them in the Church’s spirit in a way that his non-Catholic friends and neighbours simply cannot understand.

As August ends, the Halloween decorations begin to pop up in the stores alongside “Back-to-School” decorations like the first snowdrops of Spring. The secular mind, when not focussed on whatever dreary task its employment consists of , begins contemplating hungrily the Halloween-Christmas season once more. The practising Catholic, meanwhile, is looking forward to the feasts of the Holy Cross and Michaelmas truly otherworldly observances if ever there were any.

So continues the quest for enchantment through Time. To the secular mind, it is a quest which results in occasional flashes of different kinds of joy — rarely lasting. For the Catholic, if he has observed the Liturgical Year to the best of his ability, it has brought him that much closer to Heaven. Both use similar weapons driven by similar needs against the cruelty of the merely ordinary — but how different the results! For the one mindset, holidays are means to an end that provide occasional foretastes of that end; to the other they are ends in themselves. In our next instalment, we shall see how that same quest is pursued, not through time, but through space.