An Agnostic Jew’s Annual Christmas Miracle

25 12 2009

If there’s one thing I miss since leaving GameSpy, it’s what I referred to as my “Annual Christmas Miracle.” All year long, game journalists are inundated with PR tchtotchkes and free games and I was certainly no exception. That meant by the end of the year I had a desk filled with dozens and dozens of games (mostly PC titles but quite a few console ones as well) along with about a hundred T-shirts, key rings, stuffed animals, tote bags and all the bits of detritus that game companies send out with copies of their games in the hopes of getting some coverage. Throughout the year I would take my own stuff and collect bits of PR junk from other editors and put it all in a pile until the week just before the Christmas break. Then at a specific moment i would send around an e-mail to the entire company welcoming everybody to come down to my desk and just grab whatever they wanted from the enormous pile of stuff I had collected throughout the year.

It was wondrous (and loud given the annual stampede of feet to my desk).

Initially I did it cynically just for myself, I liked seeing everybody rush around and leave with a bunch of ridiculous bits of junk that would end up collecting dust in their cubicles. Then one year I hit on the idea of selling all that junk for a suggested donation of a dollar or more for a charity that really meant something to me and I discovered something more — how good it feels to to do good and how good it feels to watch other people be good. The first year I did it, I found myself stunned not at the dollars that flowed in for useless pieces of plastic but at the fives and tens and twenties for PC games I had given one and two star reviews to. I nearly cried when one person dropped a pair of twenties in my basket for a copy of Shadowrun for the Xbox360. Shadowrun sucked. This person wasn’t buying a video game, they were connecting with me and others in the office. We had found the embers of goodness in our hearts and fanned them — at least briefly — into a flame. it became my annual “Christmas Miracle,” The one time of the year when I’m happy and uncynical for about 24-48 hours.

Considering that I’m an agnostic Jew, I love Christmas more than is probably seemly for someone of my cultural background. Considering that I’m also a cynical angry bear of a person, you’d think I’d recoil at the obvious plastic phony commercialism of the season. Yet I don’t. Cynics don’t become cynics because they don’t care — they become cynics because they’re frustrated idealists and there’s something about Christmas that breaks through the seventy-five layers of calcified rage that’s built up around my heart and makes me happy for at least a 24-hour period. It’s not the faithful aspects of the holiday, either. There’s no danger of my becoming a Christian. It’s the very plasticky cheesiness of it. It’s the tinsel and Rankin-Bass characters and the Charlie Brown Christmas specials themselves that touch me.

They remind me that we’re all ridiculous and lonely and sad and pathetic and ultimately glorious because of, not despite, our inherent silliness and that the only time we’re worth anything at all is when we reach out and touch the heart of another human being. Yet those moments are enough to redeem humanity for all the awfulness we do to each other on a daily basis. Our goodness can dwarf that of the mythical angels and Christmas speaks to that for me. I wish we would do it more often and not just this time of year, but the fact that we do it at all is what keeps me a cynic and not a nihilist. We can be the kind of people we dream of being — sometimes we are, and that’s what keeps hope alive for me.

I’ve said before that my relationship with God got a lot better once I realized He wasn’t real. I’m a writer and a storyteller so I see the inherent power and danger of the calcified mythology that becomes organized religion. Stripped of the mummery and institutional corruption of religion, our figures of worship join characters like Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Spock and Santa Claus and Ebeneezer Scrooge and the Grinch — figures worthy of emulation because of not despite their unreality. They speak to the best aspects of ourselves and tell us we can be this way, even if seems rather unlikely most of the time.

The nihilist will laugh at that the way they laugh at any indication of some kind of order in the universe. They’ll tell us all the things that are precious in the world are just illusions. That love is just our genes pushing us to reproduce, that society is just a shared illusions foisted by the powerful on the powerless, that a nation is just a line on a map, that the truths we hold to be self-evident are merely consensual hallucinations we cling to in order to stay sane in a universe of chaos that’s ultimately indifferent to our fate. My response to that is to quote Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle’s restatement of Pascal’s Wager from C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair:

“‘One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things–trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies playing a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.”
— (C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair, Harper Collins Publishers, 1953, pp. 181-182.)

The beauty of this is that Puddleglum’s not real either, but he became a hero of mine in that one moment. Lewis, of course, was writing this as a Christian apologist’s response to the idea of atheism, but the context works for almost anything we cling to in order to stay sane. I may love my family because my genes tell me to do so in order to propagate themselves– but I still love my family. I may cling to an American ideal that the real United States often fails to live up to, but I must believe a nation is better for having such ideals than not bothering with them at all. And I may be a fool to believe an over commercialized holiday blown up every year by retailers because the health of our economy depends on it really can speak to the best in ourselves but you know what? I’ll happily accept that moniker. I’ll believe in Christmas and Santa and Rudolph and Coca-Cola and maybe even a little bit about the fictional kid in the barn in Bethlehem because it makes my world better and it inspires me to make others’ lives a little bit better too. Maybe my theology’s a little messed up, but that makes me no different than the six billion other screwed up, persnickety ultimately wondrous souls I share this planet with.

Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Joyous Festivus and greetings for whatever other silly, sappy, Hallmarky traditions you cling to to beat back the dark, cold night. Be happy and help others to be happy too.