For those of us who donít celebrate Christmas, this is a strange and interesting time of the year. We can easily feel like anthropologists on Christmas Island, studying the exotic ritual behavior of the indigenous people.
Recently, I overheard a conversation between two natives, two died-in-the-wool Christmas celebrators, reminiscing about their childhoods. Their mothers had worked hard to make each Christmas perfect. Some years their mothers had actually succeeded. They remember how it feels to have one day, in the dead of winter, when all your dreams seem to come true.
Now they are moms, and each Christmas they try to create the same perfection for their children. Of course, now they know it is merely an illusion. But they try their best to conjure up the illusion. And the closer they come to it, the better they feel.
Thatís what every ritual does, the anthropologists tell us. Ritual is a way to call time out in the messy game of life, where nothing ever seems to work out quite as we planned it. Ritual (if itís done right) can create an illusion that everything is under our control. It lets us believe, or at least pretend, that life really can offer us the perfect fulfillment that every inner child craves.
We could use an anthropologist to study another ritual that comes hardly more often than Christmas: a presidential news conference. There was George W. the other day, telling us that everything was pretty much perfect. Oh, perhaps the Iraqi troops are not doing quite as well as we hoped right now. But weíll get them back on track, quicker than you think. Iraq will hold its truly democratic elections, right on schedule. Itís all turning out quite grandly. No need to worry about anything.
Not even the 14 U.S. servicemen and women who were killed in the mess hall explosion at Mosul, the very next day. Thatís all a bad bummer, Bush admitted (though not quite in those words). But he wouldnít let anything spoil the illusion of the season. He thanked the dead and wounded for their sacrifice. ďDemocracy will prevail in Iraq,Ē he solemnly intoned. ďI know a free Iraq will lead to a more peaceful world.Ē
Isnít that what Christmas is all about: the Prince of Peace who sacrificed himself, shedding his blood to bring peace to the world? Christians have been celebrating that sacrifice, in all sorts of ritual ways, for nearly 2,000 years now. Every Christian ritual says that the world can be perfect, as long as someone sheds blood in the right way, for the right cause.
That makes it easy to treat our dead and wounded soldiers as Christ-figures. In every U.S. war, their blood has been praised as a holy sacrifice, shed on behalf of us all. It was hard to keep up that tradition in the latter years of the Vietnam war, when everyone knew that their blood was being shed for a mistake. The same may yet happen in Iraq.
For now, though, the mainstream media seem happy to help the president keep up the illusion that every death is a noble ritual occasion. When Newsweek recently put a wounded serviceman on its cover, heralding the medical miracles that save so many ďheroes,Ē it implied that you donít have to do anything special to be a hero in Iraq. You just have to be wearing an American uniform, be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and end up with a wound. That automatically gives you an honored place on the long list of Christ-figures going back to 1776.
Every day, we get a cascade of journalism communicating the same message. It all urges us to see Iraq the same way Christians see the crucifixion -- to look past the blood and pain to the light at the end of the tunnel. If the Good Book and the president both promise that perfection is on its way, who are we to argue or doubt?
Bushís approval rating has dropped back under 50%. But what is it that nearly half of all Americans still approve of? Perhaps it is the president's masterful ability to speak the soothing ritual words, to conjure up the illusion that we are living in a nearly perfect world, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
In the Christmas home, thatís the Momís job, my informants tell me. But in the big wide world of politics, itís a manís job. We count on a Dad to do it. The president's father wasnít very good at it. The old man didnít have the vision thing. He couldnít spin out convincing visions of sugar plums, or a free Iraq filled with U.S. military bases and corporate enterprises.
But the son has an amazing knack for playing Father to the nation. He gives us presidential words that create a grand illusion. Maybe thatís not enough, though. Maybe W. should put on a red suit and a fake beard, throw a sack over his shoulder, and start flying through the air, distributing toys and gifts to everyone. Nearly half of all Americans would probably be delighted. They might even trade in their Christmas tree for a Christmas Bush.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea.