Christmas at Harvard

As I write these words, the first snowfall of the Cambridge winter has dusted the red brick and frozen earth of our University. In Harvard Square, they have hauled out strands of yellow lights and strung them about, and in the Coop, ribbons and wreaths offer a cheerful counterpoint to the endless round of carols playing merrily in the background.

It is--almost--Christmas at Harvard.

Harvard herself would never admit it, of course. For our watchdogs of tolerance, pluralism, diversity and the other shibboleths of contemporary academia, we have entered the "holiday season," when people from various "faith traditions" take a break from their studies to enjoy "winter break," as the official campus calendar calls it.

Christmas is just part of the pantheon, one divinity among an Olympian host of holidays that includes Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, the winter solstice--and this December, for the first time in thirteen years, the Muslim month of Ramadan.

Granted, it has been a trifle difficult to eliminate residual Christian-centrism entirely from University-speak. Last year, for instance, an official Harvard mailing wished us all a "happy millennial observance," displaying an remarkable lack of respect for those faiths that choose not to follow a dating system based upon an obscure Nazarene carpenter's historically dubious birth.

But in their defense, the mandarins of modern Harvard may not have been aware of what, exactly, the whole year 2000 extravaganza was commemorating. If you believe their academic jargon, after all, we've just completed two thousand years of the "Common Era"--which apparently took over when the Uncommon Era ran out of gas midway through the reign of Caesar Augustus.

There is an important story here, about the de-Christianization of the modern university and the suffocating blanket of secular sneering that has settled over Ivy League campuses in the last half-century. But as the days grow short, and Christmas inches closer, it occurs to me that Harvard may be entirely correct not to recognize the importance, or even the existence, of Christendom's chief feast day.

Not that rigid secularity and cloying, politically correct euphemisms like "holiday season" and "millennial observance" are to be applauded, mind you. Far from it. But even if Harvard were to rid itself of the prejudices of enlightened academia and their attendant cant, it would still be incongruous for our University to make even a half-hearted attempt at celebrating Christmas. The Christmas spirit, to invoke a hackneyed but useful phrase, just doesn't fit in with the spirit of Harvard.

Christmas is about generosity, of course, and friendship and family and jolly old Saint Nick. But in its truest, most Christian sense, the holiday is about hope, and hope not in the midst of success and triumph, but hope in the midst of darkness and despair. It offers what has been termed a "sign of contradiction" to the world--a messiah who takes on the form of a weak, helpless infant and who brings light to the dark of the year.

The spirit that animates our University, by contrast, has little time for infant messiahs. We don't need them here: we bow at the altars of worldly success. Our idols are Law School, or Goldman Sachs or a dot-com windfall. Forty percent of our classmates will be millionaires, campus legend has it, and no one wants to be left out.

And our administration's priorities, in the Age of Rudenstine, reflect this fixation with the world's bottom line. If Christ were born in Cambridge today, I suspect, Harvard would convince the Magi to donate their gold and frankincense and myrrh to the alumni giving fund instead.

Harvard's credo is similar to that of George Bailey in the classic Christmas film It's a Wonderful Life, who says to his friends in sleepy Bedford Falls, "I'm going to shake the dust of this crummy little town off my feet, and I'm gonna see the world!" Harvard, for most of us, is the place where the last of that dust finally shakes loose and wider vistas open before us. Who needs Christmas when you can retire at 30?

But in the film, George Bailey never gets out of Bedford Falls. His brother Harry goes off to war and wins the Medal of Honor and his friend Sam Wainwright becomes a business tycoon. But George struggles to support his wife and children. And when the debts pile up and things look black, George finds himself on the railing of a bridge, ready to leap.

Harvard, of course, aspires to make us all like Harry Bailey and Sam Wainwright--or even, God help us, like Mr. Potter, the wealthy, grasping banker of Bedford Falls. And no one here, no gov jock or pre-med or final club frequenter wants to be George Bailey. No one wants to suffer and sweat and barely scrape by, to give up youthful potential in favor of adult burdens, to sacrifice dreams on the altar of necessity. No one wants to be at the end of their rope on Christmas Eve, staring down into dark water and needing a little bit of divine intervention.

Maybe no one has to. Maybe all the promises that Harvard makes to us will come true. But maybe there's a little George Bailey in all of us. And if there is, it might be a good thing for Harvard to remember Christmas after all.

You know, just in case.

Ross G. Douthat '02 is a history and literature concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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