Postmodern Christmas: A Trip to Radio City (Travis Scholl)

From the Sightings WeBlog, a guest post:

Trangressive Irony at Radio City

Travis Scholl

At this time of year American culture is laden with customs, themselves laden with multivariant meanings. The Christmas Spectacular that takes place every year at Radio City Music Hall, for example, comes with its own set of traditions. The stunning simultaneity of the Rockettes’ high leg kicks…the complex choreography of the Wooden Soldiers…the condensed retelling of the Nutcracker story—most of the elements of Radio City’s Christmas Spectacular, now in its seventy-fifth year, are told year after year, only with different choreography and new sets.

Near the end of each year’s Spectacular, another tradition takes place: the “Living Nativity,” in which, as the program notes tell us, the “beautiful and inspiring story of the first Christmas [is] told reverently in pageantry, music, and scripture.” It features multiple set tableaus, live animals, and swelling musical orchestration; but perhaps the most notable component of this particular scene, as I observed it over Thanksgiving weekend, was in the audience response to it. As soon as the curtain pulled back to reveal the full set of the nativity, the stage began to sparkle with the strobing flashes of camera bulbs. It was the one and only point at which the audience was willing to transgress the venue’s explicit rule to not take flash photographs.

It has been about twenty-five years since the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard characterized postmodernity as “incredulity toward metanarratives.” His definition relied on the distinction between (big) metanarratives, which tend to dominate whole systems of meaning, and (small) narratives, which provide more organic meanings within existential realities. But what Lyotard’s distinction does not necessarily take into account is the way that cultural narratives, even religious narratives, can be inverted upon and into each other. In a postmodern context where popular culture is inundated by spectacle, religious narratives, most often presumed to function as metanarrative, can be inverted, taking the form of smaller narratives within other systems of meaning. At Radio City , the Spectacular’s own metanarrative could have been summarized by the production’s oft-repeated encouragement “to believe in the magic of Christmas,” supported by its signature lyric to “let Christmas shine.” As such, the narrative of the Christ child—which took up all of about twelve minutes of an almost two hour show—was subsumed within the larger narrative of the Spectacular’s more recognizable emcee, Santa Claus.

In most cases, such inversions become instances of those most famous of postmodern events; they become transgressive instances of irony. The irony of what happened at Radio City worked through a kind of double inversion: The production inverted the nativity narrative within its much larger spectacle, but audience members displayed their own inversions of what they were seeing by transgressing the rules for (non)participation and pulling out their cameras at what was staged as perhaps one of the least “spectacular” moments of the show.

This holiday season will surely provide countless opportunities for talking heads to argue over public displays of religion; and just as surely, each display will open itself to its own potential transgression into irony, where discourse becomes spectacle, where the spectacle is in the eye of the beholder, and where one person’s metanarrative is, for another, just a fat man in a red suit. I saw it happen at Radio City Music Hall on Thanksgiving Day. The irony came in a flash. And it left just as quickly, lost in the 3D metanarrative of magic and exhibition that is New York City—and twenty-first century America—at Christmastime.

Travis J. Scholl is a recent graduate of Yale University Divinity School and Managing Editor of Theological Publications at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.


  1. Thank you, Travis Scholl, for such an insightful description of the state of “the holidays” in our contemporary world.

    I, for one, say it’s time to deconstruct the Postmodern Metanarrative.

    “The Virgin today brings into the world the Eternal
    And the earth offers a cave to the Inaccessible.
    The angels and shepherds praise Him
    And the Magi advance with the star,
    For you are born for us,
    Little Child, God eternal!”

    –Kontakion of Romanos the Melodist

    Merry Christmas!

  2. I keep looking for the Christmas Card with the 8th kontakion from the Akathist to the Virgin Mary:

    Having beheld a strange Nativity, let us estrange ourselves from the world and transport our minds to heaven, for the most high God appeared on earth as a lowly man because He wished to draw to the heights those who call to Him, “Alleluia!”

    When I find that one, I’ll look for the 10th Kontakion:

    Desiring to save the world, He that is the Creator of all came to it according to His Own promise, that like calling unto like, as God he heareth, “Allelulia!”

    When I find that card, I will look East to see if the Glory is visible over Jerusalem…

    John, thinking Christmas cards could be a lot better, grateful for this passage from St. Romanos (the patron saint of a good friend in Houston)

  3. I wanted to share this with you all, and this seems like a place it might be shoehorned in.

    Y’know the belief that the date of Christmas was set by Christians to, in effect, stage a hostile takeover of a pagan holiday? If that’s what they did, it would be a very pre-modern postmodern thing to do, attempting to rewrite the metanarratives and all that. Wikipedia describes this theory pretty well… Christmas takes on Natalis Solis Invicti

    But then there’s this article on Calculating Christmas

    Comparing the two, you’ll note that the Dec. 25 date was being disseminated by Christians in 221 AD, while the date for Natalis Solis Invicti was set by the emperor in 274 AD. Makes you wonder exactly who is trying to rewrite a narrative here. Also note that the “integral age” theory and some backwards calculations from the date when the Resurrection was believed to have happened is what caused the date to be set there.

    Now I’m not real real heavily invested in the date of the Nativity. It happened, and was miraculous and salvific on whatever date it happened, but it’s still more comforting to me as a Christian to believe that my predecessors in the faith set the date in the context of an effort to determine the historical facts, rather than in the context of an effort to exercise some cultural muscle and poke paganism in the eye (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, she says tongue in cheek).

    I’d come across this stuff before. What I hadn’t come across was this article that brings the Dead Sea Scrolls into the debate. From the DSS, which provide the first-century priestly rotation in the Temple, you can determine when John the Baptist’s papa Zechariah was serving, and therefore the approximate date of John’s conception… which gives you the approximate date of Jesus’s conception, from the account of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. And, ta-da, you get some real grounds for believing that a late-December to early-January date was when Christ was actually born. Fascinating.

  4. Hmmm… I apparently don’t know how to put url links in yet.
    The Dead Sea Scrolls-referencing article:

    The article on Calculating Christmas:

  5. Arabella Figg says

    For a fascinating book, I suggest The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi by Michael Molnar:

    From the Publisher
    Could the fifty-dollar purchase of an ancient coin by a Rutgers astronomer have unlocked the mystery of the Christmas star? …Intrigued by the image of a ram looking back at a star that he found on the latest addition to his coin collection, Michael Molnar thought there might be more to learn by looking, instead, at the theories of ancient astrologers.

    Aries the ram looking back at the stars, he argues, is connected to astrological beliefs of the Magi, the Three Wise Men, and has much to tell us about this regal portent. At the time of Christ’s birth, Aries was a symbol of Judea. Ancient astrologers, such as the Magi, believed that a new king would be born when the moon passed in front of Jupiter-an eclipse that would herald the Messiah’s coming. Could the coin have been issued as a response to the Great Messianic Portent, the Star of Bethlehem?

    Molnar combined his training in astronomy with his knowledge of astrology and deduced that the Star of Bethlehem could have appeared only when Jupiter was “in the East.” Modern-day computer wizardry enabled him to chart…[don’t want to spoil the book here–Arabella].

    Molnar has woven together an intriguing scientific detective story using astronomical, astrological, and historical clues to resolve one of the world’s greatest mysteries: What led the Magi to Bethlehem?
    You can find this and several more reviews at the Barnes & Noble website. I read this book when it came out and found it intriuging and enlightening from start to finish.

    Kitties are already enlightened, they just refuse to tell where the light switch is…

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