Christmas, Spirituality and The Apartment

At this time of the year, a lot of people get heartily involved in the popular elements of Christmas. That's great, but many people don't often know the origins of such elements. For example, the popular figure of Santa Claus is actually based on a Lapland ogre with a bright red face who was said to climb down the chimney and devour the children in their beds. Food was left out on Christmas night in a bid to prevent the monstrous humanoid from chomping on the kiddy-winkies. Parents traditionally told their children this story for reasons I'm not too clear on. Later, St Nicholas became the visitor that children would get if they were good and the ogre would come if they were bad, a figure that was later morphed into 'Black Pete', a man covered in soot, possibly from his hostile, chimney-based approach.


Other people focus on the Christian story; a baby in a manger, along with a big, bright moving star and three kings or Magi who visit the infant, bringing gifts. This whole scene, oddly enough, is strongly connected to Ancient Egyptian beliefs. In Ancient Egypt, the star Sirius, associated with the god Osiris, the brightest star in the Northern Hemisphere, was 'born' at the beginning of the Egyptian Summer when it rose above the horizon. Its arrival was always accompanied by the Three Kings stars, a.k.a. Orion's Belt. Also, the word 'Magi' is the root word of 'Magician' and originates with the Zoroastrian religion popular in Persia in the centuries before Christ, a religion from which the cult of Mithra was born.

Martin Luther King Jr discusses these very interesting matters in an excellent scholarly article available here. In one paragraph, King states:

"However this is not the only point at which the Religion of Osiris and Isis exerted influence on Christianity. There can hardly be any doubt that the myths of Isis had a direct bearing on the elevation of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, to the lofty position that she holds in Roman Catholic theology. As is commonly known Isis had two capacities which her worshippers warmly commended her for. Firstly, she was pictured as the lady of sorrows, weeping for the dead Osiris, and secondly she was commended as the divine mother, nursing her infant son, Horus. In the former capacity she was identified with the great mother-goddess, Demeter, whose mourning for Persephone was the main feature in the Eleusinian mysteries. In the latter capacity Isis was represented in tens of thousands of statuettes and paintings, holding the divine child in her arms. Now when Christianity triumphed we find that these same paintings and figures became those of the Madonna and child with little or no difference. In fact archaeologists are often left in confusion in attempting to distinguish the one from the other."

King also discusses the important of December 25th in terms of the Persian figure Mithra:

"The Hebrew Sabbath having been abolished by Christians, the Church made a sacred day of Sunday, partly because it was the day of resurrection. But when we observe a little further we find that as a solar festival, Sunday was the sacred day of Mithra; it is also interesting to notice that since Mithra was addressed as Lord, Sunday must have been "the Lord's Day" long before Christian use. It is also to be noticed that our Christmas, December 25th, was the birthday of Mithra, and was only taken over in the Fourth Century as the date, actually unknown, of the birth of Jesus."

But perhaps the really important thing is that many of us are seeking a positive spiritual experience at this midwinter time of year, when families and friends gather together, share food, swap news and enjoy each other's company.

One popular part of this approach is the traditional of the Christmas Movie. Perhaps the most popular example is Frank Capra's 'It's a Wonderful Life', starring James Stewart. There's no doubt that Capra's film has become a film beloved by many, many people, with its story of a man who contemplates suicide but is helped by an angel who shows him what his town would have been like if he had never been born. The film is all about personal effort and how an ordinary person can improve the world and brighten the lives of others.

I've never really connected with 'It's a Wonderful Life', mostly because of Capra's style of story-making, but I adore another movie with a similar message that takes place around Christmas and New Year. That movie is 'The Apartment', It was written and directed by Billy Wilder, it starred Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine and it won a handful of Academy Awards. In The Apartment, Lemmon plays an office worker, C.C. 'Bud' Baxter, in a huge insurance company in New York. Baxter is loaning out his apartment to philandering department heads in his company so they can have extra-marital affairs.

Baxter is a schnook, a schmuck, a dogsbody who suffers in order to gain favours and get promoted in his company. He wants to rise up in the company and get the status and money that will come with a senior position. At the same time, he is very keen on the elevator girl, Miss Kubelik, played by Shirley MacLaine. She also wishes for feelings of success, of romantic success and she is involved with a married senior executive at the company. Baxter and Kubelik's paths collide and interweave. They both face a choice; do they continue to be people they despair at being, while wearing the trappings of success, or do they choose uncertainty, difficulty, self-respect and true love?

One of the beautiful things about The Apartment is that its heroes are ordinary people facing difficulties that so many of us face. Their enemy is not some evil figure but instead, their own lack of self-confidence and self-esteem. At the beginning of the movie, Lemmon and MacLaine's characters don't think they are personally impressive people. They think they are schmo's that will only be impressive if they win the favour, the compliments and the attention of one of the elite people. They've both been wounded by past romantic failures and they think that such failures are their lot. During the movie, they realise that this is untrue and that they can love and be loved for the qualities they have within themselves. They reach for that goal and by the end of the movie, they succeed.

Many films nowadays are about super-heroes that defeat bad-guys. In these films, the heroes are perfect from the beginning; they don't change. Neither do the bad-guys, they are bad and stay bad. At the end of the movie, the good guy kills the bad guy and everyone's happy. On the way, the audience watches someone toxic being beaten up, blown up, incinerated or some other horrendously painful punishment. It is a violent scenario that bares no relation to everyday reality.

By comparison, in The Apartment, the victory by 'Bud' Baxter and Miss Kubelik is not over someone else but over themselves. It is true that a vain, manipulative, shallow character does exist in the movie; he's played by Fred MacMurray, but MacMurray is not defeated by Lemmon and MacLaine at the end of the film. Instead, Lemmon and MacLaine's characters realise that they no longer need to please MacMurray's character, impress or be with him. They don't destroy Fred MacMurray's character at the end of the movie but his power over them. I'd love to talk about how they do this and what happens at the end of the movie, but I don't want to spoil it for someone who's never seen the film.

It is fascinating that other films which also focus on a main character's self-improvement have also become classics. Bill Murray's Groundhog Day is a case in point. In that movie, Murray's character is a slobbish, cynical, acerbic, self-centred dick. He travels to a homely town and sneers at its parochialism, but a storm strands him in the town overnight. In the morning, he finds that the previous day is happening again, as if by magic. He knows this fact, but no one else does. The story is similar to the film 12:01 but instead of a science malfunction, Groundhog Day never explains how the situation has occurred. This, perhaps, is not important. The important thing is that Murray is trapped in that recurring day until he works out himself what sort of person he needs to be in order to move on to the next day. Once again, its story is all about self-improvement. Murray is never told what to do by a higher power, he has to work it out for himself. By doing that, he truly improves as a person.

Groundhog Day is a classic from America but, strangely enough, it owes a huge debt to Frederick Nietzsche, the German philosopher whose writings were adulterated by his sister to be used as Nazi propaganda. Nietzsche was not anti-Semitic or a fascist, but simply an original thinker. Here's a passage from one of his books:

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more' ... Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.' [The Gay Science, §341]

That above paragraph is Groundhog Day.

I've talked before about 'life as a process for spiritual self-improvement' and used the example of Casablanca, another classic movie that many people watch year after year. Are the popularity of these movies telling us something? Perhaps it is that many people want their spiritual festivals to be times when they watch and celebrate ordinary people taking on challenges and bettering themselves, with the love and self-respect and happiness that such a success brings. Perhaps the traditional festive elements of worshipping supernatural god-kings or frightening each other with talk of monsters will fade away because people really want to experience stories of love and self-improvement?

Martin Luther King Jr. ended his article "The Influence of the Mystery Religions on Christianity" thus:

"The greatest influence of the mystery religions on Christianity lies in a different direction from that of doctrine and ritual. It lies in the fact that the mystery religions paved the way for the presentation of Christianity to the world of that time. They prepared the people mentally and emotionally to understand the type of religion which Christianity represented. They were themselves, in varying degrees, imperfect examples of the Galilean cult which was to replace them. They encouraged the movement away from the state religions and the philosophical systems and toward the desire for personal salvation and promise of immortality. Christianity was truly indebted to the mystery religions for this contribution, for they had done this part of the groundwork and thus opened the way for Christian missionary work. Many views, while passing out of paganism into Christianity were given a more profound and spiritual meaning by Christians, yet we must be indebted to the source. To discuss Christianity without mentioning other religions would be like discussing the greatness of the Atlantic Ocean without the slightest mention of the many tributaries that keep it flowing. Christianity, however, survived because it appeared to be the result of a trend in the social order or in the historical cycle of the human race. Forces have been known to delay trends but very few have stopped them. The staggering question that now arises is, what will be the next stage of man's religious progress? Is Christianity the crowning achievement in the development of religious thought or will there be another religion more advanced?"

It's a thought-provoking question. It could be said that the makers of 'The Apartment' and 'Groundhog Day' absorbed all the good points of Christ's teachings long before they made their films, points such as non-violence, forgiveness, courage, and a self-admiration and contentment borne out of striving to improve oneself and love others selflessly. The film-makers believed those ideas, deep down, and those ideas became the bedrock of the films they made, films in which ordinary people become better people without any powerful supernatural figure making them do anything or threatening to punish them, or send a bogeyman to attack them if they didn't do what they were told. These ordinary heroes in films such as 'Groundhog Day,' 'It's a Wonderful Life', 'the Apartment' and 'Casablanca' films became better people simply because they wanted to be better people. I think that's why those films are treasured by so many people during our seasonal events. I think Christ and Dr King would have approved.

Happy New Year!