My travels have taken me to a strange and wonderful country called Acirema. It is a land of many contradictions. It has high mountains, yet flat plains. It has vast open spaces, yet cities crammed with people. It even has a holiday with contradictions – a holiday called Exmas.
Preparations for this festival last for over fifty days and yet on the one day on what is supposed to be celebration, there is more quiet than merriment. It is difficult to determine whether the holiday itself or the preparation for it is the reason for the season. The preparations are very strange. They begin when people purchase tremendous qualities of cardboard cards with pictures and messages upon them. The pictures are of various subjects. Some portray snow scenes, some depict fireplaces, some have quite a modern tone, some have pictures of the way Aciremans believe their ancestors lived. The pictures convey no central theme. The messages inside the cards are equally nebulous. Most often they say. “Seasons Greetings” which could be said at any time of the year. It is very difficult to say what the whole Exmas Season is supposed to represent. Some have proposed that its name be changed to “Great Religious Leader’s Day” and that it be celebrated the fourth Monday of December.
Although the cards are seemingly innocuous and vague, they cause untold suffering. The Acireman keeps long lists, which are called Exmas Card Lists. A card is sent to everyone on the list. Great care is taken that no one on the list is missed. Apparently some sort of curse is associated with neglecting someone. When the task is finally finished and the cards mailed, the Acireman sighs and gives thanks to the gods that the task is over for one more year. All is peaceful then, as the Acireman receives cards which his friends have mailed him, unless, he receives one from someone to whom he did not send an Exmas Card. Then there is much wailing and cursing of the gods as the Acireman pulls on his overcoat and boots, drives through unspeakably crowded streets to the equally crowded marketplace and mail the Exmas Card that was forgotten.
An equally strange custom is the purchase of Exmas gifts. This is a very difficult procedure. Another list is made after which an elaborate guessing game begins. Every citizen has to guess the value of the gift which every friend will send him so that he may send one of equal value whether he can afford it or not.
And they buy gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom, put forth all kinds trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, they have been unable to sell throughout the year, they now sell as an Exmas Gift. And although the Aciremans profess to lack sufficient necessary things, such as metal, leather, wood, and paper, yet an incredible quantity of these things is being wasted every year, being made into Exmas gifts. When the gifts are exchanged, gratitude must be profusely expressed. Though the gifts are often useless and the gratitude is largely insincere, the Aciremans must manufacture a show of their delight. He even has to grind out written notes to express his unfelt “gratitude”.
The sellers of these gifts, as well as the buyers, become exceedingly exhausted from the strain of the crowds and traffic. They are frantic in their attempts to finish everything on time and yet are in constant need of stopping and resting. This frenzied state, in their barbaric language, is known as the Exmas Rush. The people become pale and weary so that any stranger visiting Acirema at this time of the year would suppose the some great calamity had befallen the land. When the day of the festival arrives, the Aciremans, except those with small children, sleep until noon, being worn out from the Exmas Rush and the excesses of the Exmas Parties. In the evening of Exmas Day, they eat five times what they usually eat. The next day, heads and stomachs are greatly distressed from the eating and spirits consumed in excess.
The motivation of this strange behavior is most confusing to our best scholars. The motivation could not possibly be merriment, for most Aciremans seem more weary then joyful. Our best explanation is that their motivation must have its source in their pagan worship. Two deities seem particular popular at this time. One is a weak, comical deity represented by a man in a red suit and a long white beard. He seems to be a harmless totem of a worship of materialism. Only small children take him seriously. Adults usually greet this totem with a condescending smile.
The other object of worship centers around a very interesting contest of deities called bowls. Constant reference is made where Aciremans gather to Super Bowls, Rose Bowls, Orange Bowls, Sugar Bowls, etc. It is probably named after the bowl-shaped headgear worn by the participants. Each deity is represented by some fierce animal totem, i.e., Bears, Lions, Rams, Falcons, etc. At the exact time coinciding with the Exmas Rush, these deities have annual contests to determine supremacy. At least weekly, the spiritual leaders of the households gather in large numbers at the actual site of the contest. Those unable to make the pilgrimage to the contest worship in front of family altars or receiving sets in their homes, urging their favorite deity to victory. Hecataeus, a second rate scholar, believes that these are not worship services, but only games that the people are playing. But no real scholar agrees with him. These contests are taken much too seriously to be mere games. Their statistics are chronicled much too thoroughly and remembered much too completely.
My opinion, which I share with many scholars, is that perhaps there is some connection between the worship of these deities and the annual ritual called the Exmas Rush. Perhaps the Exmas Rush is a type of self-flagellation the Aciremans believe their deities require of them. Why else would people punish themselves so? If it is not to help their deities, the Exmas Rush just doesn’t make sense.
There is another group in Acirema, almost too small to be mentioned at all. That celebrate a completely different festival at this time of year. They call their celebration Chrissmas. The celebration centers around an ancient story about a baby that was born of very special birth, many, many years ago. The story has it that there were signs in the heavens proclaiming this baby’s birth. This unusual baby grew into an extraordinary man. The story has it that this man could walk on water. He could heal the sick. He could open the eyes of the blind and raise the dead. His life was absolutely perfect. Many said he was the son of some God which they claimed was the only God. His life was cut short by execution. He was pronounced dead and buried. Those who believe in this person say that he came back from the dead, that he was reborn, and went into the heavens. The believers in this occurrence say that this person will come back again to judge the world. His followers claim that only those who believe in him will be forgiven.
So every Chrissmas they remember again the birth of the one who is their “savior”. They continue to retell the story of his birth. They use figures of his mother, of a baby born in a stable, and other helps in remembering his birth. They gather together on the eve of his birth date to sing and praise him. They light candles and say that he is the truth that came into the world as a small light and now illuminates the whole world in his truth. These people call themselves Chrisstians, I assume after this beautiful holiday.
I talked to the priest of one of these groups and asked him why they celebrate Chrissmas on the same day as Exmas. It seemed terribly confusing to me. He said that the date of Chrissmas had long ago been established and had hoped that more Aciremans would celebrate it as his group did, or that God would put it in their minds to celebrate Exmas on some other day, or not at all. For Exmas and the Rush distracts the minds of even the few from sacred things. He was glad that men make merry at Chrissmas, but in Exmas there is no more merriment left. And when I asked why Aciremans endured the Rush, he relied, “It is, O stranger, a racket.” Using the words (I suppose) of some ancient oracle and speaking unintelligibly to me (for the racket is an instrument which the barbarians use in a game called tennis.)
Hecataeus, in his usual way of oversimplifying the facts, has formulated the hypothesis that Chrissmas and Exmas are the same. This is utterly impossible. First of all, the pictures stamped on the Exmas Cards have nothing to do with the sacred story which the priests tell. Secondly, although most Aciremans don’t believe the religion of the few, they still send gifts and cards and participate in the Rush. It is unlikely that anyone would suffer so greatly for a God they do not know. Hecataeus’s hypothesis also fails to account for the central event of the Exmas season – the Bowls – the contests of the deities for supremacy. Something as important as the Bowls would not be allowed if the people were trying to remember their God. No, my theory ties it all together, except for those who celebrate Chrissmas. They are the strange ones. I have no idea where their story could have originated – unless it actually happened.