Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Real Christmas Wars

Christopher Hitchens, who is (I think) often wrong but always interesting, just wrote a column bashing Christmas, which is apparently an annual practice for him. (Hitchens makes Scrooge look like Santa Claus). I think Hitchens is overreacting a little—Christmas carols are annoying, perhaps, but it’s a stretch to compare their ubiquity to fascist propaganda, or to say that the “United States—a country constitutionally based on a separation between church and state—turns itself into the cultural and commercial equivalent of a one-party state,” like pretty soon they’ll start clapping people who aren’t enthusiastic enough about Christmas into irons and force them to listen to “Jingle Bells" for hours on end.

It’s not really hard to see the weak point in Hitchens’ argument—the government is hardly the primary celebrator of Christmas—rather, Christmas’ massive popularity is more a creation of corporations concocting an excuse for consumers to buy massive amounts of stuff. And any separation of church and state obviously wouldn’t apply to either the “cultural” or “commercial” sectors, which should alleviate fears of a “one-party state.” Anyway, the “separation of church and state” isn’t in the Constitution, so Hitchens can rest easy.

Hysteria aside, though, Hitchens does have a point. Christmas really has become an aesthetic nightmare—awful pop renditions of Christmas carols, the painful commercialization of Christmas, and the constant attempts to extend the holiday beyond Christian consumers combine to make the Christmas season something of a nightmare. Not Hitchens’ fascist orgy, of course. But Christmas has just become tacky.

For a time, it seemed that large stores tried to stay away from religious Christmas songs, preferring to play new covers of “Rudolph” and “Frosty the Snowman.” Of course, these songs were usually terrible—most Christmas carols aren’t improved by being set to pop music. Then people realized that religious songs didn’t really offend anyone—and that was worse. If “Frosty the Snowman” set to a steel guitar is bad, “Silent Night” set to the same instrument is far, far worse.

It’s become a cliché to criticize the commercialization of Christmas, but such complaints are still valid. It’s ironic that the birth of One who advocated poverty and self-restraint should be marked by an orgy of consumption. It’s unavoidable, of course—were Christmas to disappear, sellers would find another excuse for people to shop (maybe Thanksgiving? Give people something to be thankful for?). Still, the irony is there.

But by far the most annoying and tacky element of Christmas is the constant attempts to market the holiday to all cultures. This always fails—on two fronts. First, the generic “holiday” is always represented with traditional Christian elements such as Christmas trees, so I doubt that many of other cultures feel very included. And given that all “holiday” commercials, celebrations, and the like always stop right on Christmas Day, the commitment to other cultures looks pretty shallow.

And the embarrassment about invoking Christianity also rankles. There’s nothing wrong with stores trying to attract a wide range of customers—in fact, that’s a good thing, and they really have to if they want to stay in business. But there does seem to be something amiss when businesses feel that they can’t even mention the word “Christmas,” as though that will drive people away in droves. Over eighty percent of Americans are Christians—saying “Merry Christmas” welcomes a lot more people than it repels.

And if you’re worried that “Merry Christmas” will offend people—if “Merry Christmas” has the power to offend someone, that person probably has problems that require a lot more than “Happy Holidays” to fix.

Worst of all, though, is the awful disrespect towards other cultures that leads people to think that they can group other cultures’ holidays with Christmas. There are two other major holidays near Christmas—Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. And trying to include Jews in a comprehensive “Happy Holidays” is incalculably insulting; trying to include blacks with that phrase is just stupid.

I’m not Jewish, but I know enough about the religion to know that Hanukkah is an important holiday in that tradition—and absolutely nothing like Christmas. Hanukkah is not simply the Jewish version of Christmas, and trying to pass it off as an excuse for Jews to join the Christmas fun is simply insulting.

And Kwanzaa isn’t really a holiday at all—Ron Karenga invented it forty years ago as a black alternative to Christmas. And the notion that blacks need their own special Christmas makes our treatment of Hanukkah look respectful in comparison.

For all its flaws, Christmas is still a wonderful holiday. It may be tacky—but its good points far outweigh the annoying.


At December 17, 2008 at 4:08 PM , Anonymous Theresa said...

Great post, Daniel.

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