Sunday, December 01, 2013 3:32 PM
Well, it’s December, at least—long past the appropriate time to bring up the holiday season, to most marketers. But Xmas is not so easily tamed. We give our thanks in November, we give our presents in December, and we give ourselves new goals at New Year’s, the first day of next year. Xmas is in the middle but gets the lion’s share of the focus—giving things to each other calls to that materialism we all have at least a spark of—but it is an event, and in so many senses, more engaging than the more ritualistic form of the ‘book-ends’ holidays.
So I prefer to keep each event to its place and I never begin to play Xmas carols on the piano (and worse yet, sing) until December 1st. Xmas has pressure enough—and in the nadir of Winter—with the expectations needing filling and the mandatory purchases having unbalanced a recently comfortable account balance.
More’s the pity—the Winter fest of Europe’s ancienter times was a blow-out in every sense of the word—even sometimes electing a ‘governing fool’ who gave orders to the gentry—but always including drinking too much, brawling for no reason, and debauchery among the adults of the community. Even burning down a house or two was considered no great extreme—and the first thing the Reformed Protestant Churches did was outlaw the celebration of Twelfth Night, or Yuletide.
This did not stop people from celebrating—and it’s my guess that the raucous outburst of pent-up tension was the very best way to prepare for the group to live all huddled together, indoors, for most of the winter. Today, with stress an unavoidable fact of life, it makes little sense to have the holidays be filled with guilts and repressions—as it is celebrated by a tremendous number of Americans today. But even that undertow of familial and social demands on the celebrants does not define Xmas (no matter what Chevy Chase would have us believe).
I believe that Xmas has become an emotional refuge, its most important function being to allow us the fantasy, at least for a day or few, of thinking our lives have the same simplicity and cyclic regularity that those pagans once enjoyed. Most rituals have been stripped away from modern life, aside from weddings and birthdays—the number of people with ashes on their brow on Ash Wednesday is so sparse that it can disturb non-Catholics coming upon it the first time that day—they impulsively tell one he or she has a smudge on their forehead.
Those fortunate enough to be raising children focus the entirety of the ‘Season’ to their children’s (hopefully) treasured memories—the things parents hope their children will reproduce with their own families, some day. And no childhood fantasy is so seriously guarded as the ‘belief in Santa Claus’. This dichotomy between kids and adults has its good side, I guess, but I could never see it as different from ‘lying’, so we had no great emphasis on Santa’s reality—the kids are more interested in the presents, anyway.
That it is a stupid idea is confirmed, by my reckoning, by the number of stupid Christmas movies that focus on the maintenance of this myth as a humorous plot point.
Xmas has to do with being in the northern states, Washington to Maine, or thereabouts, and walking through snow to bring your freshly chopped-down pine tree into your living room. Anything else is not a Hollywood-approved location for this coziest of holidays—one can never feel quite as good about oneself as when donating to (or better yet, feeding) the wretched poor when the ground is covered with snow.
New York City has a slightly different take on the season, but is still within prescribed conditions to be a ‘real’ Christmas. It adds a lovely dollop of urbanity—window displays, municipal decorations, office parties (though not as solid a tradition as once was) and seeing the toys in FAO Schwarz’s and the big Xmas Tree in Rockefeller Center, on ones way to Radio City Music Hall for the traditional “Nutcracker” show.
But the full-on, tradition-filled Christmas happens in New England—plenty of indigenous pine trees, a good chance of snow on the ground (before Climate Change, anyway) and tree ornaments that may have passed down through three or four generations. Ordinarily, the head of the clan will have ‘the family’ to their big house and make a short week of the holiday.
I watch nothing but the Hallmark Channel for the whole of December—I can’t get enough of these crazy movies—Elves fall in love with humans; Santa’s son doesn’t want to take over Christmas; a poverty-stricken family somehow find themselves living in a big, beautiful house in a lovely, loving, small town; Santa’s sleigh is stuck in the shop; A reindeer with a fluorescent nose flies at the front of Santa’s team—you know the drill.
However, it isn’t entirely Hallmark’s fault—it was Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” that gave Christmas its wish-fulfillment aspect. It was his idea that the ‘Christmas Spirit’ was a mandatory giver of grace to even the most twisted misanthrope. The idea that hard-nosed business-people were a blight on society wasn’t new, but the ludicrous suggestion that they can be convinced to open their hearts one day a year… —all Dickens.
And now Hallmark channel has evolved into a cornucopia of sappy, sentimental hogwash, non-stop for 25 full days of nothing but Xmas movies. I am fascinated by their transmutation of human ritual into wish-fulfillment fantasies and Cinderella-type romances. There’s plenty of sneaky elves doing magic and smirking behind a corner at the surprised humans—there are plenty of BFFs that make seemingly trivial remarks that resonate with the movie’s plot-line (or it’s title—which in some cases is the movie in a nutshell, for example: “Snow Globe”).
But sometimes I catch them in a new bit of blasphemy—this year (unless I didn’t notice in previous years) was the use of the tag-line, ‘Hallmark, the Heart of Joy’! Can you imagine? “Joy: def. Intense and especially ecstatic or exultant happiness”. In a religious context (if I may suggest that Xmas has a religious context) ‘joyfulness’ is the ecstasy felt by those who worship the newborn son of God. I’m sure Hallmark was just looking for a generic word, like ‘tinsel’ or ‘stocking’, to suggest Xmas without confining their audience to any specific religion—but in my opinion, ‘Joy’ can be seen as overstepping by sensitive folks like me.
Besides, Joy is pretty strong language, especially when describing the most shamelessly sugary genre of cinema in the world today. Maybe ‘Hallmark, the Heart of Sweet’ ? If you want to see something crazy, check out the Xmas Movies listing of your current cable provider, TV, Hulu, or Netflix—thousands of these films—and Hallmark makes five or ten new ones every year, just to cement their place at the forefront of kitsch. So I guess it’s what you call a ‘guilty pleasure’ for me to watch these movies on Hallmark channel for hours on end. I don’t approve of Hallmark’s immersion in the treacle of holiday sentiment—far from it.
Hallmark has a much older claim than computers to destroying our literate holiday traditions—the whole point of a card, back when, was that you made it yourself—put some thought and feeling into it. Lots of people still do that, but very few Americans—‘we care enough to send the very best’, as Hallmark once drummed into our ears, back when they were merely a greeting card company. All the little notes and present tags and letters from old friends—they are nowhere to be seen in modern American Xmases.
So I lie in bed and allow the false joy of Hallmark channel to wash over me. I wonder about the kids of today—how much of their holiday season is torn from their focus on the gadgets they all have now? How many kids get sleds for Xmas, compared to how many get the latest gaming consoles or handheld electronics? And I wonder at the power of my conditioning as a child, that even now as an atheist of decades, I still think Xmas has great value and should be treasured for whatever few truly human exchanges of love and joy (and presents) it still engenders, in spite of the tinsel.