Have Yourself an Ambivalent Little Christmas


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Have Yourself an Ambivalent Little Christmas

I have this sort of love/hate thing going with Christmas. Obviously, I have no complaint with the concept of a holiday about spreading joy. And the idea of getting gifts is something you'll never hear me complain about. But this holiday has become a behemoth. It's out of control.

For eleven months of the year, we live our (relatively) normal, daily lives. We listen to the music we want to listen to, we watch the movies and TV shows we want to watch, and we generally act the way we want to act. Then December comes, and everything changes. Some of those changes are good. Some others, not so much.

An example: My wife and I were going somewhere a few days ago in her car. Her musical tastes and mine don't have the greatest amount of overlap, so when we go somewhere together there's usually discussion about "husband-friendly" CDs and "wife-friendly" CDs. I asked her what CDs she had. Her response was, "It's Christmas, isn't it?" As if that answered it.

But it did. It's December, so the CDs she has in her car are a couple of generic "pop stars sing Christmas songs" discs, plus Peter, Paul, and Mary's A Holiday Celebration and John Denver and the Muppets' A Christmas Together. I knew that before I asked the question. I was hoping to be wrong, but I was right.

The point here is not that I don't like these albums (although I don't). The point is that I'm sick of them. I'm still sick of them from all the times I had to listen to them last year. I'm already sick of them for next year. But my wife will listen to them all month. I'm not convinced that she actually wants to listen to them that much. I think she does it because she feels like she ought to. She feels like she needs to be in the Christmas spirit, so she listens to those albums in the hopes that they'll help her do so.

She is hardly alone in this regard. There's a radio station in town that plays nothing but Christmas music for the entire month of December. They wouldn't do this if the market didn't exist for it. Don't get me wrong: I enjoy the occasional Christmas song. But I like other music, too, and I still like it in December. As for the Christmas spirit, I don't see why one should have to work at it so hard. If you can get into the Christmas spirit easily, great. If not, don't worry about it so much that it leaves you feeling depressed. Let us have a little moderation, please.

But Christmas is not about moderation. It's certainly not about restraint: you can't escape it. It's all over the place. It dominates culture like no other holiday can. Even if you don't celebrate Christmas, you probably celebrate Christmas. What I mean by this is that so many non-Christian holidays in December were either created as or have evolved into being little more than a Christmas equivalent. Take Channukah as an example. For centuries the tradition was that kids got money for Channukah. Now they get presents in many cases. Guess where that came from. Obviously, Channukah has its own traditions, but it is definitely evolving to become more like Christmas. I can't think of any other Jewish holiday that is evolving to be more like a nearby holiday.

Even atheists get in on the act, with some having come up with "Newtonmas", which celebrates the life of Sir Isaac Newton (born on December 25) and his devotion to reason and science. (The irony here is that Newton was actually a very devout Christian, but we'll let that go for the moment.) And then of course there is "Festivus", which to my knowledge is the only holiday to have its origins in a highly overrated sitcom. The whole concept of Festivus speaks to the power of Christmas. After all, who ever felt the need to create an alternative to Labor Day?

That being said, it's not a Christian holiday that came to dominate. I don't just mean that the more commercial aspects of a Christian holiday have become the most visible aspects of that holiday. I mean that there are now essentially two separate holidays both called Christmas and both on December 25. The religious version, which is about the birth of Jesus Christ (most scholars agree Jesus wasn't born in December and that date was basically pulled out of a hat, but let's not quibble about these details), is obviously the original. But the secular one, which is generally about winter (which is why people living in places that haven't seen a white Christmas in thirty years will still put up inflatable snowmen as Christmas decorations) and gift-giving, is the bigger one. It is the secular Christmas, not the religious Christmas, that has really grabbed our culture by the little glass balls you hang on a Christmas tree. There are plenty of people who celebrate the religious version of Christmas, but plenty more who celebrate the secular version. Many non-Christians (myself included) are celebrating the secular Christmas; for that matter, many Christians don't really celebrate the religious version. In the marketplace of ideas, secular Christmas has clearly won. This may bother some people (particularly ones who boycott stores that greet you with "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas"), but there you have it.

I for one, am glad the holiday has taken this leap. For all the trouble the holiday can be, I really do enjoy it. I'm more charitable (in the literal sense) during December. I'm nicer to the people I meet. The people who aren't completely stressing out seem to be the same way. It would be nice if we were capable of being this way all year long, but maybe that's more than we as a race are capable of. Maybe we do need to spend a month being this way, if only to guarantee we spend at least a little time being this way. So be it. I'll work on the other months, but for now I'll just make certain I'm generous for the month of December.

I'll be so generous I won't even complain when my wife sticks Peter, Paul, and Mary in the CD player again.

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