Friday, December 14, 2012

A modest proposal

I hate Christmas.

Can't dance around it anymore, or dull my declaration with $10 words. No point in making people around me wonder why I'm such a jerk (or moreso) during the holidays.

I hate Christmas for what it is — what it probably always has been: A celebration of consumption. Not a celebration; a hyperventilated expectation of consumption, the de facto duty of all Americans (and maybe all the first world).

The economy, somehow, depends on us to buy stuff at Christmas. And buy. Etc.

It is the Mythical Manufacture and Movement of Money, the Emergency Reallocation of Resources, and everything we do during the ever-lengthening season serves it.

Even what we call tradition is really just a whetstone for commerce.

Maybe once Christmas was solely about tradition — but not in my lifetime. Probably not ever.

Many ancient traditions, it turns out — even ones we may hold dearest — aren't ancient at all, but just made up for covert motive.

To my wife's chagrin I'm reading "The Battle for Christmas," an analysis of how America celebrates the holiday, by historian and Pulitzer finalist Stephen Nissenbaum. At first banned by Puritan leaders because it collapsed into drunken riots, Christmas has since become a layered social engineering project promoting family togetherness and homebound pacification, Nissenbaum writes.

In no time the economy hijacked the whole package and ransomed our wallets. We have since been buying things we don't need, with money we don't have, and singing and baking in an attempt to sugarcoat it all.

Once — some of you may recall — this was a spiritual time, and not just for Christians; many religions and philosophies held this time sacred or at least solemn, finding in it a period of rest representing death, a dark cold time of hope for longer, warmer days representing renewal. Many interested parties, Christianity among them, decided this a good season to stick a high holy day.

Whatever was spiritual about this time, though, became the flea on the tail of the big dog.

Witness any Christmastime TV trope. Whenever religious reference arises in any show, whenever Christ is born in a manager — in a school play, say — Santa is soon sure to follow, distributing gifts. I've done my hour with Jesus, now gimme my "Call of Duty: Black Ops."

The farce has no limits. One ludicrous violation soon follows the next. Christmas shopping now begins officially on Thanksgiving —Black Thursday! — and will eventually start even earlier; thousands camp out at stores, pushing, shoving, yelling, cursing, fighting in gratitude for the chance to buy. Talk about tradition.

Jon Stewart is right. It's not a war on Christmas. Christmas is warring on us, swallowing up other holidays.

The Hallmark Channel, hijacker of our emotional consumption, rolled out the Christmas movies long before that. You can find radio stations playing Christmas carols year 'round. TV commercials mock the gifts we give, unless they're the cool gifts the TV commercials sell. Only cool parents buy kids cool gifts. We are supposed to believe this how we are supposed to behave.

Car makers seriously suggest you buy someone a new sedan for Christmas. A local dealership even declared last week in a commercial:
"Nothing will give you more holiday joy than driving a 2013 Audi A3."
Read it again. Nothing? Even under the crushing overhead, bled by razor-thin margins and ruthless competition, an auto dealer should be able to taste the bile in that season's greeting.

But we sally forth, celebrating harder and louder, as if to drown out the siren song of the shopping malls, and the true nature of this time.

I say, enough. 

Here's my modest proposal: Skip it. Have Christmas every other year. Give it distance so we can miss it and welcome its return with sincere remembrance. Give Christmas a rest. Make it official, issue a decree.

Unlike Jonathan Swift's modest proposal, no children will be eaten in mine. Nor is mine satire.

Here's what will probably happen when Christmas takes a holiday:
  • A lot of people will still have Christmas, by which I mean buy and buy, and so be it. I'm not against shopping, just buying for buying's sake. More, relieved of the duty, will spread their purchases throughout the year as needed.
  • A lot of people will still worship, and that's all right; it'll feel illicit and rebellious and dangerous, just like the old days. I'm not stomping on religion, just on consuming. In fact, worship may deepen; people will find again the quiet space in which to consider the faiths in which they were raised or have gathered up in their lives

    I admire Kwanzaa, for example, a holiday Maulana Karenga created 46 years ago from African traditions, promoting community and individual ideals. More power to those who celebrate it. But the holiday takes place the week after Christmas, and if it has any real chance of worthy consideration among communities, it needs distance from our overriding urge to have things.
  • The divide will narrow — the one between those who have the cash to keep up with Christmas consumption and those who don't but keep up anyway, because no one is going to tell my child doesn't deserve what your child is getting.
  • Depression will lift among the people who see the holiday for what it really is, and can't make it go away. They will have peace.
  • The economy will not sputter.
  • We'll remember that veterans and  families without homes shiver and starve and get sick and hide out in the woods during the rest of the year, too, not just Christmas.
  • After a two-year absence, we may buy even more. But I bet we do almost everything but.
You're right, I'm a big fat hypocrite. I am, as a matter of fact, proposing a last-one-in-bar-the-door policy. I did as a child succumb to the nervous elation of peering into the darkness of an early Christmas morning to see, as my eyes adjusted, a mountain of sherbet-colored Hot Wheels™® track, with loops and ramps, already assembled and ready to play, and six new cars to run on the track.

I loved it with a child's skepticism. I wasn't a bad kid, by any means, but I certainly wasn't good enough to merit this cascade of toys (oh, the Hot Wheels®© weren't all!) that Santa brought, so many I couldn't — and didn't — appreciate them all, or even a little.

I'm not denying that for kids to come. Maybe my proposal will elevate that feeling, so the mountain of toys every two years becomes all the more grand; certainly we'd be able to save up for it every two years. Or maybe my proposal will elevates kids instead; absent the constant commercial drumbeat, maybe kids will want less, appreciate more what they get.

It's a tough sell (so to speak), I know. I'm having enough trouble convincing my family that Thanksgiving is not about turkey, is not about a meal that takes eight hours to make and 30 minutes to eat. Thanksgiving can be grilled cheese or take-out chicken and a family walk in a park. Or an afternoon with friends. Or coats for the family in the woods. It's about giving thanks, not getting stuffed.

There's always next year.


  1. I too am a Christmas disliking wet blanket, it's nice to have some company :)