The Real War on Xmas The big Christmas/Holiday Season news story has finally come out. It is not about the Pope’s annual homily, or how the celebrations went in strife afflicted Bethlehem. That’s merely the pro-forma background narrative the media has to cover each year. Nor is the major story about how conservatives and liberals are battling over the nature, meaning and labeling of Christmas and the associated holidays.
The story most people really care about is how the retailers made out during the shopping season from the “Black Friday” immediately after Thanksgiving to the last day of the year. This year the news is not so good. That is not, however, quite the specific issue being looked at here.
Elements of the religious and social right are claiming that in their never ending quest to destroy American Christianity, secular liberals are waging a “War on Christmas”. It is a favorite theme of self proclaimed culture warrior Bill O’Reilly. And it certainly is true that a campaign has long been underway to convert the holiday from a Christian religious observance to other purposes. Where O’Reilly and company are wrong – because of enthusiastic ignorance, or cynical duplicity, or both -- is about whom is primarily to blame for making Christmas into what it is these days.
It is no secret that December 25th is not really about the birth of Christ and it never has been. Early Christians did not celebrate Christ’s birthday, they focused on the much more theologically critical death and revival of the Son of God on Easter. Christmas was invented by the Roman Church as a means of displacing and taming the pagan winter solstice celebrations -- that is why the holiday is so heavily influenced by pagan elements (all the stuff about the Yule for instance) and why it occurs at the wrong time of the year (the Bible does not bother to provide the birth date of Jesus and it certainly did not occur anywhere near 12/25 because ancient middle easterners generally avoided travel in the dead of winter). Many Protestant sects, Puritan dominated regions of the American colonies included, have opposed the theologically dubious holiday to the point of outlawing it at some times and place,. Here is something the theocon elites are not likely to bother to tell you. After the revolution, Americans in general were particularly averse to Christmas celebrations. Why? Because that was something those perfidious Brits did!
In any case, what many imagine was the traditional, nuclear family centered Christmas celebration free from commercial corruption never truly existed. Prior to the early 1800s it was a rather rowdy affair in which lower class folk went around “caroling,” usually well sloshed on holiday cheer, and “requesting” treats from their economic betters.
Our modern Christmas is a radical remake from the actual tradition. To understand what it had become by the post World War II boom years we can turn to the 1960s classic A Charlie Brown Christmas in which Lucy Van Belt explained “Look Charlie Brown, let’s face it. We all know Christmas is a big commercial racket --- it’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.” Lucy was far more correct than Linus, who later in the program cited scripture in an effort to focus on the nativity story, which was promptly ignored as the plot turned to events surrounding the tree.
So how did we get here? The great campaign to transform the religious holiday into a commercial festival began in England and America in the early 1800s. For one thing, there was the raucous caroling tradition to be suppressed. More importantly, a growing middle class produced by the emerging industrial age had disposable cash on hand. But retailers were having a hard time squeezing it out of their pockets. Why not emphasize the gift giving aspect of the gospel birth story and see if folks could be encouraged to put down cold cash for presents to friends and relatives? What was needed was some propaganda. As per the 1822 standard “Twas the night before Christmas…” tale, their nonfictional parents turned holy Saint Nicholas into a gift-distributing fictional elf whose promises to the kids had to be kept. Dickens’ masterpiece, A Christmas Carol, more than anything else, established the new notion of Christmas as a secular nuclear family holiday. Coca-Cola’s seasonal advertising would help finish the transformation of Santa Claus in into the fat, jolly materialist by the mid 1900s. During WW II, Bing Crosby’s crooning “White Christmas” in Holiday Inn, and Judy Garland’s heart breaking rendition of “Have a Merry Little Christmas” in See You in St. Louis, further cemented the modern concept of the family day. In the 50s and 60s, a middle class, relieved to be out of the depression and world wars, could not help but celebrate their marvelous prosperity by throwing piles of goods at their baby boomer offspring and each other on Christmas morning. During those years, Christmas to this child was about the wonderful tree, the anticipation and the actuality of the wonderful morning of a cascade of presents from Santa et al., visiting relatives, New Year Eve, the big break from school. The birth of the baby Jesus? Ehhhhh. Going to church on the 25th? A mere Tom Sawyerian annoyance if we bothered to do it. The mercantile project has been fantastically successful as the commercial nature of the Christmas season becomes ever more deeply entrenched.
It is no secret that the folks who have been leading the war on Christmas as a religious event are capitalists whose aim is to extract as much money from the proceedings as they can. Xmas – the X, by the way, was an early Christian symbol used by the Emperor Constantine’s Holy army -- has been captured by capital, which has remade it into a massive retail affair central to the economic health of a nation that two thirds of which consists of consumer spending. It’s a huge matter fretted over by financial kingpins, the worried yet hopeful CEOs, and presidents looking to cover their political behinds. Each fall the business pundits and reporters start speculating about how well the merchants from mom and pops to the country wide chains will do during the coming holiday season, with Christmas the main event, augmented by the minor Jewish holiday Hanukah, the new black Kwanzaa, and to an amusingly perturbing degree the Festivus made famous by a Seinfeld episode. Black (or Green) Friday is the day that many merchants switch from being in the red to in the black. The holiday season sees 20% of the year’s retail sales. As the season progresses the authorities opine as to what the sales reports tell us about the economic state of the nation while the news programs run the inevitable stories on the controversy over what the holidays should really be about, with the usual complaints that it is too commercial and should be returned to being about what it has never really been.
The theocon elite, having allied with the corporations, cannot directly complain much less actually do anything about the overwhelming assault on the Christmas tradition by their retail friends. This is all the more true since most conservatives are pro-wealth libertarians who joyously revel in personally partaking in the modern material side of the holidays. Diamonds Are Forever, and every Xmas season Lexus runs its Holidays– that’s Holiday, not Christmas -- Sales Event ad campaign in which lucky upper crusters delightfully receive their surprise shiny new hi end luxury machine adorned with a great big bow. And if those items are beyond your means there are the hi-tech toys at Best Buy. Who doesn’t want one of those new plasma TVs to watch American Idol and House on? We all do. Driving towards the New Jersey Turnpike after spending the holidays in New York I saw a billboard featuring the line “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Rate” – well at least they used the term Christmas.
Being impotent and unwilling to really reform Christmas by taking on Big Money in a serious way, the theocon elite does what it does so well, it cynically mounts diversionary attacks designed to produce another handy wedge issue while hiding the true enemy of Christmas piety. Culture Warriors want you to believe that the secular-progressives drove the retailers to use Happy Holidays rather than Merry Christmas. Why would the merchants care what the libs think? They just want to be inclusive in their perpetual effort to expand the market base by bringing in the non-Christians and better boost their bottom line. O’Reilly et al. tout getting the big chain stores to return to using Merry Christmas as though they had scored a major victory in the struggle against CNN and the ACLU. If the ACLU and its ilk disappeared and the courts allowed all the Christian holiday displays in government facilities believers could desire it would not reverse the damage corporate capital is doing to Christmas.
But if progressives blame it all on the retailers, then they too are making a big mistake. Merchants are in the end providing a popular service. They are not holding guns to people’s heads and forcing America to shop ‘til they drop during the holidays. It is popular demand that above all else is secularizing the solstice holidays even as the public complains about what they themselves are doing. The great middle class majority has bought into the commercial Xmas big time. The folks who do not participate are largely the millions who would do so if they could afford it. Those who deliberately choose not to go material are a rather scarce lot. The Amish come to mind. So do Catholic priests and nuns. May be the Quakers. The majority can put a stop to the War on Christmas if they really want to. But there is no reason to think they will. Not only would making Christmas into a day of true religious devotion cost the economy a whole lot of money – with all the financial hand wringing over how 2007 holiday sales were nearly stagnant compared to 2006, imagine if they dropped so dramatically on a permanent basis that retailers fell short by tens or hundreds of billions each year -- most people pretty much like things the way they are even if they are not willing to admit it. What would be nice would be if the right wingers would be honest about who is really behind the situation – their corporate allies with the cooperation of the great bulk of the population -- but there is no reason to think that is going to happen either. Whining and complaining about the situation they have contributed to is what they do best.
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