Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Our composite holiday

It's crazy to think we have any collective influence over Christmas in America, as if it we could put the matter on a ballot & vote changes. It we stopped celebrating Christmas the way we do, our economy would collapse. The most popular symbol of this holiday is none other than Santa Claus, an American pseudo-myth who took his final form from Coca Cola ads & long ago eclipsed the infant Jesus in stature among children. Sorry, purists, he is not "Saint Nicholas."

Santa inspired all the rest of the commercial Christmas iconography. Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer comes from a novelty song composed to sell records & sheet music about Rudolph. Every year, more of these characters are invented for the purpose of selling the character as a product & permanently establishing it in the holiday pantheon. For a number of years, a WFMU DJ produced a lengthy compilation of obscure, often bizarre, holiday recordings, most from the era of 45 rpm singles, all of which were commercial failures. He unearthed hundreds of them. Few had any reference to the religious aspects of Christmas. But if a song catches on, the composer can retire to Hawaii on the royalties.

So it puzzles me when reactionaries complain about "secularization" of Christmas, which they now blame on liberal atheists. Christians used to have the sense to blame it on themselves. Even Dickens' famous novella, "A Christmas Carol," published in 1843, describes a holiday of generalized religious meaning, the "spirit of Christmas." Bob Cratchit only wanted the day off. Far better to be in a labor union than rely on a spiritual awakening to soften an employer's hard heart.

Christmas or "holiday" season is relatively unchanged from when I was a child in the Fifties. There's just more of everything. Retail tries to push it back to Halloween, but the day after Thanksgiving remains the big shopping kickoff. The trend toward late Christmas Eve retail hours never really caught on with the public, & has even reversed somewhat. There are more 24 hour gas stations & convenience stores; that used to be a hassle on Christmas Day. Many diners never closed then or now. Court decisions changed the framing of religious expression in public places. It's one thing for a public school chorus to perform "Silent Night," another to perform it on the school stage with a Nativity tableau & expect everyone to sing along. Some towns continue to risk expensive lawsuits by stretching separation.

The Christian church should have expected our composite holiday when Emperor Constantine chose the winter solstice for Christmas. He thought he could turn the "birth of the Sun" into the "birth of the Son" by decree.


Bob, you're a hundred years off with your release date of A Christmas Carol, unless you are talking about the TV version.
If the reformed Ebenezer Scrooge were around today, he would be vilified by the Wall St. Journal editorial page for driving up the cost of doing business on things like generous vacation plans for employees and using company funds on expensive Christmas geese for workers.
Just a typo.
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