Sunday, November 29, 2009

Christmas

Last Christmas, I wrote a long column in which I objected most strenuously to the whole season. I consider it my best and most important blog post to date, and I made several reasoned arguments against the Christmas season, the foremost of which is that it sucks and I hate it. At the mall this week, however, I was dismayed to discover that my objections have gone entirely unheeded. Unaccountably, Christmas has returned. Come on, people! Is no one reading this thing?

If this blog has railed against one thing from the outset it has been against the hypocrisy of compulsory sentiment, and nothing so exemplifies this condition as a visit to the shopping mall or supermarket this time of year. The same dozen songs, endlessly repeated (however often they are re-recorded - I see that Bob Dylan has an album of Christmas standards out); the same message (be merry, or else); the same visage of the Merry Leader (Santa, not Jesus) and the incessant reminder that he is watching you and knows when you are sleeping and when you are awake. There's an Orwellian thought for you. I say again that in the seven weeks separating Halloween from Christmas we get a small taste of what it’s like to live in North Korea. Merry! Merry! Merry! Happy! Happy! Happy! Joy! Joy! Joy! Merry Leader is Watching You And Expects You to Conform.

And, please, don't get me started again about the clich├ęd holiday specials ("Next week, on a very special episode of Battlestar Galactica, the Cylons learn the true meaning of Christmas" etc.) and the vapid holiday films with trailer tag lines like, "This Christmas, the only things some families can stand more than being together, is being apart."

Come on now, Broad, you middle-aged grump. It's not all bad, is it? Well, I admit that I don't mind some Christmas music. Emile-Claire Barlow does a thumpingly great version of "Little Jack Frost" (if you have iTunes, download it now – you won't regret the 99 cents) and, of course, there's Dean Martin's effortless take on "Baby, It's Cold Outside." But these are songs about winter rather than Christmas per se. In my view, there's only one authentically good modern Christmas song: Fairytale of New York, by the seminal Irish band the Pogues and the late Kirsty MacColl. It’s about a drunk and a druggie and the sentiments of genuine affection (and contempt - she calls him a "scumbag" and a "maggot", he calls her an "old slut on junk") that they share at Christmastime. Brings a tear to these jaded eyes of mine.

I find myself in complete accord with my Christian friends who regard the season as too commercial. There's nothing new about this complaint – C.S. Lewis made it half a century ago and he wasn't the first. Indeed there is something cold and crass about the idea that we will express our affection for family and friends once per year through the mandatory purchase of commodities that are in most cases both unwanted and unneeded. In many families it's reached the point where people simply tell each other what to buy for them, which raises an obvious objection about cutting out the middle-man. I know, of course, that for many parents Christmas is a time of genuine joy — many children love it — but let us not forget, too, that for many parents of modest or little economic wherewithal Christmas is a time of genuine anxiety. Young children are consumer aware but not, generally, comprehending of their parents' economic circumstances. And let's not forget that some parents, too, are positively insane this time of year. Remember the Cabbage Patch Doll riots?

Judging the volume of e-mails I received (about a dozen), my blog last year was my most widely read ever. After it was published I was approached by a couple of activist-minded students who had seen it and who were preparing to petition my workplace over its overt displays of Christian Christmas symbols. This, they felt, created a "hostile" atmosphere for non-Christian students, faculty, and staff. Would I join them? My reply was "certainly not." Apart from the obvious objection that it's rather silly of anyone to voluntarily work at or to attend a Catholic institution and then act surprised to discover Christian symbols there, I explained to them that my affinity for the Grinch goes only so far. Like him, I find the season loud and crass. But we have an emphatic parting of ways over the fact that he believes that it's his right to stop other people from celebrating it, too.

The fact that the students ­— and they are by no means alone in this — could not differentiate between these two worlds-apart positions, is indicative of how badly our educational system often handles such things. Out of mistaken notions of "respect" for differing worldviews, many schools have decided that it's best if people don't express their differing worldviews at all. But respect, of all things, is a sentiment that cannot be made mandatory. It emerges, if it emerges at all, through a process of engagement — which must necessarily include argument and disputation among people who do not always agree. The efforts at this time of year to ban carols and lighted trees and harmless expressions such as "Merry Christmas" are not merely silly but insidious. They undermine rather than promote discussion between faiths and between people of faith and nonbelievers.

2 comments:

Graham Broad said...

This early update brought to you by the spirit of Christmas giving. The tree above, incidentally, is Boston's "Holiday" (NOT "Christmas") tree.

Anthony said...

Well... Someone's not very jolly, come on now professor where's that holiday spirit... Alas I must admit you're points are completely true, but dammit if I don't love a little conformity now and then. I remember growing up as a poor immigrant and getting basically nothing for Christmas other then a hug and a sermon about the true meaning of it all, and as an Atheist now, I have no particular affinity for the holiday. And yet, I'm still a fan of the jolly fat home invader and the hypocritical calls for peace, as we kill Afghans half a world a way. Can't really explain, but I like Christmas and all the contrived happiness it brings.

Happy Holiday from Korea :P