(In the pic: Christopher Hitchens, the journalist and literary critic New York Times / Redux / eyevine)
Ever since Tom Lehrer recorded his imperishable anti-Christmas ditty all those years ago, the small but growing minority who view the end of December with existential dread has had a seasonal “carol” all of its own:
“Christmas time is here by golly: disapproval would be folly. Deck the halls with hunks of holly, fill the cup and don’t say when. Kill the turkeys, ducks and chickens, mix the punch, drag out the Dickens. Even though the prospect sickens – brother, here we go again.”
I used to know all the words to this song and can still recall most of them, but unless I am mistaken, the religious character of the festivities is barely if at all mentioned. I suppose there is the line, “Angels we have heard on high, tell us to go out – and buy.” Yet this is hardly subversive at all. Religious sermons against the “commercialisation” of Christmas have also been a staple of the season ever since I can remember.
A root-and-branch resistance to the holiday spirit would have to be a lot tougher than that. It’s fairly easy to be a charter member of the Tom Lehrer Club, which probably embraces a fair number of the intellectual classes and has sympathisers even in the most surprising families.
But the thing about the annual culture war that would probably most surprise those who want to “keep the Christ in Christmas” is this: the original Puritan Protestants regarded the whole enterprise as blasphemous. Under the rule of Oliver Cromwell in England, Christmas festivities were banned outright. The same was true in some of the early Pilgrim settlements in North America.
Last year I read a recent interview with the priest of one of the oldest Roman Catholic churches in New York, located downtown and near Wall Street. Taking a stand in favor of Imam Rauf’s “Ground Zero” project, he pointed to some parish records showing hostile picketing of his church in the eighteenth century.
The pious protestors had been voicing their suspicion that a profane and popish ceremonial of “Christ Mass” was being conducted within.
Now, that was a time when Americans took their religion seriously. But we know enough about Puritans to suspect that what they really disliked was the idea of a holiday where people would imbibe strong drink and generally make merry. (Scottish Presbyterians did not relax their hostility to Yuletide celebrations until well into the twentieth century.) And the word “Yule” must be significant here as well, since pagans of all sorts have been roistering at the winter solstice ever since records were kept, and Christians have been faced with the choice of either trying to beat them or join them.
In their already discrepant accounts of the miraculous birth, the four gospels give us no clue as to what time of year – or even what year – it is supposed to have taken place. And thus the iconography of Christmas is ridiculously mixed in with reindeer, holly, snow scenes, and other phenomena peculiar to northern European myth. (Three words for those who want to put the Christ back in Christmas: Jingle Bell Rock.) There used to be an urban legend about a Japanese department store that tried too hard to symbolise the Christmas spirit, and to show itself accessible to Western visitors, by mounting a display of a Santa Claus figure nailed to a cross. Unfounded as it turned out, this wouldn’t have been off by much.
You would have to be religiously observant and austere yourself, then, to really seek a ban on Christmas. But it can be almost as objectionable to be made to take part in something as to be forbidden to do so. The reason for the success of the Lehrer song is that it so perfectly captures the sense of irritated, bored resignation that descends on so many of us at this time of year. By “this time of year,” I mean something that starts no later than Thanksgiving (and often sooner) and pervades the entire atmosphere until December 25.
If you take no stock in the main Christian festival of Easter, or if you are a non-Jew who has no interest in atoning in the fall, you have an all-American fighting chance of being able to ignore these events, or of being only briefly subjected to parking restrictions in Manhattan.
But if Christmas has the least tendency to get you down, then lots of luck. You have to avoid the airports, the train stations, the malls, the stores, the media, and the multiplexes. You will be double-teamed by Bing Crosby and the herald angels wherever you go. And this for a whole unyielding month of the calendar.
I realise that I do not know what happens in the prison system. But I do know what happens by way of compulsory jollity in the hospitals and clinics and waiting rooms, and it’s a gruelling test of any citizen’s capacity to be used for so long as a captive audience.
I once tried to write an article, perhaps rather straining for effect, describing the experience as too much like living for four weeks in the atmosphere of a one-party state. “Come on,” I hear you say. But by how much would I be exaggerating? The same songs and music played everywhere, all the time.
The same uniform slogans and exhortations, endlessly displayed and repeated. The same sentimental stress on the sheer joy of having a Dear Leader to adore. As I pressed on I began almost to persuade myself. The serried ranks of beaming schoolchildren, chanting the same uplifting mush. The cowed parents, in terror of being unmasked by their offspring for insufficient participation in the glorious events. . . . “Come on,” yourself. How wrong am I?
Compulsory bad taste isn’t a good cultural sign either. In their eagerness to show loyalty, entire families compose long letters of confessional drool, celebrating the achievements of the previous year and swearing to surpass them in the next.
These letters are delivered and sometimes, to the shame of their authors, also read aloud. As if to celebrate some unprecedented triumph in the agricultural sphere, of the sort that leads to an undreamed-of surplus, the survivors (and, one sometimes suspects, the sick and wounded) of the nation’s turkey-camps are rounded up and executed for a second great annual immolation.
Then there’s another consideration, again deftly touched-upon by Lehrer:
“Relations sparing no expense’ll
Send some useless old utensil.
Or a matching pen-and-pencil: just the thing I need, how nice . . . “
One of my many reasons for not being a Christian is my objection to compulsory love. How much less appealing is the notion of obligatory generosity. To feel pressed to give a present is also to feel oneself passively exerting the equivalent unwelcome pressure upon other people.
I don’t think I have been unusually unfortunate with my family and friends, but I present as evidence my tie rack. Nobody who knows me has ever seen me wear a tie except under protest, and the few that I do possess of my own volition are accidental trophies, “given” to me by the maitre d’s of places where neckwear is compulsory. Yet somehow I possess a drawerful of new, unopened examples of these useless items of male apparel.
Nobody derived any pleasure from either the giving or the receiving, and it’s appalling to see what some stores feel they can charge for a tie. Do I blush to think of some of my reciprocal gestures? Sure I do.
Don’t pretend not to know what I am talking about. It’s like the gradual degradation of another annual ritual, whereby all schoolchildren are required to give valentines to everybody in the class. Nobody’s feelings are hurt, they tell me, but the entire point of sending a valentine in the first place has been deliberately destroyed.
If I feel like giving you a gift I’ll try and make sure that (a) it’s worth remembering and (b) that it comes as a nice surprise. (I like to think that some of my valentines in the past packed a bit of a punch as well.)
But the Christmas cycle imposes a deadening routine and predictability. This is why the accidental genius of Charles Dickens is to have made, of Ebenezer Scrooge, the only character in the story who has any personality to him – and the one whose stoic attempt at a futile resistance is invoked under the breath more than most people care to admit. And when the author of A Christmas Carol was writing, the great clanking machinery of a Ramadan-length Christmas had not got into gear, and English people reserved December 26 (“Boxing Day”) for the exchange of tokens.
There is a contradiction in my position, because many of the crimes against taste and proportion this month are effectively secular and material in tone, and have unmoored themselves from whatever is supposed to have happened in Bethlehem in the reign of Caesar Augustus. (Visit Bethlehem today and linger in awe in “Manger Square” if you want to see kitsch defined.)
Indeed, a soggy version of multiculturalism has mandated that “the holidays” also take in a dubious episode from the Jewish apocrypha as well as Kwanzaa, an Afrocentric fabrication that comes to us courtesy of Ron Karenga, who we must also thank as the inventor of “ebonics”.
This adds, of course, to the sheer length and dutiful inclusiveness of the business. When Christmas was still Christmas, a paid-up Jewish liberal like Anthony Lewis could get seasonal outrage out of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s bombardment of Vietnam, referring with high-minded irony to the “Christmas bombing,” almost as if hardened Vietnamese Marxists would have preferred to be strafed on Labor Day.
But making the celebrations confessionally pluralistic, and leaching them of their Christian monopoly, does not make them any less religious. Thus to the most Scrooge-like of all questions: Is there a constitutional issue here?
Much as one might want to avoid an annual freshet of legalism, it is very hard to argue that there is not. I have no idea how many churches and synagogues there are in the United States (there seem to be quite a number, many of them tax-exempt), but if the “holy days” were only celebrated on these premises, or on boards and signs visible from them, the effect would already be very impressive.
The same is true if we limit the effect to the number of believers whose homes display candles, lights, symbols, Scandinavian wildlife and vegetation, and whatever else the spirit moves them to exhibit.
But what is all this clutter doing on the White House lawn or in the public rooms of the executive mansion, or on public property and in public schools? Quite apart from the clear stipulations of the First Amendment, this seems to me to violate the Tocquevillian principle that American religion is strictly based on the voluntary principle and neither requires nor deserves any taxpayer-funded endorsement.
It also offends – by being so much in my face, without my having requested it and in spite of polite entreaties to desist – another celebrated precept about the right to be let alone. A manger on your lawn makes me yawn. A reindeer that strays from your lawn to mine is a nuisance at any time of year. Angels and menorahs on the White House lawn are an infraction of the Establishment Clause, which is as much designed to prevent religion from being corrupted by the state as it is to protect the public square from clerical encroachment.
The “wall of separation” has to be patrolled in small things as well as big ones. When President Jefferson wrote his famous letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, assuring them of the protection of this very wall, it was because they had written to him, afraid of persecution by the Congregationalists of Danbury, Connecticut.
This now seems as remote to us as a Calvinist anti-Christmas protest outside a Catholic church in Manhattan. But it is only remote because such scruple and consistency were employed to defend the principle in matters great and small.
At this time of year, Mr Jefferson would close his correspondence in words dry enough to be characteristic of him, yet somehow convivial enough to be thinkable in the mouth of Mr Pickwick: “With the compliments of the season.” I wouldn’t want to be tempted any further than that.
Extracted from ‘AND YET… Essays’ by Christopher Hitchens, published by Atlantic Books, £20 (Order at the discounted price of £18 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop).