My Problem with American Christmas

I don’t hate Christmas. Peace on Earth, good will to all. What’s not to love? Hell, even if it was just about celebrating Jesus’ birthday, I’d be cool with that. I mean, I’m not particularly Christian, but I am a big fan of Jesus. Just read the Sermon on the Mount. That’s the real deal, right there. If we all took its lessons and precepts to heart, the world would be a lot nicer place to live in.

But American Christmas is only nominally about all those things.

Don’t believe me? Read the lyrics to Santa Claus is Coming to Town.

You better watch out
You better not cry
Better not pout
I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town

He’s making a list
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out Who’s naughty and nice
Santa Claus is coming to town

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!

O! You better watch out!
You better not cry
Better not pout
I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town

American Christmas is about being rewarded with material wealth in return for obedience to authority, as monitored by a ubiquitous and invisible judge who not only watches you sleep but will ding you for even expressing dissatisfaction.

Do what you’re told, with a smile on your face, and you will get stuff.

Now, I’m no theologian, but that sounds about as far from the Gospels as a thing could be.

And don’t even get me started on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Santa Claus and the American Dream

I thought of this the other day, but I didn’t want to harsh anyone’s mellow this holiday season, since there are lots of folks I know who genuinely love the holidays, especially Christmas, and I respect that.

But it occurred to me how the mythology surrounding Christmas, at least the American conception of it, kind of encapsulates us as a nation in a less-than-entirely flattering way.

Think about it. The Christmas myth is, essentially, that if you behave yourself and do as you’re told by authority while being surreptitiously surveilled by an invisible judge given to binary distinctions (you’re either on the nice list, or the naughty list), you’ll be rewarded with material goods. If you don’t behave, bam! Coal in your stocking (which does at least beat having Krampus). Or fewer presents. Or none.

The worst thing is that the kids who actually receive this punishment aren’t necessarily misbehavers: they’re just poor. The mythology connects material prosperity with virtue and obedience to authority. I don’t mean to take too jaundiced a view of the whole thing, but it’s a hell of a thing to teach little kids, never mind that it sets them up for the inevitable disappointment of learning that Santa Claus is actually just their parents, and that the volume of material love under the Christmas tree has more to do with their parents’ wealth than anyone’s virtue or behavior.

Every year there’s noise made about a War on Christmas, and as far as I can tell, the folks making the noise think the war is on the Christ part. Maybe for some folks it is. For my own part, I’m pretty down with JC. But if we wanted to declare war on the crass materialism that we’ve come to celebrate alongside his birthday party, I’d be inclined to join up.