The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

Christmas, or something like it

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Holiday lights in South Philadelphia

“Seasons Greetings” from South Philadelphia

I have spent two Christmases outside the U.S. in my life: Puebla, Mexico in 2008, and Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2010. The Puebla trip introduced me to a number of customs in Spanish-speaking countries; the big family dinner is always the night before Christmas, and presents aren’t opened until January 6, also known as Three Kings Day. I was introduced to the staples of a Mexican dinner: bacalao (cod), pozole (corn stew), ponche (a sweet fruity punch). And, of course, I savored every serving of rompope, their pre-mixed alcoholic version of egg nog.

Another idea that stuck with me was that the image of Christmas is something that’s mostly imported from the north. It was in Mexico where I first witnessed the phenomenon of SUV’s driving around with plush reindeer antlers hanging out the windows, where the mayor of Mexico City introduced an ice skating rink in the city’s historic central square, where a TV commercial featured Santa speaking Spanish in a jovial American English accent.

Snowflakes in the historic center of Puebla

Snowflakes in the historic center of Puebla

The imagery is less than fitting, if for no other reason than the fact that below a certain latitude, the suggestions of a Winter Wonderland become unconvincing. Puebla’s Decembers are mild, while December south of the equator is summer, the perfect time to be at the beach and not caught in scorching hot, brownout-plagued Buenos Aires. At least, a good Argentine barbecue befits a summer holiday, likely to feature prominent appearances by bife de lomo (tenderloin), tira de asado (beef ribs), bondiola (pork shoulder) and provoleta (a wildly indulgent slab of provolone melted over the grill).

In the United States, we’re obsessed with the imagery and the “feel” of Christmas, but we’re careful not to let the word “Christmas” dominate the public sphere. For most of my lifetime, phrases like “Happy Holidays” and “Seasons Greetings” have been in favor as more sanguine substitutions for “Merry Christmas.” Lately, our cultural institutions, government offices and business establishments have taken it further, making “holiday” into a go-to adjective in place of “Christmas,” as in holiday parties, holiday cards, holiday shopping, holiday giving, and the infamous “Holiday Trees” that Fox News commentators never seem to tire of excoriating. Some retailers skirt the controversy by omitting labels entirely: trees, ornaments, carols. If it’s Christmas-themed, you know it when you see it.

The usual explanation is that “the holidays” are more inclusive, encompassing Hanukkah and New Year’s and any other religious festivities whose adherents might feel left out. Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop 80% of “holiday” mentions from making references to Santa and elves, “stocking stuffers” and lyrics from songs that are clearly about Christmas…in some cases, clearly about Christ. My local PBS station, WHYY, has elected to wish its viewers “Joy” this holiday season. (UPDATE: they did change this to “Wishing you joy this Christmas” on the 24th.)

Not that this trend is offensive; I don’t pretend for one second that Christmas is being erased or ever will be. It’s just that this whole debate over Christmas is — well, kind of weird. In Australia and the United Kingdom, public mention of “Christmas” rather than “holiday” is near universal. Religious minorities and atheists, of which there are many, don’t seem to mind. Richard Dawkins is actually a fan. After all, does Christmas need to be viewed as an exclusively Christian celebration, or even a Christian festivity at all? It is amusing to hear the American Religious Right’s chants of “Keep Christ in Christmas!” when some of the earliest settlers in the U.S. considered Christmas anathema to Christ. Surely, they thought, its placement on the calendar near the winter solstice and the ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia was no coincidence. (Jehovah’s Witnesses today shun Christmas for the same reason.)

In our nation’s ambivalent attitudes towards paganism and cultural diversity, we may begin to understand the real reasons behind the modern-day status quo. Far from an assault by the godless, our collective check on “Christmas” is a consequence of our having a Constitution that guarantees freedom of worship while recognizing no single religious establishment — even while a majority of Americans still adhere to Christianity. It is precisely because of the devout Christian segments of our population that we persist in protecting Christmas, at least in name, from the forefront of secular materialist onslaught, and thus put “the holidays” in its place. Even I find myself falling back on holiday greetings now and again; wishing someone you don’t know all that well a Merry Christmas can make you sound a little too Jesus freak-y.

Imagine if Christmas were the all-inclusive, non-sectarian sort of celebration that we pretend to have achieved with The Holidays. If our society can essentially divide Christmas into religious (the Christ part) and non (Ho Ho Ho), what’s wrong with calling the non-religious layer of Christmas what it is? Perhaps our unique history and exceptionalism will always inform our observance of holidays, and make “the holidays” as foreign-sounding to British and Australian ears as “candy” and “aluminum.” But the spirit of giving and good will really isn’t something that any religious tradition (or retail corporation) has a monopoly on, and that’s the spirit, by any other name, that remains the defining feel of Christmas. After all, much of the rest of the world has imported our distinctly American imaging of it, and doesn’t pretend to call it anything else.

So Merry Christmas to all. And if you’re a Jehovah’s Witness or someone who’s sworn off all gift giving and tree decorating, I hope you’ll still try to take the day off.

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