[My piece for the War on Christmas edition of Write Club ("The Yulening"), at The Hideout, December 17th, 2013. The bout was Santa vs. Jesus.]
Tomorrow I ship out for my 5th tour of duty in the
War on Christmas. I’ll be stationed somewhere near a place called
Altoona, Pennsylvania. I doubt I could even find it on a map. Ha ha.
I’m being assigned to a creche removal and neutralization unit, and
we’re being told that we shouldn’t expect to see too much heavy action.
Which is good, because my PTSD definitely isn’t getting any better. It
takes just a single sleigh bell on a car commercial for me to break into
a cold sweat, as my hand instinctively reaches for my service revolver.
They said this war would be a cakewalk, that every grinch and scrooge
would come out of the woodwork and greet us with chocolate and flowers.
Instead we got candy canes and boughs of holly, and some of the toughest
fighting any of us have ever seen.
On my last tour, one of the guys in my unit was telling me that
there used to be just twelve days of Christmas. Just Twelve Days! You put
your wreath on the door on Christmas Eve, and you took it down on
something called “Epiphany.” Then life went back to normal, I guess.
They called it Christmastide, and they had a big feast on each day. At
first I found all this really comforting. I loved that the word for the
Christmas season was “tide” — it made me think of listening to the surf
coming in and out at that cottage I used to rent on Nasketucket Bay.
I’ll tell you, that’s a nice memory to have when you are pinned down in a
damp foxhole for days on end. And I got to thinking how time really is
like a tide, how one event flows into another, like day turns into
night, and how there’s really a time for everything. And that made me
realize that the idea of having a War on Christmas was a horrible
mistake, that it was basically like having a war against time itself,
and that Christmas was really just like an infection that would go away
on its own. And that idea was really comforting.
But one thing war gives you is a lot of time alone with your
thoughts, and that can be a dangerous thing. It didn’t take long for me
to remember that we don’t have twelve days of Christmas anymore, we
have—well, I can’t even count them. It used to be that Thanksgiving was a
bulwark against Christmas’s terrible insatiability, but now with all
the big box stores opening at midnight on Thanksgiving eve, it’s like
nothing can stand in Christmas’s way anymore. Instead of Christmas-tide
it’s like we have a Christmas tsunami. And that just scares the hell out
This same Sergeant in my unit who told me about the twelve days of
Christmas also told me that in England in the 17th century, the Puritans
had their own war against Christmas. Cromwell even succeeded in having
Christmas criminalized in 1647, which is far more than we’ve been able
to get Congress to do. When the Royalists took power again in 1660,
Christmas was restored, but the sense that all that merrymaking was too
uncouth for true Christianity never really went away. And by now you
had Puritans fleeing to America by the boatload.
By the early 19th century, Christmas had just run out of steam, at
least according to my Sergeant. His theory was that the industrial
revolution made twelve days of feasting impractical. “Dark Satanic Mills
have no patience for the liturgical calendar” he told me one chilly
October morning, as we warmed ourselves by a bonfire of plastic reindeer
we had just seized from a group of singing children. 3 days later he
was killed by an improvised explosive device made out of discarded tree
ornaments. They found a little wooden Tyrolean elf wearing lederhosen
lodged in his medulla oblongata. Death was instantaneous.
I think the point Sarge was trying to make was that Christmastide
was traditionally just a big two-week party, with drinking and feasting,
the Lord of Misrule, and all that. Once the logic of industrial
capitalism took all that away, there just wasn’t enough substance in the
Nativity story to pick up the slack. I mean, think about it, once you
get past the virgin birth business, there’s just not that much to talk
At the same time, you have this mythologized folk version of Saint
Nicholas floating around the periphery of the culture in Dutch New York.
It’s right after the American Revolution, and people are desperately
searching for a cultural heritage that is not British. Introduce St.
Nick in the mass media at just the right time, and you have the perfect
vehicle to transform Christmas from a rowdy Bacchanal to a wholesome,
pastoral children’s holiday. And that’s just what happened. You have
these propaganda pieces that start showing up—Washington Irving giving
St. Nicholas a major role in the “Knickerbocker’s History of New York,”
and Clement Clark Moore, who was this slave-holding real estate baron
from Chelsea, adding the reindeer in “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” —
that’s the one that starts “Twas The Night Before Christmas.” And all of
a sudden, Santa is off to the races.
When I look at everything that Santa has been able to accomplish
that Jesus never could—it’s like when Lincoln replaced General McClellan
with Ulysses S Grant. Just, game over. Santa Claus is scaleable in a
way that Jesus never could be. Jesus’s big weakness is that he’s just
too sacred to be commodified. Like McClellan, Jesus never really changed
his tactics in 2,000 years. Get born, lie down in a manger, get visited
by the magi. Santa is constantly changing his tactics. He starts with
just stockings, then, over the next few decades he adds the reindeer,
the chimney, the elves, the List. The List! In all of military history,
no one who has kept a list has ever lost a war.
Well, it’s getting late, Margaret, and I should probably wrap this up. I’ve
got a long journey to Altoona ahead of me in the morning. I hope I
haven’t darkened your spirits too much. Sarge could be kind of a
crackpot, frankly, and I guess we should take what he said with a grain
of salt. All I know is that we’ve lost a lot of good men in this war,
and Christmas just keeps getting bigger.
Photos from our Brooklyn Show
2 years ago