Wednesday, December 18, 2013

There Are No Santa Deniers In Foxholes

[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.]

Dear Margaret,

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 of me.

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 about.

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.

No comments: