What makes a Christmas story?
Is it the threat? There always seems to be some threat to Christmas. Someone won’t make it home. Somebody else stole the presents, or maybe someone is going to stop Santa from spreading the presents. Perhaps someone is broke and thinking of taking the short route off a bridge just before the happy holiday. Whether it be a fantasy grinch, a real worldish villain, or simply a natural disaster of some kind, I’d be hard pressed to think of a Christmas story that didn’t feature some threat to Christmas.
Or is it the lesson? Christmas tales always have a lesson. Someone must learn something about the true meaning of Christmas. That true meaning always involves something about giving and/or grasping the value of our loved ones. Not uncommonly, someone in the story learns to shift their attention from material objections (i.e. Christmas gifts) to the other people in their lives (or perhaps the other whos in whoville). It’s a pretty heart-warming lesson.
Makes you want to go ‘awe’!
Don’t get me wrong. I’m as likely to go ‘awe’ as anyone if the story is told well, but there is always something a little too pat about these stories. They can be damned formulaic, and damned trite. And when you consider their connection to one of the most overtly commercial rituals of the modern western calendar, it ought to raise all manner of red flags. Somehow, this holiday, which has been driven by commercial interests for the better part of at least a century keeps generating stories about how the stuff we are supposed to buy on account of it isn’t really what the holiday is all about.
Can you say ‘cognitive dissonance’?
I knew that you could.
(Of course I say it myself having just snuck a few presents under a tree.)
So, anyway, hoisting myself on my own petard here, I still can’t help thinking this particular profundity game is a bit more toxic than most of us care to admit. If it weren’t, then perhaps we could all enjoy a story where the main character suddenly realizes the true value of Christmas really is commerce. He could praise the virtues of conspicuous consumption and even acknowledge the often-competitive nature of gift-giving. He could see in the countless gifts nobody wants a kind of sacrifice to the invisible hand, telling us these white elephants are the price of keeping mom&pop stores going for another year. If the Market is well pleased with our pointless gifts, he allows the stores to stay in business, but if we fail to pay this tribute many tears will follow. Our fabulous Christmas protagonist could fairly acknowledge all of this in a toast before drinking his eggnog. Money is the reason for this damned season. Surely, there ought to be room for at least Christmas story with this as its moral.
But no. That kind of theme is always at best a artifact of conflict, a viewpoint to be overcome by the end of the story. However important money may be to this holiday, it seems to be equally important that we find something else more important in the whole thing after all.
And with that, we get our Christmas tragedies. Scrooge loses his edge. The Grinch rejoins civilization. And how many sitcoms end their holiday episode in bad sweaters and milquetoast grins. It’s enough to make a grown man want to groan.
So be it!
Even so, the money story may be a bit more profound than simple materialism would have it. In the end what makes money so central to Christmas isn’t the gifts we hope to get. It isn’t even the ones we hope to give. It’s the lives that continue to function because a good chunk of the yearly profits actually did happen after all. So, business owners get paid, and because they get paid, so do their employees, and so on, and so on. We can sneer at the crass commercialism of it all, but if Christmas doesn’t happen, some people really do suffer (and not because they didn’t get what they wanted under the tree.) Money may be a lot more central to this ritual than our typical Christmas story would have it, but then again money is itself a lot more profound than most of us would care to admit. So, perhaps it’s not so bad to see through that crass commercialism of Christmas to something a bit more humane. It’s almost as if all this smarminess is an attempt to work out the actual significance of what we all do to put food on the table.
Of course that just lands us in a new mess. The celebration of love and togetherness that we are left with in just about every Christmas story is of course idealized in the extreme. So, the love celebrated in all these Christmas stories always comes across a bit too pure, at least in the final joyous scenes. But how often does this have anything to do with Christmas as we live it? If for no other reason than the threat of politics at the dinner table, we should all be a little wary of the promise these stories hold out. And if the celebration of togetherness and caring ever jumps out of these stories and into our real lives it often brings a bit of a mess with it.
If Hell is other people – and it is – then Christmas (with its themes of love and togetherness) can’t help but bring a little horror into our lives. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Christmas is so rich. It’s full of contradictions, and those give rise to countless real-life Christmas stories every year. Sometimes they end well and sometimes they end badly. Mostly, our Christmas lives are as mixed as our Christmas narratives aren’t.
Ah well, horror too has its place in the grand scheme of things.
How else to explain fruit cake!
I recall as a child, my mother always planned week’s worth of work. She would bake every cookie imaginable. She would buy enormous quantities of gifts which she would wrap in all manner of beautiful ways. We would decorate the whole house in the most elaborate manner. We would sing carols, this year at least. And so on.
…She usually ended up scrambling to do as much as she could in the last day or three. It was never enough, especially not for her, and that meant Christmas Eve was an especially difficult evening. She was angry and depressed, and for me that meant at least a little phase where I would have wished the whole thing away. That moment always vanished by morning, but it was there.
Mom had one brother. He died on Christmas Eve while building the Burma Road during World War II. He had joined the military after getting kicked out of the house over drinking a single beer, so his death left a special kind of rift in her life, and presumably that of her parents. I can’t imagine how hard that holiday must have been to her. As a kid I really couldn’t.
For my mother at least, Christmas would always be a source of ambivalence.
I once got to play Scrooge in my Jr. High Christmas Production. I rather liked that Christmas. Seriously though, the opening scenes were way more fun than the closing ones.
In recent years, talk of a war on Christmas has me both amused and irritated. If there is anyone out there who genuinely objects to being told ‘Merry Christmas’, he or she is fairly outnumbered by those clearly upset by the phrase ‘Happy Holidays’.
Much like a horse, I reckon one shouldn’t look a well-wisher in the mouth. Those who keep congratulating themselves on saying ‘Merry Christmas’ instead of ‘Happy Holidays’ do little but show the insincerity of either wish coming from their own mouths.
When thinking about this one, I am often reminded of the year I spent teaching at an orthodox Jewish private school. The folks at that school said ‘Happy Holidays’, and yes, that was a generous choice of wording on their part.
You never really know when you are the one to be tolerated.
I still remember the year my older sister made up a decoration that said “Pax et bonum” (Peace and Salvation) This was to go at the top of our tree instead of our star. We had a really great star that projected all these cool colors all around the room. I really loved that star.
I was a bit of a shit about the whole thing.
More than a bit actually.
One of my favorite Christmases ever was the one we celebrated on Easter Sunday. My nephew was serving in Iraq that year, and no-one in the family was the least bit interested in celebrating the holidays until he came home. So, we literally gathered around a Christmas tree and unwrapped presents on Easter Sunday.
I’m even a bit more fond of the Christmas we all agreed to forgo presents entirely and went as a group to Molokai instead. I wish every Christmas could be like that. Oh there was plenty of drama that Christmas, but it was drama that played out in Molokai.
Molokai makes everything better.
When I worked at an animal shelter, I recall that we tried to discourage people from getting pets as Christmas presents, at least not without giving the recipient a chance to choose the pet. Too often, pets given sight-unseen on Christmas day ended up back at the shelter not long afterward.
No-one is surprised when a blind date goes badly. Think about that next time you hand someone a puppy and expect them to bond for life.
Speaking of my time at an animal shelter, I once had to dress up as Santa Clause at a Petsmart. The idea here was to pose with people’s pets for pictures. This is a pretty regular thing as I recall, but I always thought it a very bad idea. These animals are already in a strange environment. Now you want them to sit on the lap of a guy with a fake beard and fake hair, gloves, and a wild outfit?
Damned lucky I didn’t come away with scars!
Speaking of the war on Christmas, people sometimes wonder what atheists say instead of Merry Christmas? This one mostly says ‘Merry Christmas’. Some folks think it odd to say ‘Merry Christmas’ when you don’t literally believe in Christ. They oughtta love Thursdays.
My girlfriend tells me there is a benefit to dating a gringo. Her (Mexican) family celebrates Christmas on Christmas Eve. We typically celebrate Christmas on Christmas Day. This makes it possible to be with both her family and that of her boyfriend when the actual celebrations take place. This doesn’t work so well when her family is in Los Angeles and mine is in Freeport, Texas.
She is an extraordinarily patient woman.
Her boyfriend can be a bit of a shit though.
More than a bit, actually.
Ah well. That’s enough random Christmas stories. Someone recently asked me about my favorite Christmas songs, so I’ve attached a few videos. All that said…
Merry Christmas everyone!