There May Not Be A War On Christmas, But Whatever It Is, Christmas Is Losing

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I don’t think it’s my imagination, or that I’m watching too much Bill O’Reilly (since I almost never watch Bill O’Reilly), but it became very clear to me this year that Christmas, as a society-wide cultural convergence in America, is losing its grip.

The reasons are varied and many, and to pick out any in particular one would betray my own biases. But I am a fairly obsessive observer of the popular culture, and there was markedly less Christmas this year in every way. Religious references to the Christmas story—the manger, the Wise Men, the Star of Bethlehem and the rest, are almost invisible outside of church. On television, that part of Christmas is taboo, apparently; on radio too, traditional carols, which once were standard fare, whether sung by pop singers like Bing Crosby or classical artists, are mostly relegated to the classical music channels. On the other stations, there was less Christmas music than I can ever recall, and perhaps because of that, I was very conscious of how dated virtually all of it is. The last non-frivolous Christmas standard to enter the playlist was 1962’s “Do You Hear What I Hear?, ” and the other newer ones  are either songs about romance using Christmas as a backdrop, anti-Christmas novelties (“Grandma Got Run Over By  A Reindeer”), or just lousy.

Meanwhile, listening to the parade of pop yule classics is an exercise in morbidity. Almost all of them are sung by dead artists that no one under the age of thirty (or forty?) could have ever heard or seen perform live. Bing, Dean Martin, Karen Carpenter, Andy Williams, Burl Ives, Gene Autry, Judy Garland, Nat King Cole, Mel Torme, Frank Sinatra—Andy just left us, but most of the rest, with the lingering exceptions of Johnny Mathis and Harry Belafonte, are not merely dead, but long dead, like Marley. No one has taken their place in this genre, and that means that it’s a dying genre.

It is obvious that Christmas movies are being run on television less than ever before, too. It was once impossible to avoid encountering several versions of “A Christmas Carol,” and sometimes the same one would keep popping up, annoyingly so. Not any more. “It’s A Wonderful Life” had its annual showing, and I stumbled upon “White Christmas” a couple of times, but the pickings were slim.   The lousy Richard Attenborough “Miracle on 34th Street’ turned up; Turner Classics ran through most of the old Christmas classics once, but you had to look for them. There haven’t been any new Christmas movies from Hollywood that have made the grade for a very long time: with the exception of the first “The Santa Clause,” what Hollywood has been churning out are more or less bitter comedies (“Christmas With The Kranks,” “Jingle All The Way,” “Bad Santa,” “Christmas Vacation”–even the “Home Alone” films) that portray Christmas as suburban hell.

Then there are the wan or missing town hall and town center Christmas displays (Gotta watch out for those law suits), the tasteless Christmas TV commercials (the men in boxers jingling their “bells” is gross, in my opinion), and the hesitation you hear in strangers’ voices as they try to guess whether “Merry Christmas” will offend you or not.  I used to encounter carolers several times every Christmas, in shopping malls if nowhere else. The malls are disappearing, and kids don’t go caroling any more. They don’t know carols any more, because if their school teaches them one (because it’s a lovely song) some fanatic will raise a stink and claim its religious indoctrination.  Children, in a more innocent, less cynical age, were allowed to believe in Santa Claus well past the age of 5. (I was 26 before I knew the truth.) No longer. Christmas just feels half-hearted, uncertain, unenthusiastic now. Forced. Dying.

It was a season culminating in a day in which a whole culture, or most of it, engaged in loving deeds, celebrated ethical values, thought the best of their neighbors and species, and tried to make each other happy and hopeful, and perhaps reverent and whimsical too.  I think it was a healthy phenomenon, and I think we will be the worse for its demise. All of us…even those who have worked so diligently and self-righteously to bring it to this diminished state.

But anyway,

Merry Christmas.

For what it’s worth.

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Graphic: Stacy Gustafson

44 thoughts on “There May Not Be A War On Christmas, But Whatever It Is, Christmas Is Losing

  1. My theory (I’m 36) is that Christmas and most other “society-wide cultural convergences” are pretty much constructs of the baby boomer generation. As the baby boomers age out of the popular culture “key demographic” range of course the display of Christmas will change. XKCD nails it here http://xkcd.com/988/

    100 years ago there traditions were much more regional and people much less mobile. The baby boomers were the first generation of true national media culture and the limited selection kept everyone on the same page. Now the internet gives people the ability to be more regional again with their traditions even if not geographically based.

    New Years is another example. As a kid I remember the only ball drop was NYC and that was the show everyone watched on time delay for those of us on the West Coast. I don’t remember the last time myself or anyone I knew watched the NYC show.

    • Well, if nothing else, your theory about Baby Boomers being a construct of that generation is demonstrably false. The World War II generation in America was, if anything, stronger in its complete embrace and obsession with Christmas. A modicum of research would show you that.

      • Perhaps I was not as clear as I had hoped. I was not claiming that the WWII generation or prior did not like or embrace Christmas (or any other holiday) just that was what you list as the common images, songs and traditions are more firmly rooted in the experiences the baby boomers had in their youth. And as all generations do mine is continuing some, tweaking others and just leaving behind a few.

        I’m not ba-humbug on Christmas. We wrote letters to Santa this year from my 4 and 2 year olds (without an elf on a shelf or anywhere else). We found a feed store that had actual reindeer to visit. We watched Christmas movies just not black and white ones (btw: an ethical review of the “santas” in Arthur Christmas would be interesting). My 4 year old is still singing some variant of Jingle Bells but I didn’t even look for a mp3 of White Christmas.

        I don’t think Christmas is losing or dying but it is changing as traditions always have. 100 years ago I doubt many people would think of Coca Cola when they saw Santa or thought about going to Macy’s to get a photo with him. Having different cultural touch points does not necessarily mean the demise of the values of Christmas.

          • 87 or 100 or 120 I really am not trying to argue that any specific tradition has to have its exact start during a generation for that generation to be the one to pick it up and run with it. It is that following generations do not have to continue it uninterrupted and unchanged lest the entire holiday collapse either. The history of Christmas like most holidays is quite interesting and traditions have significantly varied over time.

            One side of my ancestry goes back to the Mayflower. It is my understanding that they most likely did not practice Christmas and would frown on me doing so. But that is a tradition we thankfully discarded along the way as well.

            Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

    • Interesting theory. No doubt a generation that just got done experiencing the double whammy horrors of the deprivation and poverty of the Great Depression combined with the violence and destruction of World War 2 probably came back from 1945 with the bit of an overreaction in “making sure their kids never had to suffer the way they did”…

      I would submit that the Greatest Generation went a little overboard in that attempt and spawned us the Baby Boomers…who, though there are plenty of exceptions, are generally read as the whiniest and most spoiled Generation.

  2. Were you gonna weigh in on the Killeen TX teacher who raised a stink hanging a Charlie Brown Christmas poster in the classroom as it touches on the separation of church and state but is clouded by the fact that Charlie Brown Christmas is so culturally ubiquitous it transcends religious limitations to a degree?

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