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


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.


Graphic: Stacy Gustafson

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

  1. Well the malls are still around here. But they seem to focus upon promoting black fridays, saturdays, and sundays. I get more Merry Christmases from the young ladies at the gas stations and from some of the supermarket clerks. I can’t imagine an Andy Williams Christmas Special on TV anymore. I’m hoping that maybe we’ll get a 4th Great Awakening during my lifetime. I miss the Carolers. They seem to show up at nursing homes mainly nowadays.

  2. There were three Christmas-themed movies by my count this year: Best Man Holiday, Madea’s Christmas, and Black Nativity. Two out of the three are rather charming and sincere. The other…well, you know what you are getting into by the title.

  3. I liked the opening Christmas Carol scene, in the first (I think it was) Addams Family film, a scene that was actually based on one of the original cartoons from an earlier era.

    On your closing remarks, I have sometimes told people “Merry Christmas, whether you like it or not”.

  4. 4 words.

    As for the Good Old Days – My in-laws are in their 90s, and live next door (we bought that house for them). So it’s been the Andrews Sisters, Bing Crosby of course, and hits of the 40’s. Every Christmas might be the last, so we make the most of them.

    Then there’s my extended family. The brothers and sisters I’ve only ever met through Skype etc, those whose biological families have rejected them. My Christmas present to myself was making sure that they didn’t have to dumpster dive in the snow this week. I just wish there were fewer who had to, or that I had more money to do this one small thing for everyone, not just these few who I know.

    I’m atheist, I don’t believe in gods. So the druidic mistletoe etc mean nothing to me. But any excuse will do for giving presents to children, or feeding the hungry. Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All.

  5. For those of religious persuasion – a present I hope you’ll like. Best wishes. Merry Christmas.

    A carol we used to sing at my old boarding school in England.

  6. Merry Christmas to the whole Marshall family. You gave me a great gift this year for which I am quite grateful. I’d had this gift before but lost it sometime between the end of college and the beginning of empty nesting. I didn’t even know I’d lost it until I found this site. Thanks for restoring my critical thinking. It’s made me a better person…at least, I hope it has.

  7. I would submit that anyone decrying public displays of The religious trappings of Christmas as a violation of the establishment clause while also bemoaning Christmas’s slow demise ought to look up an old adage about the mutual exclusivity of having cakes as well as eating them.

    Also, the decline of religious influence in life can be directly related to the rise of the materialist narcissist culture.

  8. Merry Christmas to you too, and to all reading this. As for myself, I hope to make a little difference for the better, with my family and friends, and strangers I meet today, sincerely wishing them a Merry Christmas.

  9. Merry Christmas, Jack!

    I’m posting out of order, sorry — I still owe you some answers in other threads.

    Has anyone else seen a steady decline over the years in the number of Trick-or-Treaters? Are we seeing a general decline in the shared social holidays that are part of cultural cohesion? Or is it Christmas in particular, maybe because of increased secularism?

    • Young people (in particular) are secularizing, and fast. And there’s a modern tendency towards being tied to adolescent thinking that’s tied to that- questioning and criticizing everything, but not advancing intellectually to the place where you can understand the things you are questioning, and be able to make positive change. And so people are bashing tradition in general.

      There’s a separate but related trend of a lack of real social interaction and connectivity, very real and very measurable. “Bowling Alone” is an interesting book on that subject. It makes it harder for people (the non-religious in particular) to enjoy Christmas as much. Being apart (emotionally and geographically) from family, having few intimate friends, and consuming 12 hours of media a day are not good paths to a Merry Christmas.

  10. I’ve noticed it too. I wholeheartedly believe in both God and Jesus, and don’t really feel personally affected by the decline of Christmas-osity. Christmas is a cultural invention, and it’s a massive improvement over Saturnalia because of the person and character of the person whom our culture has based Christmas on. It’s a shame (from my point of view) that we’re losing a lot of the power behind what made Christmas transformitively awesome…but it’s not a surprise.

    Bold prediction (and many will disagree): all the love, joy, family, and charity stuff associated with Christmas will continue to decline in step with the success of efforts to remove the offensive Jesus stuff from Christmas. Less likely but still possible: at some future point we will have an entirely commercialized, unpleasant day of excess, (maybe commonly called “Santa Day”) in the sad void where Christmas used to be.

  11. I think, for me, one of the most frustrating aspects to the situation is that it’s plain to me that that which makes Christmas what it is IS fading. It’s being cheapened, coarsened, marginalized, and excluded – and to even point it out is to open oneself to just those charges of an excess of O’Reilly. And to deny it further gets one hit over the head with the dreadful ‘Oh, yeah – Christians are REALLY being persecuted. Tell me about how many were killed last year (In this country, of course, since if we include foreign figures you might have a point) for being Christian? It’s the majority belief system – they can’t be being persecuted against!’

    As for me and my house, we watched the Muppet Christmas Carol, the Bible, and I’m thinking a little Prince of Egypt is still in order. God bless us, every one!

  12. I am remined of a limerick attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., to-wit:

    God’s plan made a hopeful beginning,
    But man spolied his choices by sinning.
    We trust that the story
    Will end in God’s glory,
    But, at present, the other side’s winning.

    Hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas, holiday season, Saturnalia, or whatever.

      • Best present you could give- laughed aloud at that quote coming from you. Also’ in the spirit of ZoeBrain sharing Christmas media, get on the youtube and find The Muppet Family Christmas. It brings together Fraggles, Sesame Street, and The Muppet Show- as funny as you’d guess, with a rather bittersweet cameo at the end. I’d post a link but can’t figure out how on my new tablet- it’s easy to find though. Merry Christmas all!

    • I have such a bias there, Jay—I really hate the LDB in all its versions—what the hell is anyone doing playing drums around an infant?—the Harry Simeone Chorale version sounds like bagpipes, and mostly, I found the duet with Bing (in what I think was his last Christmas Special) forced and annoying. Have you really listened to what Bowie’s couterpoint lyrics are? “Every child must be made aware…every child must be made to care..” What is this, Hitler’s Youth?

      The rest of the lyrics are warmed over John Lennon. Yechhh.

      • Oh, my old percussion teacher had a note in his lesson room that was basically a massive rant against that song; I dare say drummers hate that song more than anyone else.

  13. Jack, the song at the link is from the late 1980s; it is in large part about Christmas, while including “the rest of the story,” and has pretty good vocals and lyrics. Each year I typically kick off my celebration of Christmas a few weeks before the holiday by listening to this (ever wishing I could sing it so well); I once heard the group in concert and their performance of this was jaw-dropping excellent:

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