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.
For what it’s worth.
Graphic: Stacy Gustafson