Dear Retailers —
For the past few weeks I’ve heard again and again that you’ve become afraid of Christmas. Lileks calls it “the holiday that dare not speak its name.” Schools have outlawed red and green decorations; the Post Office issues stamps for Hannukah, Kwanzaa, and Eid and “Traditional Holiday” (h/t: Lileks), Target has chased off the Salvation Army bell-ringers, Macy’s has forbidden its clerks to mention the dreaded “C” word, and the Nordstrom’s Winter Holiday windows downtown look like something out of a 19th-century bordello.
You owe Christmas. When your “ holiday shopping season” isn’t stellar, then your bottom line sinks. The other winter holidays are not inherently gift-giving events, are only gift seasons in reaction to Christmas.
We’ve suffered through your three months of holly and greenery, two months of overplayed and irreverent “Winter Holiday” music, your clueless advertising and your advocacy of debt, debt, debt. We can even find meaning in the new clothes, the gifts, and even Santa Claus.
The truth is, you need Christmas, but Christmas doesn’t need you.
A lot of what we buy during this the run-up to the “Winter Holiday” is stuff that we would buy anyway — necessities that coincide with Christmas and end up under the tree. But a lot of it is crap that no one would ever miss–white elephant gifts, ties that the recipient doesn’t like and never wears, that exotic little useless object for the person who has everything. When these things are given with true Christmas spirit, they are a physical incarnation of our love, and even useless objects can carry a great weight of love.
We get that from the story of Christmas — about God becoming a helpless baby in a family needing shelter, by his birth uniting divinity and mortality and by his death uniting sinful man with holy God.
But your Winter Holiday carries no such story. It carries no consciously developed story at all, unless it’s a fat jolly man borrowed from Christianity and put in charge of a toy factory. Divide that man from the Christmas story, and he becomes a marketing tool, one more long line to stand in with the kids, and finally just a Grumpy Santa.
The Winter Holiday story, as far as I can glean it from the advertisements, the “Winter Holiday” songs, the cultural paraphernalia that replaces Christmas, is this: “I am special. I deserve to have what I want. The Holidays are coming, a time when all the other people in my life want what they want. Also the office has a party that I have to attend. And my family gets together for the holidays, and we re-experience the trauma of growing up dysfunctionally. Other people have wonderful, meaningful holidays, but I never do. I have to send out Winter Holiday cards and attend Winter Holiday school pageants and decorate my home for Winter Holiday. And I have to buy stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. I have to drive to the mall and face the crowds and get what my friends and family want so they’ll get what I want, or at least so I can take it back afterwards and get what I want. And afterward, I can shop the after-Winter Holiday sales and rest until next year.”
There is nothing compelling about this story. All the elements, when contained within the Christmas story, are capable of profound depths. Divorced from Christmas, they are C.S. Lewis’s X-mas rush without the “-mas.” Rushing for the sake of rushing. How long till people say, “Fine, whatever. I think I’ll skip the Winter Holidays.”
In the meantime, people who celebrate Christmas don’t need the retail “Holiday Season.” We got along just fine without it for the better part of 2,000 years, We can give simple gifts, necessities, charitable donations, gift cards that support our local Christmas-celebrating schools. So cancel the office Winter Holiday party; that’ll free up more time to focus on Advent. If the schools don’t like red and green or the Christmas songs, then they have have a first-semester concert in late January. It will be more appropriate to sing about Frosty the Snowperson and Winter Wonderland later in the winter anyway.
You can throw out Christmas, but you have nothing to replace it. We Christmas-celebrators haven’t lost anything.
But you have.
Oh, and by the way, Merry Christmas.