This second of a pair of tardy holiday posts can be summed up in six words: Charlie Brown was right about Christmas. So, for that matter, was Alfred, the young Macy’s janitor in Miracle on 34th Street who told Kris Kringle, “There’s a lot of bad ‘isms’ floatin’ around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism. Make a buck, make a buck…don’t care what Christmas stands for, just make a buck, make a buck.”
While my newly Jewish end-of-year traditions have ably taken up where Christmas left off, long before my Jewish journey at times Christmas used to leave me feeling empty. I could never quite grasp why the seasonal joy I always aimed for never felt on the same page with the mass messages about giving and getting swirled around by every stiff December wind. Sure, I was familiar with pop culture screeds on Christmas commercialism like those above. I even knew a few people who loathed the season for exactly such reasons. (A current roommate is one of them.) But I always did my best to ignore yuletide grinchiness and try to feel a sense of wonder about things.
Spending my first December as a non-celebrant cleared up a lot of confusion for me. Although they no longer speak to me in the same way, I have nothing against the traditions with which I was raised or the religious meaning behind them. To my mind, a path to God is a path to God. But standing on the outside looking in, it was very hard to find any religious content whatsoever in any of the nonstop Christmas messaging that the month of December brings.
Good, my secular friends might say. If popular culture doesn’t consider Christmas particularly Christian, then why give up my family tradition of putting up a big, bright (dusty, artificial) tree? Because when you take the religious meaning out of Christmas, you seem to be left with the biggest, brightest holiday…of capitalism.
No longer pulling for my experience of Christmas to feel like 1940s movies tell me it should–and no longer Christian (not that I ever really was)–this time there was nothing inside of me doing its best to interpret secular Christmas as something greater than the sum of its parts. With belief in a baby in a manger taken out of the equation, on the surface there seems like a lot of warm, fuzzy feeling to the season. But try as I might, I found very few examples of allegedly warm, fuzzy feelings that weren’t tied to an ad campaign or sales pitch.
Those pitches all seemed to run like this: if we make you feel cuddly enough inside, won’t you buy our product? And if you don’t buy our product, well just think how bad the baby Jesus will feel. That’s a neat trick. Get consumers to re-assign formerly religious feelings of awe and wonder onto your Lexus or Playstation or Tiffany’s blue box, and once a year you can make a killing.
I found it a pretty disgusting realization, like finally waking up in the Matrix and sliding down the tube into the slime pit. That’s not to detract from Christmas. Christmas isn’t slimy. But commercials and radio ads and going broke to make Wall Street happy–and nearly every commercial interest in America urging you to do so–has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas. But, boy, would Madison Avenue like you to think it does. I thought it did for a long time.
In the end, I took my personal feelings of awe and wonder and re-assigned them back onto something religious. Just not Christmas. But if I ever come across someone who actually keeps Christmas from the heart and not from the mall, that’s a holiday table I want to be invited to.
As long as they don’t expect me to bring anything.
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.