Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The good old days, before Christmas was commercialized

And sugary sweetness filled the air.

Would 46 years ago qualify as the good old days? Surely.

That was when I spent my first Christmas season on the main campus of Indiana University in Bloomington. When the decorations went up on various campus buildings - lights depicting candles and trees and Santa and suchlike - I was outraged. I speechified at friends and dorm mates that this was a violation of Separation of Church and State. This was long before the War on Christmas (TM) got under way; I was ahead of my time.

Some fellow students reacted with bewilderment. "It's always been this way! How could this be wrong?" "It's always been wrong," I said, "no matter how old the custom is."

Others reacted with condescension. "Christmas is no longer a religious festival, as it was in the Good Old Days of my childhood. It's purely commercial now." To which I said, "Turn on the radio. Any station." One guy did, and some Christmas hymn or other, probably "Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful", blared out. He laughed and agreed that I had made my point. You could try the same experiment now, in the days right before Christmas, with the same result.

Another said, "Would it satisfy you if we put up one of those candelabra things the Jews use for Hanuka, alongside the Christmas decorations?" So I explained that Hanuka bears no relationship to Christmas and has been perverted by American Jews so that they won't feel left out when their neighbors do the Christmas thing. And moreover, if you added a menorah, wouldn't you also have to add decorations for every other religion? And moreover, even if that were done, it would still be a violation of Separation because the "Church" in that phrase wasn't meant to refer literally only to the Christian church. See what a precocious and not infrequently obnoxious kid I was?

So finally the sweet, old Christmas spirit came gushing forth. One of boys present glared at me and yelled that the Jewish merchants in Indianapolis, where he was from, had no problem taking Christian money during the heavy Christmas shopping season. I told him that they'd be fools not to take the money, so long as the Christians were such fools as to spend it. The discussion ended at that point.

Ah, the good old days! Sniffle.


TGirsch said...

Given your attitude on that, you should like this.
[/shameless self promotion]

David said...

That's very funny.

I found myself involved in an unpleasant discussion in the comments on an atheist blog earlier, because I expressed my strong opinion about atheists who celebrate Christmas. Some took offense and got personal, which probably proves 1) I'm right and am pushing some very sensitive buttons, and 2) I should keep my mouth shut.

TGirsch said...

For what it's worth, I'm an atheist, and I celebrate Christmas. You may not buy the justification, but I justify it by noting that although it's rooted in Christian theology*, what gets celebrated as "Christmas" these days is almost entirely secular.

So yeah, all the "war on Christmas" stuff annoys me, as do some of the explicitly religious Christmas messages you'll see in inappropriate places from time to time, but by and large I find the holiday inoffensive. Getting together with friends and family, the spirit of giving, the decorated trees, and even the Santa Claus stuff all seems pretty harmless to me. I just ignore all the Christ stuff, and keep the Christ out of Christmas. :)

* - Actually, that's not entirely true, either. Almost all of what is and has always been immensely popular about Christmas is all the stuff that the Christians unceremoniously coopted from pagan winter solstice celebrations, and have nothing whatsoever to do with "the birth of the savior." Throw in a dash of good old fashioned American commercialism, and you've got a mostly secular holiday anyway.

David said...

It's true that much of Christmas is taken from paganism, including the date itself. I could argue that that's still religion, but it's also true that paganism isn't currently -- and probably never will be -- a threat to our democracy in the way Christianity is.

However, whatever the origins of the various customs and icons, they're part of Christianity now, and I'm disturbed and offended when governments display and celebrate them.

Come to think of it, the same applies to a lot of the Jewish rituals and icons I was brought up with. They were also coopted from paganism, but I still want nothing to do with them -- because of their personal associations for me, not because they threaten American democracy.

Oh, wait. I forgot about that Federal Reserve thing!

TGirsch said...

If Christians can be "cafeteria Christians" (and most are), then I have no problem celebrating Christmas in cafeteria fashion. Of course, that my entire family, including my wife, remains Christian would make it pretty hard from me to abstain without coming across as pretty curmudgeonly.

David said...


To her family, my wife and I are probably both "those weird curmudgeons out in Denver, hmph."

To my parents, I was the good Jewish boy who went astray because of the influence of those goyim.

TGirsch said...

Apropos of not much, Yiddish gives us all kinds of great words.

Gary Piserchio said...

I love Christmas. Am I an atheist? Since I always hedge my bets, I guess that makes me more of an agnostic. Do I believe in religion? No. But could there be something bigger than us out there ... some connective tissue? Or perhaps our alien overlords. Well, I would be really, really surprised if there were. But I've been really, really surprised before.

Do I believe in Santa and Rudolph and Donder? Hell, yeah. God bless their commercial, decadent little souls.

Hey, I think I just realized I'm a commercialist.