It is late November and soon large inflatable Christmas decorations will rise from the frozen suburban earth like mushrooms after heavy rain. I don’t know their story, I don’t want to Google the history of contemporary holiday kitsch. That kind of research should be categorized as unethical. The FBI should track interest in this subject as part of a broader national security effort, an undercover sting operation seeking out those responsible for disseminating the trade secrets that make the construction of these offending items possible. That’s a Law and Order I would watch, in marathon form, while I nod off into a lovely first-world food coma.
I would imagine these criminal masterminds also have something to do with the incessant rotation of Christmas pop music over retail store sound systems, and are, by way of Hammurabi’s code, entitled to having their ears ripped off for every time I am forced to endure “All I Want For Christmas Is You.”
I have often been accused of being a “humbug” which makes absolutely no sense. A humbug isn’t someone who hates Christmas, it’s just a word that means, more or less, “bullsh-t” that was said frequently by a fictional character who happened to really hate Christmas. Who the hell hates Christmas? I just hate how everyone else celebrates it, and every time I open my mouth I’m accused of being behind some kind of Grinch-like terrorist communist plot against the holidays.
I like Christmas. I love my family, my friends, exchanging thoughtful gifts with the people I care about the most. I love home-cooked holiday meals and the warm familiarity of tradition. Setting up the tree, reclining into piles of wrapping paper, watching an endless loop of A Christmas Story, the delicate understanding established between myself and my parents when I joined the ranks of those who knew what was up with Santa Claus while my younger siblings still did not — these things matter to me, very deeply. They are mine, my own ways of remembering and celebrating what is important in my life.
But what it is about this annual rediscovery of sentiment and appreciation for the things we love that leads people to divert their energies into constructing elaborate light displays and transforming their lawns into a cartoonish nightmare landscapes? What could compel a house, such as the one down the street from me, with peeling paint and rusted-out frames of ancient automobiles littering the property, to spend hundreds of dollars on lights and inflatable Christmas decorations and the electricity bills to support them? What drives a society to line up outside malls in the bitter cold of an early morning, chasing sales, in the vain hope of saving $100 on a TV?
Maybe it’s just what Christmas is, to a lot of people, lights and awful music, spending money on things they don’t need, getting stuffed with enough good food and material possessions to grease the wheels for another year and make life bearable. Sometimes, I think that as Americans, we have found the holiday spirit we deserve, a glorification of excess in every form. That’s what it means to be one of us — if you’re going to to do it, do it big. The founding fathers worried that it would be impossible to make democracy work over such a huge place, but with a few compromises here and there and some questionable legal maneuvers, things have more or less worked out. We sacrifice our principles for a greater purpose, maybe the greatest — our own satisfaction. Nothing stands in our way, even ourselves.
However hard I may grimace at the consumerism and demoralizing lack of taste that are inseparable from the Christmas season, my cynical urges melt away in the face of what’s underneath them. Honestly, what the hell do I know? I’m not those people, and I can’t say what it is that inspires others, let alone judge them for it. There could be just as much warmth and tradition in those god-awful, gaudy decoration displays. Maybe you waiting in line on Black Friday is not a parable for the parasitic, dehumanizing nature of capitalism and its destruction of our most hallowed institutions. Maybe your radio station is set to one of those all-day, all-night Christmas music loops, and you look forward to the feeling that comes along with it every year, to connect you with some distant memory.
It could be that you think of the others who used to help set up the lights, or taught you how to as a child, the ones who you used to sing along with to those songs. You think of the people who are no longer with you, and suddenly these mundane things that appear to others as frivolous or superficial are beyond criticism, because they are you, the rituals that made you, what keeps you whole when thinking of what you’ve lost. That would really shut up a cynical humbug bastard like me. In fact, it already has.