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Matt's War on Christmas

Jonah Goldberg:

Just this week, the Capitol performed its own minor Christmas miracle of transubstantiation. At the beginning of the week, House Speaker Denny Hastert unveiled a "holiday tree." But a few days later, after some entirely predictable bah humbugs, he rechristened it a "Christmas" tree. (Similarly, when the city of Boston tried to unveil its official "Holiday tree," the premier of Nova Scotia, which had provided it as a gift, called it a nifty trick since, "when it left Nova Scotia, it was a Christmas tree.")
That's silly, of course.

But here's what genuinely bugs me about Christmas. The roommate came home last night with some Christmas décor and I said something like "ugh." His reply was something about how I need to get into the holiday spirit. And there's the rub.

It seems to me, really, that the whole Christmas spectacular would be much better if it just went unapologetically as "Christmas." If someone wants to know why I'm not in the Christmas spirit the answer is easily enough: not Christian, don't celebrate the day, no spirit. The "holiday season" has a weirdly insidious universalizing effect. Nobody's tricked into thinking it's anything other Christmas, but all of a sudden it's for all of us instead of merely the overwhelming majority of us. There's nothing wrong, really, with an overwhelming majority lording it over a small minority in such trivial ways as putting decorated conifers all over the place, but one might as well be clear on what's going on.

December 2, 2005 | Permalink


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Aw, come on Matt. Even Ayn friggin' Rand loved Christmas. :)

Posted by: Gene | Dec 2, 2005 5:08:13 PM

Gene: Yeah, but only because the weak are more likely to die during the winter months.

Matt, you're missing the point: winter sucks. People need to build celebrations into the middle of it in order to avoid killing themselves, and so they do. It's something to look forward to, even if you don't actually care about the religious justification.

Posted by: tom | Dec 2, 2005 5:15:52 PM

last sentence "it" = "generic winter holiday festival". I'm not making the case for you to get specifically excited about Christmas (that would be silly and patronizing), just the catchall "holidays" case to which Kriston was referring.

Posted by: tom | Dec 2, 2005 5:17:53 PM

Actually, I don't understand Matthew's comment. Is he warring on "Christmas", or is he defending "Christmas" and warring on "holiday"? Because if he's OK with Christians "lording it over a small minority" in such matters provided that everyone is "clear on what's going on", well, then, isn't that exactly what Hastert and the rest are doing by relabeling the "holiday" tree the "Christmas" tree? Or should Hastert accompany his relabeling of the tree with a more explicit statement making everyone clear on what's going on here? What if Hastert said, e.g., "we're relabeling the tree as the 'Christmas' tree because we Christians are the majority religion in this country and we like decorated trees to celebrate a Christian holiday - no offense intended to the Jews or any other minorities." OK by Matt?

Posted by: Al | Dec 2, 2005 5:19:18 PM

MY is saying that Christmas sucks, but he's not warring on it. He's warring on "holiday" for making "Christmas" even suckier.

Posted by: Haggai | Dec 2, 2005 5:24:19 PM

Then the title of the post seems a bit misleading.

PS - and what's wrong with Matt "getting into the holiday spirit" by bringing home a menorah or dreidel or something?

Posted by: Al | Dec 2, 2005 5:34:54 PM

Because Hannukah sucks, too. Everyone knows it's just a stupid made-up holiday so Jewish kids don't think their parents don't love them when everyone else is getting Christmas presents. Meanwhile, we all do our part as good little Jews to not tell anybody else that their parents are lying to them about the whole Santa Claus thing.

Anyways, Haggai has this right. Tom is providing a great example of what I'm complaining about. It's not good enough for him that I not interfere with his Christmas fun, he's insisting that I actually enjoy it, too. Bah humbug to that. I don't try and make other people get psyched for purim or whatever. Just leave us be!

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Dec 2, 2005 5:53:40 PM

Matt mio,

I think you’re confusing cultural folklore with high theology

1) In America, Christmas has more to do with mass marketing and sales promotion than the celebration of Jesus’ birthday
2) Unlike say Easter, Christmas never was an authentically Christian/Biblical celebration anyway: it’s just an ancient Indo-Iranian feast that was brought to the West in the 1st century AD by Roman soldiers stationed in Iraq...

Who knows, 200 years down the road, maybe (most) Americans will be happy to celebrate “Ramadan Bayram” or the birth of Vishnu except maybe for a few fiery Pharisaic skeptics!


Posted by: Dr Victorino de la Vega | Dec 2, 2005 5:57:28 PM

It's always been my impression that Matt's a pretty shitty Jew.

That said, why get worked up about Christmas OR the holidays? This isn't a religious holiday anymore than it's a festival to celibrate the dying of the sun. It's about being gaudy and cheerful and drinking and eating and giving presents and crap. If it were really about Jesus, people wouldn't decorate trees according to some old pagan ritual, or set up plastic images of a snow elf descended from Germanic myth. Baby Jesus is one more element alongside the reindeer and mistletoe that goes into an increasingly commercialized winter festival. If you like being festive, you'll like it. If you like great big bright gaudy things, you'll like that too. Bill O'Reilly to the contrary, teligion has very little to do with it.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Dec 2, 2005 6:01:21 PM

Part of the problem is it goes on for so long, which is what we mean by the holiday season. It's easy enough to deal with the day itself. We have our traditions: a movie and Chinese food (though Matt one-upped everyone last year with his Indian food and Oscar screeners). It's harder to deal with the prolonged cultural assault that by now has gotten into full swing. And it is a religous cultural assault, even if it isn't particularly theological. If it were theological, it might even be easier to cope with. There'd be some intellectual content, after all.

Posted by: jim | Dec 2, 2005 6:13:19 PM

I'm not a Christian either, but I've read some stuff about Christianity, and what I've read makes me hate Christmas even more. Apparently, the holiday is a celebration of the day that the God sent his "only son" down to earth to live among us and show us the way to righteousness, etc. Fair enough. The Egyptians believed that the pharaohs were gods who walked among us, so Christianity isn't original in thinking that the gods can take human form and enter specific points in history. But Jesus wasn't born in a castle to rule over men. No! He was born in a barn! Surrounded by farm animals! It must have smelled terrible! I think that is actually pretty cool. The Christian God sent his only son down to earth to be born in a barn. His parents were refugees, fleeing oppression, looking for some safe place to sleep. So how do Christians celebrate this great event? By helping homeless refugees find a safe place to sleep? No. Middle-class people probably spend $20 on presents for themselves for every $1 of guilt money they give to charity. Rich people probably spend $100 on themselves for every dollar they spend on a homeless refugee. Christmas is a holiday predicated on respect for the plight of refugees, and Christians celebrate it with cheesy decorations and the greedy pursuit of crap. God rest ye, merry gentlemen. Let nothing ye dismay!

Posted by: thurgo | Dec 2, 2005 6:17:38 PM

Ain't nobody "insisting" that you worship Jesus or anything. At most they're insisting that you find some reason to be happy during the otherwise crappy month of December. Most likely, they're just hoping you won't too pissy. If you don't want to use Hanukah as an excuse to not be pissy - find some other reason.

And, really, why can't you be happy even if it isn't your religion? I celebrate Eid sometimes even though I'm not Muslim, simply because I'm invited and I like a feast.

Posted by: Al | Dec 2, 2005 6:21:35 PM

Hey, I'm ready to share in the Purim fun!

Posted by: tom | Dec 2, 2005 6:38:53 PM

I think Australians et al might take exception to saying we have Christmas cheer in order to ward off winter.

Posted by: Chris O. | Dec 2, 2005 6:41:52 PM

Matt should be insisting we non-Jews atone for our sins on Yom Kippur...

Posted by: Al | Dec 2, 2005 6:45:45 PM

Chris O: I think Australians realize we have Christmas cheer in order to celebrate American cultural hegemony.

Posted by: tom | Dec 2, 2005 6:47:52 PM

I always thought the phrase 'holiday season' described how long the damn thing lasted. But that loofah guy tells me it was to not offend secular bastards like me.

Here is my final offer: we secularists will nevermore refer to happy holidays or the holiday season if you promise to limit Christmas to just the single day.

Please, I'm begging.

Posted by: Nat | Dec 2, 2005 6:56:12 PM

I'm with Matt. I HATE being ordered to have fun. Like some damn never-ending office party. I think it's wonderful if everyone else is having fun, but during Christmas, they aren't. There's heavily larded plastic-fantasticness that goes on and on and on and on and on and . . . anyway, you know all about it. Everybody's stressed out. They spend useful money on useless crap which they don't like and the recipient doesn't either. And don't get me started on Christmas music. I can be feeling quite normal, but after the fifteenth soupy rendition Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer I turn into something more like The HUlk.

(That said, I love my kind of Christmas: stock up on groceries mid-November and don't set foot in a store till mid-January, have an excellent feast, and send cards to no one.)

Posted by: quixote | Dec 2, 2005 7:13:06 PM

This post describes exactly how I feel. At my high school, and at other high schools, they give us "winter break" or "holiday break", which coincidentally fall with Christmas directly in the middle. My school is 40% Jewish. If they're going to be biased, and I don't really mind but it is bias, they should at least have the guts to admit it.
And why the hell do we have to start hearing Christmas music over a month before? How obsessive is it, to celebrate some guy's birthday for 1/12 of the year?

Posted by: zw | Dec 2, 2005 7:26:28 PM


Do you get drunk on St. Patrick's Day? Did you go trick or treating on Halloween as a kid? Just curious.

Posted by: blah | Dec 2, 2005 9:37:53 PM

What if Hastert said, e.g., "we're relabeling the tree as the 'Christmas' tree because we Christians are the majority religion in this country and we like decorated trees to celebrate a Christian holiday

Or 'we're relabelling the tree, although we acknowledge that large decorated evergreens are a Germanic pagan tradition recently appropriated for the holiday.'

I have no problem with 'Christmas tree' as long as fuckwits like O'Lielly go on the record to admit that neither it, nor rabid consumerism, has anything to do with the baby Jesus.

Oh, and could the Factor have a special on how Christmas was celebrated in the 1770s? Y'know, as a drunken Saturnalia in some Catholic and Episcopalian states, and totally ignored in the Puritan ones?

If they put the pagan back into solstice, I'd feel much more comfortable about a celebration that is basically 'look, it's getting slightly less dark at night!'

Posted by: ahem | Dec 2, 2005 11:54:15 PM

Baby jesus isn't just for christians either. Babies are cute.

Posted by: joe o | Dec 3, 2005 12:40:21 AM

If they put the pagan back into solstice, I'd feel much more comfortable about a celebration that is basically 'look, it's getting slightly less dark at night!'

Oh, Solstice is full of crap, too. In a parallel world where America is an overwhelmingly Druid nation, parallel-earth O'Reilly is bitching about how all the stores wish people "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Solstice," and the secular minority is reminding everyone that the death of the sun god is just an excuse to drink, eat, and fuck in the middle of the winter.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Dec 3, 2005 2:03:14 AM

Mind numbing detail about the origins of Christmas from the Catholic Encyclopedia http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03724b.htm. Bottom line solar holiday meets astrology to draw Christ's birth from spring to the winter solstice. Most people won't make it to the last paragraph:
"In England, Christmas was forbidden by Act of Parliament in 1644; the day was to be a fast and a market day; shops were compelled to be open; plum puddings and mince pies condemned as heathen. The conservatives resisted; at Canterbury blood was shed; but after the Restoration Dissenters continued to call Yuletide "Fooltide"."

For those not in the know 'Conservatives' equates to 'High Church Anglicans'; 'Dissenters' equates to 'Protestants'. In 1644 Jerry Falwell's direct predecessors forced stores to be open on Christmas. You can't spell irony without 'iron' but I am bending over in mirth anyway.

It's a heathen holiday, and Wiccans are having a solid belly laugh at the attempts to put 'Christ' back in 'Christmas'. And God forbid that Christians look into the etymology of 'Easter' Eostre

Back to Christmas. Good Protestants didn't celebrate Christmas until Charles Dickens dragged them squirming into the light of the pagan Christmas tree Christmas via Answer.com
"Christmas, as the great popular festival of Western Europe, dates from the Middle Ages. In England after the Reformation the observance became a point of contention between Anglicans and other Protestants, and the celebration of Christmas was suppressed in Scotland and in much of New England until the 19th cent."

Protestants for centuries refused to celebrate a pagan then Catholic holiday and yet now they want to claim sole rights? For some of these folks History began at the birth of their Savior: Ronald Reagan. And they don't get why the 'other' people who get some of their reality-base from those book thingies keep laughing and laughing.

Posted by: Bruce Webb | Dec 3, 2005 6:27:18 AM

It's a classic move dating from late 19th century Protestant scholarship. They stopped talking about how everyone needed to be a Christian and started talking about the universal feeling of the religious in every person. And it just happened that the core, essential elements of the universal religious feeling were the core elements of liberal protestantism - individual feeling and devotion, no large church structures, rituals aren't essential - and so on.

This Holiday thing is a part of that move to universalize a protestant vision without having to call it such.

Posted by: Mikael | Dec 3, 2005 7:33:08 AM

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