IN 2005, the Knights of Columbus Council 11091, of Algonquin, Illinois, produced a run of oversized Nativity-scene car magnets urging drivers to KEEP CHRIST IN CHRISTMAS. This simple show of anti-commercialism proved a huge commercial success. The car magnets went as viral as car magnets can get; today, millions of them are festooned to bumpers from sea to shining sea.
At first, I hated those magnets. I found them garish, and I equated KEEP CHRIST IN CHRISTMAS with the xenophobic—and idiotic—“War on Christmas,” in which Bill O’Reilly and his dunderheaded ilk rail against, essentially, religious inclusivity. But I’ve come to regard the KOC magnets as symbols of dissent, which I begrudgingly admire.
Christmas Day is the only federal holiday that is religious in origin, but it is just that: a government-mandated day off. Just as the very word holiday is now a secular derivation of the religious phrase holy day, so “Christ Mass” is religious in name only. Contrary to popular belief, “Merry Christmas” is shorthand for “Enjoy your day off,” not “May Jesus save you on His birthday.” How can we keep Christ in Christmas when the former has not been part of the latter for at least a century and a half? Originally a pagan feast of the Sun God, and for centuries a modest holy day of obligation, December 25 has become a secular Saturnalia of commerce—capitalism’s holiest of holy days. If there is a god behind the modern American Christmas, it is not Jesus but Mammon, one of Lucifer’s lesser demons. How appropriate, then, that the Christmas shopping season begins on Black Friday—what in Satanic circles is known as Black Sabbath.
Whatever the Knights of Columbus prefer to believe, the fact is, the Santa Myth is more integral to Christmas than the Jesus one. The figure most associated with the holiday is not a thin man on a cross, but a fat man in a red suit.
The giving of gifts this time of year derives from the aforementioned Roman festival of Saturn that coincided with the winter solstice, and was marked by drunken debauchery. In northern Europe, presents were traditionally given to children on December 5, the Feast Day of St. Nicholas—Santa Claus is a corruption of Saint Nich-las—by clergymen in red vestments. These gifts were not of the Xbox One/PS4 variety. It was only in the late nineteenth century, through the imaginative work of cartoonist Thomas Nast and the burgeoning advertising industry, that Santa Claus took his modern, bowl-full-of-jelly shape, and the kindly custom of gift-giving met the mass-production line.
This is where Christmas has gone astray. Gifts are not just for good children, but for all children, as well as parents, and grandparents, and aunts and uncles and cousins, and teachers and co-workers and bus drivers and postal carriers and doormen and newspaper deliverymen and the UPS guy. If we don’t partake in this orgy of gift-giving, in which we invariably give more than we receive, we are regarded as cheap, as not being in the holiday spirit, as humbugs, as un-American. Every Wal-Mart commercial, every Henry & David catalogue, every Christmas special of every TV show, every version of “Jingle Bells” playing at every supermarket[1. The lamentable shift to holiday music began this year before my birthday on November 13!], every piece of tinsel on every tree, every wreath on every door, every newspaper article about retailers and the economy, every mall Santa, every Elf on every Shelf, drives home relentlessly the same point: if you don’t participate in this tradition by buying as much stuff as possible, you are a bad person, a Scrooge, a hater of America, a hater of children. Fear of nonconformity, guilt (Did I get them enough presents? Will they be disappointed?), shame—the same forces that compelled Cotton Mather to burn alleged witches at the stake drive us to the box stores the day after Thanksgiving.
So we buy. Buying is a ritual we are all—Christian, Jew, Muslim, agnostic, atheist, or recovering Catholic like me—obliged to observe in order to be fully part of American society. Buying stuff is what George W. Bush instructed us to do after 9/11. It is our civic duty. And like characters in a Shirley Jackson story, we all participate.
And every year it gets worse, the monster gets bigger. Seuss and Schultz both railed against commercialism decades ago—Santa himself inveigled against it in the remarkably prescient Miracle on 34th Street, which was released way back in 1947—and that was before shoppers were routinely trampled at Wal-Mart, vying for the last $99 tablet; before the factory fires in Bangladesh, where virtual slaves make the baubles we stuff into stockings, as well as the stockings; before the shopping season encroached on Thanksgiving Day itself.
This is not gift-giving. This is taxation, and Santa Claus is the anti-Grover Norquist.
The genius of Christmas as holiday of mandatory gift-giving—the sinister, diabolical genius—is that there is no obvious way to rebel against it. Just as the evil masterminds at De Beers have made it a requirement for all marriage proposals to involve a diamond ring of considerable size, and their counterparts at Hallmark have mandated Honoring Thy Mother on the second Sunday of every May, so the retail industry, with a big assist from Madison Avenue and Hollywood, has created a culture in which the exchange of Christmas presents is compulsory. Skip the ring, and your fiancée will think you’re a cheapskate; bail on Mother’s Day, and your mom’s feelings will be hurt; shirk your Santa duties, and your kids will be devastated. It’s a gun to the head of every parent in America, and the finger on the trigger belongs to a chubby and plump, right jolly old elf.
Complicating matters is that, as a father, I want to spoil my children. I want them to have presents, I want them to be happy. I want them to experience the joy and wonder of Christmas morning. But I question whether the way the presents are distributed—a pile of them, all on one glorious morning, after a stressful month of fretting about the concepts of niceness and naughtiness, and delivered by a portly old guy who could not even be conceived of today without allowing for the possibility that an old man who encourages little boys and girls to sit on his lap and whisper fantasies in his ear is probably a child molester—is healthy. Is the Santa Myth even good for kids? Does it not perpetuate the dangerous notion that life is easy, that everything we want will be given to us regardless of how hard we work or how well we behave?
I enjoyed Christmas when I was a boy—who doesn’t like to wake up to a bunch of presents? But even then, my relationship to receiving presents was uneasy. One year, I was convinced that there would be coal in my stocking, and was surprised to find that, no, there were presents under tree after all—and even more surprised when kids I knew to be far naughtier than I got even nicer gifts. Even when I got a particularly satisfying haul, it was still somehow bathetic, because the actual opening of presents can never realistically match the ridiculous expectations we were encouraged to have. Fantasies lived out are always disappointing, and what is Christmas morning but a fantasy?
Then there were financial considerations, which even as a boy I was keenly aware of. Why were there so many discrepancies? Some kids in my class got more stuff than others; did Santa love them more? Were they nicer kids? Why didn’t Kris Kringle swoop down chimneys of my friends who were Jewish? That didn’t seem fair. Why were we constantly hearing on the news about kids who had nothing for Christmas? Why couldn’t Santa visit them too? And how the hell did he get to every house in Christendom in one magical night?
My parents came up with clever ways to explain some of this stuff. We give Santa the money for the presents, Greg. We consult with him about what to get you. Don’t forget about time zones—there’s more time than you think for him to get around. Also, it’s the longest night of the year. My father was particularly good at extending the story—although he never managed to explain why Santa’s handwriting on the presents was exactly the same as his own.
As a parent, Christmas morning has yet to live up to my expectations. My kids were too young to really understand it, or they didn’t like some of the presents I thought they would, or they were overwhelmed by the volume of gifts, or they had tantrums. This year, they are seven and nine (my son turns nine on Christmas, which is its own special challenge), old enough to grasp the concept of Santa, but still young enough to flip out. We’ll do our duty as parents, as Americans, as consumers, and spend money we don’t really have on presents. We’ll don the proverbial Santa’s cap and lay out the gift-wrapped bounty. But I suspect that in the long run, we’d all be better served by exorcizing the demon, by casting Satan…or his anagrammatical ambassador, Santa…out of our house.
But this is easier said than done. I could put some sort of limit on how many presents to give the kids—let’s face it, the Hanukkah eight-presents-over-eight-days delivery system is vastly superior to everything in one clumsy chimney dump—and not invest much energy in the Santa Myth. And then, instead of buying presents for the grown-ups in my life, I could take the money I would have used and instead give it to charity. And not some Mitt Romney tax-write-off charity, either; one that actually makes life better for the poor and needy. If there is a meaning of Christmas, isn’t it that we’re supposed to make sure that our fellow citizens are fed, and warm, and cared for? That we help the poor and the needy? That we put aside our differences and petty conflicts and love one another? (Here, the Knights of Columbus would nod vigorously and say, “Exactly! Do as Jesus did! In other words, keep the Christ in Christmas!“)
Buried beneath Santa’s beard, hidden in the manger below the plastic Baby Jesus, there is, I’m convinced, a nondenominational sense of warmth and kindness that is known, for better or worse, as the Christmas spirit. In the deepest winter, on the longest night of the year, we yearn for goodness and light, and we want to provide it for one another. That is the true meaning of Christmas. Santa Claus may have been inspired by that feeling of collective goodwill, a feeling he exemplifies so beautifully to eight-year-old Natalie Wood in Miracle, but somewhere between here and 34th Street, he went to the dark side.