Archive for December 24th, 2010

Christmas is not a time or a season but a state of mind. To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. –  Calvin Coolidge

When I was a wee lass, Christmas was pure magic.  We always set up our tree on the day after Thanksgiving, and that was also when the cultural signs started; Christmas decorations went up in stores and on houses, television stations started airing Christmas specials, kids started thinking about our letters to Santa Claus, radio stations started adding Christmas songs into rotation and people started cashing in their Christmas clubs at banks.  And in New Orleans, the Maison Blanche department store would set up its vast and fantastic Christmas display, a wondrous tableau of animated characters and music which stretched from the front windows all the way to Santa’s throne.  Every year we made the drive into town to see Santa there, and the long wait in line did not matter at all because we were so absorbed in the display.

The star of that show (and of a series of long-form commercials which aired during the season) was Mr. Bingle, a magical “snow fairy” puppet operated and voiced by Oscar Isentrout, a drifter from Brooklyn who fell in love with 1940s New Orleans and never left.  And I think it says something about the Big Easy’s style that the veritable voice of Christmas in New Orleans for over 30 years was Jewish.  Every morning during the Christmas season I’d get up extra early on school days so I could be ready for school and sitting in my little plaid skirt in front of the television set to see Mr. Bingle, and at night I anxiously looked forward to specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReindeerSanta Claus is Coming to Town and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  Every year my father’s employer threw a very generous Christmas party for employees and their families, with food, entertainment, gifts and of course Santa; how well I remember those!  Despite my precociousness in other areas I steadfastly continued to believe in Santa well past the time when most of my classmates had given up on him, and I remember crying when my brain would no longer allow me that level of faith.

But as the years have gone by, Christmas has changed; the commercialism which Charlie Brown bemoaned in his Christmas special (which first aired the year before I was born) has now completely taken over the holiday, and most of the magic has been lost as a result.  Though many of the signs of Christmas I loved (such as the Maison Blanche Christmas promotion) were certainly motivated by commercial concerns, they were not “the reason for the season” but rather helped to enhance it.  But now it’s all about shopping; Christmas displays start going up on November 1st, and many have referred to Thanksgiving as a “forgotten holiday”, overshadowed even by what is vulgarly (and endlessly) referred to as “Black Friday”.  You know, that day we used to call “the day after Thanksgiving”, which was once merely the official start of the Christmas season but is now touted as an observance in its own right.  The endless urging to buy buy buy, the artificial sense of urgency, the stress caused by overspending on far too many gifts (we used to get one gift from Santa and one from our parents, plus a few small gifts in the stocking), the whining by Christians that it’s their holiday and they want it back, the hand-wringing by multiculturalists who agree with the Christians and therefore insist on draining every vestige of traditional symbolism out of the observance, and all the other modern enemies of the Christmas spirit conspire to reduce it to an “autumn shopping season” rather than a time to be happy and to show love to friends and family and goodwill to strangers.

In other words, like so many other things in the modern world, Christmas has expanded in quantity while dramatically decreasing in quality.  The old Christmas was roughly 30 days of sweetness and magic, while the new “holiday buying season” is 60+ days of saccharine hype.  The old celebration was nutritious to the soul, while the new one actually leaches spiritual vitality.  And while the old one was organic and aromatic, the new one is wholly synthetic and entirely lacking in any bouquet other than fake pine scent to be sprayed on artificial Christmas trees.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  The hype can be avoided by turning off the TV set (or at least avoiding commercials by fast-forwarding prerecorded shows), tossing sales flyers and setting one’s spam filters to reject any rubbish with “Black Friday” or “Cyber Monday” in the subject line.  The crush and stress can be avoided by shopping early and/or online, and the joys of a simpler time can be recaptured by watching favorite old Christmas shows and movies on DVD while munching on homemade (NOT store bought) gingerbread men or Christmas cookies and drinking cocoa or egg nog.  Watch Norad track Santa Claus on its website (as of this posting he’s about to cross from Thailand into Cambodia).  Think back to your own childhood, and bring those fun and magical activities back.  Even if everyone around you is eating tasteless, frozen TV dinners, there’s nothing to stop you from cooking a real meal, and so it is with Christmas; just because everyone else has swallowed the prefab commercial “holiday” doesn’t mean you have to as well.  This is a time of joy, celebration and renewal, and you’ll be much happier if you treat it as such. Because that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

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