Merry Christmas Slate Plus-ers!
This is Slate’s 19th Christmas, and each of them has helped us become the Scrooge-y mag you read today. Here’s a short history of Slate’s yuletide coverage, brought to you by the ghost of Christmas Past.
“Slate is taking next week off,” wrote editor Michael Kinsley during the magazine’s founding year. “We hear there’s a holiday of some sort. The site will be open and featuring the current offerings.”
The culture is giving Santa a hard time, argued former editor-in-chief David Plotz in “Building a Better Father Christmas.” Give the big guy the makeover he deserves.
It's a terrible time to be Santa Claus. Hollywood has Father Christmas dying (The Santa Clause), killing (Silent Night, Deadly Night), and being kidnapped (The Nightmare Before Christmas). On television, this season’s two most visible Santa ads portray him as an old lech (Victoria’s Secret) and a clumsy oaf (Home Depot). American parents, who suspect all strangers, see a pedophile lurking under that bushy white beard. …
There should and can be another kind of Santa for the ’90s. In an age that valorizes family and capitalism, Santa should be recognized as a champion of both. He has been married to the same woman for 98 years. He operates a fabulously successful toy factory. It has a package delivery system that makes Federal Express look like the Pony Express. Long before the Americans with Disabilities Act, Santa staffed his factory with undersized elves.
Santa is a role model for our ambitious children, the perfect benevolent tycoon. Santa works all year round, then gives away everything he made.
“Why Is Handel’s Messiah a hit?” “Because Handel’s extroverted intentions, narrative and musical, are super obvious. He’s the Andrew Lloyd Weber of 18th-century London,” writes Adam Baer.
Virginia Heffernan, a former Slate and New York Times T.V. critic, shared the “happiest kind of corporate Christmas story,” a history of “Rudolph, Bard of the Can-Do Christmas:”
In the late ’40s, a Greenwich Village songwriter named Johnny Marks was handed the kind of one-sentence pitch of which dreams are made. A red-nosed reindeer is shunned by his peers, only to discover that his bright nose allows him to lead Santa’s sleigh on a low-visibility Christmas Eve.
What’s awry, from a Buddhist point of view, is that for the most part we’ve lost the ability to let gifts make us happy. The means—gifts—and the ends—happiness—have become detached. Overwhelmingly today, we assume that the way to make people happy at Christmas is to give them what they have told us they want. This is true of children and adults. The whole process of wish lists, of clear and defined expectations, is in a sense what makes the contemporary American Christmas possible.
Wish lists, however, mean that the giver takes no responsibility for—no ownership of—the gift. From a Buddhist point of view this is inherently a mistake. Whatever we give to someone else we also, in a sense, receive ourselves. The gift itself has only the existence and meaning we assign it. Another way of saying this is that gifts are an extension of our karma.
Christopher Hitchens was Slate’s true #WarOnChristmas crusader. He wanted to write the definitive anti-Christmas polemic.
The late Art Buchwald made himself additionally famous by reprinting a spoof Thanksgiving column that ran unchanged for many decades after its first appearance in the Herald Tribune, setting a high threshold of reader tolerance. My own wish is more ambitious: to write an anti-Christmas column that becomes fiercer every year while remaining, in essence, the same.
As he explained in “The Moral and Aesthetic Nightmare of Christmas,” Christmas is like North Korea:
The core objection, which I restate every December at about this time, is that for almost a whole month, the United States—a country constitutionally based on a separation between church and state—turns itself into the cultural and commercial equivalent of a one-party state.
As in such dismal banana republics, the dreary, sinister thing is that the official propaganda is inescapable. You go to a train station or an airport, and the image and the music of the Dear Leader are everywhere. You go to a more private place, such as a doctor’s office or a store or a restaurant, and the identical tinny, maddening, repetitive ululations are to be heard. So, unless you are fortunate, are the same cheap and mass-produced images and pictures, from snowmen to cribs to reindeer. It becomes more than usually odious to switch on the radio and the television, because certain officially determined "themes" have been programmed into the system. Most objectionable of all, the fanatics force your children to observe the Dear Leader’s birthday, and so (this being the especial hallmark of the totalitarian state) you cannot bar your own private door to the hectoring, incessant noise, but must have it literally brought home to you by your offspring. Time that is supposed to be devoted to education is devoted instead to the celebration of mythical events. Originally Christian, this devotional set-aside can now be joined by any other sectarian group with a plausible claim—Hanukkah or Kwanzaa—to a holy day that occurs near enough to the pagan winter solstice.
Why Do We Really Celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25? Perhaps it was an “ancient world marketing ploy.” The pagans already hosted some popular winter festivals. The early church may have stolen features of these festivals to make themselves more attractive to converts.
Laura Anderson named “The Best Christmas Carols You’ve Never Heard Of.”
And Aisha Harris prescribed another St. Nick makeover.
Happy Holidays and thanks for being a Slate Plus member!