'Tis the Season To Be Incredulous
The moral and aesthetic nightmare of Christmas.
I had never before been a special fan of that great comedian Phyllis Diller, but she utterly won my heart this week by sending me an envelope that, when opened, contained a torn-off square of brown-bag paper of the kind suitable for latrine duty in an ill-run correctional facility. Duly unfurled, it carried a handwritten salutation reading as follows:
Times are hard
Here's your f******
I could not possibly improve on the sentiment, but I don't think it ought to depend on the current austerities. Isn't Christmas a moral and aesthetic nightmare whether or not the days are prosperous?
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. 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.
I have just flung aside my copy of the Weekly Standard, a magazine with a generally hardheaded and humorous approach to matters. It contains two seasonal articles that would probably not have made print were it not for the proximity to the said solstice. (To be fair, the same can be said of the article that you are reading, but I claim exemption under the terms of the "to hell with all that" amendment.) In the first example, the gifted Joseph Bottum complains that it's hard to write a new Christmas carol lyric because—well, because the existing model is composed of songs of such illiterate banality! But he presses on heroically with an attempt to compose a fresh carol, while fully admitting that the recently invented tradition of such songs creates an almost oppressive weight of kitsch. (He also complains of the doggerel-like mystifications of carols like "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" while not daring to state the case at its most damning—as in ridiculous and nasty lines such as "This holy tide of Christmas all others doth deface." Believe me when I say that I know my stuff here and have paid my dues.)
The second essay is a review by Mark Tooley of a terrible-sounding book called Jesus for President by a terrible-sounding person named Shane Claiborne. You know the sort of thing very well: Jesus would have been a "human shield" in Baghdad in 2003; the United States is the modern equivalent of the Roman Empire. It's the usual "liberation theology" drivel, whereby everybody except the inhabitants of the democratic West is supposed to abjure violence. (To the question of whether the plan to kill Hitler was moral or not, Claiborne cites no less an authority than the Führer's own secretary to claim that "all hopes for peace were lost" after the 1944 attempt. That, as should be obvious even to the most flickering intelligence, was chiefly because the attempt was a failure. What an idiot!)
But why is a magazine of the intelligentsia doing this to us, and to itself, this month? Tooley wants to prove that the legendary Jesus would have been more judicious and perhaps more neoconservative on these points. How can he hope to know that, or even to guess at it? Suppose we put the question like this: Imagine that conclusive archaeological and textual evidence emerged to prove that the whole story of the birth, life, and death of Jesus of Nazareth was either a delusion or a fabrication? Suppose the mother had admitted shyly that, in fact, she had fallen pregnant for predictable reasons? Suppose we found the post-Calvary body?
Serious Christians, of the sort I have been debating lately, would have no choice but to consider such news as absolutely calamitous. The light of the world would have gone out; the hope of humanity would have been extinguished. (The same obviously would apply to Muslims who couldn't bear the shock of finding that their prophet was fictional or fraudulent.) But I invite you to consider things more lucidly. If all the official stories of monotheism, from Moses to Mormonism, were to be utterly and finally discredited, we would be exactly where we are now. All the agonizing questions that we face, from the idea of the good life and our duties to each other to the concept of justice and the enigma of existence itself, would be just as difficult and also just as fascinating. It takes a totalitarian mind-set to claim that only one Bronze Age Palestinian revelation or prophecy or text can be our guide through this labyrinth. If the totalitarians cannot bear to abandon their adoration of their various Dear Leaders, can they not at least arrange to hold their ceremonies in private? Either that or give up the tax-exempt status that must remind them so painfully of the things of this material world.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.