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How the Left Stole Christmas
Merry Birth of Guru Gobind Singh Day!
The American Conservative, January 19, 2004
"I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything can be apart from that—as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys."
These words of Scrooge's nephew describe Christmas in the America of my youth. Christmas was a special and wonderful time of year, marked by kindness and good cheer, with its myriad celebrations all viewed as ultimately stemming from the birth of the One who, in Dickens' words, "made lame beggars walk and blind men see."
Today's consensus is different. In last year's made-for-cable movie "Christmas Rush," one character wishes another "Merry Christmas," only to be told, "Gee, that is politically incorrect." And so it is. In one generation—I was born in 1964—Christmas has gone from being a widespread and joyous public celebration to the holiday that dare not speak its name. We now have "holiday trees," "holiday cards," "holiday parties," "holiday songs," and even, in one particularly egregious advertisement, a "child's first holiday." Simply put, there is now raging a "War Against Christmas," in author Peter Brimelow's trenchant phrase.
A hallmark of this war is an aggressive multiculturalism that has elevated a variety of formerly obscure or even non-existent festivals into faux-Christmases, principally Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and now Ramadan, but also Diwali, Bodhi Day, the Birth of Guru Gobind Singh, Dongji, and Chinese New Year. The reason for the elevation of these holidays is their proximity to Christmas, not their cultural significance or intrinsic worth. Indeed, Kwanzaa was invented in 1966, Hanukkah is traditionally a minor holiday (with no basis in the canonical Hebrew Bible), and Ramadan was virtually unknown in America until a few short years ago. Despite their recent provenance—at least as pseudo-Christmases—these holidays are now treated as coequals of Christmas, with public figures sure to pepper any of the increasingly rare mentions of Christmas with references to at least some of these others.
The desire to efface Christmas that lies behind the elevation of Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and all the rest is illustrated by recent developments in the New York City public schools. The Thomas More Law Center is now suing the school system, which bans Nativity scenes but regularly display menorahs and Muslim crescents. Nor are the schools trying to rectify this now that their hostility to Christianity has been put in the spotlight. Instead, they are vigorously defending the ban, claiming that the "suggestion that a crèche is a historically accurate representation of an event with secular significance is wholly disingenuous." The birth of the most important figure in history carries no weight in New York City, nor does the fact that the birth was first depicted in a crèche by another seminal historical figure, an itinerant friar from Assisi named Francis. It does not take a belief in the divinity of Christ or the sanctity of Francis to recognize their tremendous impact on the history and culture of the West. Apparently, though, the multiculturalists are eager to promote every culture but our own.
That the war against Christmas is part of a broader war against Western culture is shown by last year's winner of VDARE.com's invaluable War Against Christmas competition. The Columbus, Ohio, schools banned a performance of Handel's Messiah, which for the previous nine years had been the highlight of the year at a specialized school for the arts. The performance would have violated the district's religious-music policy, which came into being as the result of an ACLU lawsuit. According to the Columbus Dispatch, the policy stipulated that the proportion of religious music performed in concert be no more than 30 percent and that the performance of religious music be "based on sound curricular reasons" and not "manifest a preference for religion or particular religious beliefs." The educational bureaucrats who devised the policy, trying to be helpful, suggested the students perform "Frosty the Snowman" or "Jingle Bells" instead of Handel. Their ignorance and philistinism is appalling, though characteristic of those waging the War Against Christmas. After hearing Messiah performed in London, Haydn was moved to exclaim, "Handel is the master of us all!" and to write his own great oratorio, The Creation. But, in today's climate of "sensitivity" and "tolerance," beauty and artistic merit are scarcely a sufficient warrant for exposing delicate ears to the name of Christ.
The transformation of Christmas to "holiday" and the attendant impoverishment of our culture was brought about to accommodate not the small minority of Americans who do not celebrate Christmas but the far smaller minority—comprising those of all faiths and of none—who resent the overwhelming majority who do celebrate Christmas. In my experience, most non-Christians do not resent Christmas and generally enjoy some aspects of its celebration. This sentiment was well expressed by Philadelphia Inquirer editor Jane Eisner's thoughtful and generous essay of December 2002, in which she explained why, as a Jew, she was bothered by the suppression of Christmas and "[t]he conflation of Christmas, Hanukkah, and now Kwanzaa … into one big, fat indistinguishable holiday."
But the transformation of Christmas into "holiday" would not have occurred without a dedicated, active minority who resented and despised it. An upcoming film on the art-house circuit, called "The Hebrew Hammer," a spoof of blaxploitation films, features the film's eponymous hero and his sidekick, the head of the Kwanzaa Liberation Front, battling the film's villains, the sons of Santa Claus and Tiny Tim. Among the villains' acts of treachery: distributing videos of "It's A Wonderful Life," one of the greatest of all American movies and the favorite picture of both Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart. Judging from the film's Web site, it appears that "The Hebrew Hammer" at least has the potential to be funny. But the reasons for its making are not. As the film's director, Jonathan Kesselman, told the LA Jewish Journal, "I asked myself, 'What as a Jew really pisses me off?' It hit me when I was walking around a mall in December: I hate Christmastime."
This Christmas, though, you won't have to go to an art house to see a film inspired by disdain for Christmas. Disney is observing the holiday by releasing (through its Miramax subsidiary) another alleged comedy, "Bad Santa." This movie's Santa figure is shown being a drunk and having sex, is heard by other characters having anal sex, and repeatedly swears in front of children. According to the Chicago Tribune's John Kass, Disney is promoting this charming film with advertisements on TV featuring "a veiled reference to oral sex and an unmistakable reference to feminine hygiene" at times—such as during Sunday afternoon football games—when it would be reasonable to expect children to watch them. As Kass archly observes, "About the only thing that Santa is forbidden to do these days is mention the real reason that gifts are given in late December."
The whole point of "Bad Santa" is to mock and demean Christmas. The film's boosters say as much. George Thomas, of the Akron Beacon Journal, wrote in early November, "The trailer shows this as an anti-holiday film and it could be the much needed antidote to that good-will-to-man feeling that permeates the season." It goes without saying that the great Walt Disney would never have made such a film, but neither would any of the other major studios in Hollywood's golden age. They were busy instead making such delightful films as "It's a Wonderful Life," "The Bells of St. Mary's" (the film playing in Bedford Falls as George Bailey runs down its snowy streets on Christmas Eve), "The Bishop's Wife," and "Miracle on 34th Street." The journey from "Miracle on 34th Street" to "Bad Santa" is downhill all the way.
Kesselman has the same right to "hate Christmastime" as the rest of us do to love it, but it makes no sense to transform our culture and jettison beloved and popular traditions to appease such hatred. The malcontents and misfits who have litigated and complained to prevent such horrors as children learning how to sing "Silent Night" should not be allowed to set our course. What is needed, instead, is true tolerance, a recognition that the point of celebrating a holiday is just that—celebration—and the intent of those doing the celebrating is not to demean those who don't. As Jane Eisner wrote,
"Somehow we have to learn to coexist without calling in lawyers and initiating merger talks. We have to recognize the strength and distinctiveness of each celebration, and not force equality by pretending 'I Had a Little Dreidel' is on par with the heavenly melodies of Christmas carols."
I first began thinking about this while driving to my parents' in Michigan several years ago to celebrate Christmas. Even though I was driving on Dec. 23, I could not find Christmas music on any American radio station. Then I came across CBC 2, which was carrying nothing but Christmas music and whose announcers were regularly wishing their listeners a Merry Christmas. Their programming featured both familiar Christmas music and some gems in the seemingly inexhaustible treasury of beautiful Christmas music I had not heard before: Anne Sofie von Otter singing lovely Swedish carols, Charpentier's beautiful Mass for Midnight, with its generous borrowing from French carols, and Praetorius's stunning Mass for Christmas Morning. The sheer beauty of the music brought home what we are in danger of losing. And that the proudly tolerant Canadians were playing such music led me to wonder why we are, instead, sanitizing our culture of any reference to Christmas.
Rather than strip the altars, we used to try to add to all the beauty surrounding Christmas, the work done earlier by Giotto, Bach, Dickens, Charpentier, Praetorius, and the village priest and organist who collaborated to give us "Silent Night." Although not quite on this level, Hollywood's classic Christmas films have stood the test of time and are still being watched and enjoyed nearly 60 years after they were made. More recently, carols such as "The Little Drummer Boy" and cartoons such as "A Charlie Brown Christmas" have enchanted us, and they still do, nearly 40 years later. We no longer make such contributions, as the focus of the Christmas season is no longer the positive one of celebrating a shared tradition but the negative one of pretending that tradition does not exist, so as not to offend those who do not share it.
The result of sanitizing Christmas is now within sight: an undistinguished, uninspiring public celebration, devoid of religious or cultural significance or indeed of beauty, with nothing left but multiculturalist pap and tawdry commercialism. I do not believe that grim fate is inevitable. But that future will indeed be ours if we remain so unnerved by the thought of giving offense to those looking for a reason to be offended that we are afraid to celebrate our own culture, tradition, and religion.