Christmas Card

Reflections on a very special birthday (no, not that one).

Dear Reader,

Of the eight federal holidays in the United States, Christmas is the only one that is religious in origin. New Year’s Day and Thanksgiving are secular. The other five honor fallen soldiers, military veterans, the labor movement, Independence, and MLK. But Christmas—literally “Christ Mass,” the feast day of Jesus of Nazareth—is, nominally at least, a Christian holiday, and thus a rallying cry for conservative types who insist there is a War on Christmas that True Believers must resist by saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” and Keeping the Christ in Christmas, which they mostly do by putting oversized magnets on their Dodge Durangos.

While the name might be Christian, literally nothing else about the holiday is—not how we do it here in the U.S., anyway. The tree, the holly, the mistletoe, the bells, the lights, the fixed date at the end of the solstice period—all of that stuff is straight-up pagan. Santa Claus is a perversion of Saint Nicholas—SANT NICK-LAUS—an obscure fourth-century bishop whose feast day, December 6, was once occasion for giving gifts to children. Madison Avenue transformed him into the right jolly old elf, with the white beard and the paunch and the red suit and the (creepy) penchant for having children sit on his lap and tell him their secrets. Pop culture took it from there. What was once a quaint tradition of giving kids candy and modest presents evolved into a veritable orgy of gift-giving. Nowhere in the Gospels is mentioned the procurement of a PS5, likely because not even Mary and Joseph could score one.

In the United States, December 25 has become a feast day of capitalism—a commercialist saturnalia. This is reflexively derided in A Charlie Brown Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, and every other Christmas special or movie, and also by holy men and women in pulpits across the land, who insist that the true meaning of Christmas is to give generously to those less fortunate and participate in the cheerful spirit of community. Thus Mr. Scrooge sends a turkey to Bob Cratchit, and the Grinch—he himself!—carves the roast beast.

And yet, in the big picture, Christmas is mostly about putting retail concerns large and small squarely in the black. As a good quarter of the GDP is buoyed by this yearly outlay, that’s not a bad thing—no matter what Linus says. For better or worse, nothing is more American than Black Friday at Walmart. Sure, it’s gross to read about shoppers stampeding each other prior to rushing home with their treasures. But why are they there to begin with? To buy gifts for other people! Lots of gifts! For lots of other people! This is what we do. It’s in our DNA. And nothing—not stingy Mitch McPurplehands and Kevin McCarthy, not a pandemic, not even Ebenezer Trump—can make us stop.

It’s no accident that when the Soviet Union dissolved, it did so on Christmas Day. The Russians are no match for us. Even the Santa Claus story wasn’t good enough for us—we had to outfit him with a team of flying reindeer, including one with a shiny nose and superpowers rivaling Baby Yoda’s. That’s how we do it in America, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

For the Olear family, Christmas has an even greater meaning. Sixteen years ago, in the wee hours of the morning, our son was born. He was due on December 11, and because they won’t let you go more than two weeks past the due date, we used to joke about him coming on Christmas. The joke was on us! I remember our extended family gathering that Thanksgiving, and we all picked a day we thought he’d be born. Most of the guesses skewed early. My mother went with November 29. My uncle, who wanted to win the game, picked Christmas Eve—and everyone booed and threw stuff at him. But he was the closest! There we were, nine o’clock PM on Christmas Eve, and I thought, “Whether he comes before or after midnight will have a profound effect on our family for the rest of our lives.” And so it has.

For his part, Dominick hates that his birthday is on Christmas, but we remind him that it’s his own fault for being two weeks late. And there are some advantages. He’ll never have school on his birthday. December 25 is always the release date for a slate of great films (and, I guess, new music—he was over the moon last night that a long-awaited album by Playboi Carti finally dropped at midnight). It’s also the second-rarest day to have a birthday, after February 29. My relatives overcompensate for him being potentially cheated by having a birthday on Christmas, so he makes out like a bandit every year. And, most of all, it’s an easy day to remember. “No one will ever forget when your birthday is,” I tell him. “They may not always reach out, but they will always remember.”

Look, I know things look bleak right now. Trump is setting monsters free, Republicans are voting down modest covid-19 relief packages, the infection rates are astounding, and all the ICU beds in Southern California are full. We are not able to gather as we normally would. We’re already sick of this crap, and winter has barely started. But we light lights on December 25 because it is the culmination of the solstice celebration—the darkest, and the longest, nights of the year. This pagan festival is to honor the Sun God, after all. After today, we let the sunshine in!

And there really is so much to look forward to, gifts that, like the PS5, will be deferred: vaccines, indictments, hugs. The real Xmas present doesn’t arrive until January 20, and neither snow nor rain nor Louis DeJoy can halt its delivery. In the meantime, Dear Reader, have yourself a merry little Christmas now. Happy holidays!

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Programming note: Off Sunday, back on Tuesday.

Photo credit: A picture print from Courier & Ives. (These wonderful things are the things we remember all through our lives. These wonderful things are the things we remember all through our lives.)