I once was in a relationship with a chronically depressed partner. Like most people arbitrarily screwed over by the universe, he wasn’t the biggest fan of Christmas. Completely understandable. The problem was, I am the biggest fan of Christmas. Or one of them; like love or the depth of my hatred for Tom Brady, it’s a difficult thing to measure.
Surprisingly, I have somewhat good excuses for this. I was, after all, raised on a Christmas tree farm. And other than the occasional anxiety attack brought on by my conviction that I was soon to be abducted by aliens or had somehow mysterious contracted HIV, I spent most of my childhood on said Christmas tree farm feeling pretty blissed out. Naturally, my parents knew how to do Christmas. They did it so well, in fact, that my mother had to inform me, at the ripe age of 12, that Santa Claus was not real. Not that I believed that a fat fleshly man came down the chimney after being flown by magical reindeer, of course. I was far more sophisticated than that and figured it was the slender ghost of St. Nicholas sneaking about. Even as a youngster I guess I wanted my enchanted world to be rendered historically accurate.
But back to adulthood. What to do with a partner that experienced Christmas as the entire world mocking him, on an annual basis, for a month? One strategy I used to bridge this divide was to make him an album of sad Christmas songs. There are, actually, quite a few of them, and some of them are pretty good; very good, even. This won me major points and the problem of Christmas, as far as interpersonal dynamics went, was resolved through empathy and compromise.
This was on my mind recently as I sat down to recompile that playlist – for although I now have a partner who is simply indifferent to Christmas (seeing as he is Jewish), I can’t think of any year better suited for a subdued Christmas than this one. And this got me to thinking about the utter weirdness that is Christmas in the United States.
Where to begin? Perhaps with the surplus of Christmas characters, tropes, and traditions – and how many of them invented by the consumer economy that keeps them coming back, earlier each year, seemingly indifferent to the widespread request to keep Christmas contained to a few weeks in December? Or, maybe, with the fact that the vast majority of the “stuff” of Christmas isn’t even made in the Christian West let alone the United States, but rather by exploited Chinese workers who only have a vague idea about what the hell all this crap is about? And how macabre is it that while everyone celebrates a holiday season supposedly about love and generosity, it also provides the framework for a vicious, ritualized partisan circus known as the “War on Christmas” manufactured by the Right to demonize their opponents? Come to think of it, could there be any cultural phenomenon more suited to probing the contradictions and sorry condition of contemporary American life than Christmas?
Considering all this, it’s not surprising that there is plenty of cultural output responding to, and rejecting this cacophony of phony, plastic happiness. In recent years, Drew Magary, in his annual Hater’s Guide to the William-Sonoma Catalog, has performed this necessary and sanity-saving service better than anyone. But there’s plenty of haterade to go around, from Christmas comedy flicks that give the middle finger to everything pure and innocent to the admittedly lighter but still satisfying Weird Al medley.
This year, however, seems to call for something even more melancholy; even making fun of Christmas doesn’t feel quite the same when you have to double check actual news headlines to make sure they aren’t from the The Onion. So when I reconstructed my Sad & Somber Christmas playlist, I determined to discover new tracks and aimed to compose something that would invoke the universal, rather than merely personal, sense of existential suspense the pending Trump presidency has lodged in heart of the American left. As luck would have it, I stumbled upon a track that all too perfectly captured what I was groping for.
Fifty years ago, Simon and Garfunkle recorded a simple rendition of “Silent Night,” but placed over the track a series of news reports from 1966. However, a sketch of the headlines could lead one to mistake it for a retrospective on 2016 rather than 1966; there are updates about the next phase of the Civil Rights Movement, the deaths of beloved celebrities, the victims of brutal murder, and the suppression of anti-war protest. The overlapping audio effect is eerie, but the familiarity of these stories and struggles is what elevates the experience to one of heartbreak. I could not think of a more devastating illustration of how the politics of today remain the politics of the 1960s; the injustices, the loneliness, the ugliness nearly all the same. The only element that prevents a plummeting into full despair is the reminders of those who fought then – and the realization that they remain, and that we remain. So, the happiest of holidays one can have to all of you this season; we’ll all have to help each other stay warm in the long winters ahead.