Editor’s Note: A classic from our December 1999 issue.
My favorite Thanksgiving is one I spent in London a few years back. The weather was gray, of course, though warmer than what I was used to from Connecticut. I spent the day at the National Gallery, which I found mercifully uncrowded, followed by half a dozen book shops. Then I walked back to the place where I was staying, the streets already dark at six o’clock and filled with people headed home from work. That evening I celebrated with my hosts and a few other Americans who lived in town, the holiday like a delicious secret among us on that ordinary English Thursday.
Remembering that day makes me think of another, a couple of years earlier. It was a Saturday in September, and by late morning the weather was so balmy I preferred to walk forty blocks up Park Avenue rather than miss it riding underground. At first I didn’t notice the families, the men and boys in suits, the wives and daughters in chic dresses, coming from all directions. They were chatting and smiling excitedly as if on their way to a party, perhaps a wedding. Then I noticed a synagogue half-way down a side street. A few blocks later I saw the same thing, as another congregation headed in to worship. How impressive, I thought; you don’t see the streets of New York thronged this way on Sunday mornings, with Christians so respectfully dressed up on their way to church. But it wasn’t an ordinary Saturday either. I had forgotten it was Rosh Hashanah. It was their holiday, not mine.
Every year about this time people start complaining about what’s wrong with Christmas. For many it’s commercialization. The environmentalist Bill McKibben came out with a book last year called Hundred Dollar Holiday, urging everyone to limit his Yuletide expenditures to that amount. The book itself, which was hard-bound and featured an artfully contrived “rustic” dust cover in coarse brown paper with gilt lettering, cost $25; so anyone who bought it would have an even tougher time making his quota of presents. I leave it to you, dear reader, to imagine the reaction you would get, particularly from the younger recipients on your list, by giving a photo album handmade out of construction paper and old kite twine, or a bottle of your own-recipe oil-and-vinegar salad dressing, which is the sort of thing McKibben recommends.
In my experience the problem isn’t spending too much but spending it indiscriminately. Well-meaning mothers and fathers often mistake the squeals of offspring over-stimulated by dozens of presents for a child’s authentic joy at finally getting that bike or talking doll he’s waited for it seems forever. (I know those examples are hopelessly outdated. It could be the hot gift this year is a holographic virtual reality Web-based stock trading game.) But at least this way parents hedge their bets; if they dared buy just one or two presents, they’d risk giving the “wrong” brand or model. Such distinctions are trivial to adults, but to kids they’re as vital as that between blood types. The only other alternative is to hand over the credit card and let them pick for themselves, and that really is commercialization.
Others complain about the related but not identical problem of secularization. This is more delicate. The United States is a non-sectarian country but our biggest holiday without question is the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth. Yes, more people travel for Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July is our national birthday party, but the one day in the year when stores and offices are almost certain to be closed, and people most likely to be home, is the twenty-fifth of December. I don’t know how I would feel about this if I were Jewish. A friend of mine who happens to have been born that day, so he throws a party and pretends the celebrating is all for him. But for most non-Christians, the more natural choice is to go along in some vaguely festive fashion. Thus the convention of “happy holidays,” bland but courteous, which I hear more and more even from Catholics and Protestants. And you can’t blame merchants for using Santa Claus as their spokesman, rather than the Holy Infant or the Three Magi as in some more homogenous lands.
Mark Steyn, writing in these pages four years ago, actually praised the American Christmas for its secular character, for celebrating the “universal, inclusive, aspirational sense of America” given voice by Irving Berlin, a Jewish immigrant from Siberia. But Steyn also admitted that this tradition has been dying for years, and that songs like “White Christmas” do not get written in our multicultural age. It seems the public Christmas has less and less to do with the love of either God or man. Still, it grows bigger and bigger. The “season” is two months long, and counting. The carols play incessantly in the shopping malls we virtually inhabit for that period. Ever since Ted Turner’s cable network bought the Grinch and Charlie Brown’s Christmas, kids have hundreds of opportunities to watch the specials I waited all year long to see. Perhaps we are compensating, bluffing ourselves into believing that we are more excited than we really are. Whatever the reason, I can’t be the only one who finds all this oppressive, who longs more and more for some quiet little corner in which to mark the occasion in peace, good will, and all the rest. Think of it as our Holiday Wish.