It was a double-whammy – a Friday the Thirteenth in the middle of the dismal and desperate Christmas shopping season. That’s bad luck combined with angry drivers looking for a parking space, somewhere, trying to contain their resentment at being forced to buy that one right gift, which probably won’t be the right gift anyway. Oh hell, everyone’s going to be disappointed in some way, and maybe Ebenezer Scrooge had it right in the first place, before those three ghosts scared him silly. Christmas is a bother. This year, however, it was a one-day double-dose of dismal, and Christmas in Los Angeles is just strange. It’s the large plastic Santa under the palm trees in the front yard of all the vaguely Spanish ranch houses with the red tile roofs that go on and on and on, before everything turns to desert. There is a Santa on a surfboard here and there too. That’s also a tradition, and of course all the sappy Hollywood Christmas movies are filmed in July, so they have enough time to wrap up all the postproduction technical work for a December release. Ebenezer Scrooge, before his very bad night of odd dreams, would get it. Christmas is an odd time of year, especially out here, and maybe it is everywhere.
The problem is the built-in sadness and despair. Andy Williams may be quite thoroughly dead now, but each year he’s on the radio singing about how it’s the most wonderful time of the year – and it’s a wonderful life, or so we are told, as that movie seems to be on television three times a day too, the one about the fellow who wants to commit suicide on Christmas Eve but is saved by a bumbling angel named Clarence. All is not hopeless and the world needs the guy, really – but Frank Capra was full of crap. In his movie, the local slumlord and majority shareholder in the Building and Loan tries to persuade the board of directors to stop providing home loans for the working poor, but everything eventually works out. That’s not the world we know. Too many have lost their homes in the last four years, through what was no more than massive fraud, rewarded with a taxpayer bailout. The banks are sitting pretty. Their shareholders are sitting pretty. Others are living in the streets.
George Bailey had been right. The little guy with good intentions can change nothing in the system, and maybe the Christmas song that really gets it right is Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – the saddest one of them all, all about how from now on all our troubles will be out of sight, maybe. The song itself is from 1944, near the end of the war when our guys were far away, fighting and dying in Europe and in the Pacific. It fit the times, but its sadness is universal. Things won’t be as they’re supposed to be. They never are, so do your best – but you’ll cry a lot. And then there’s I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day – not played much, for good reason, as the narrator, so to speak, knows that “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.” The bells at Christmas are a bitter joke, but at least they’re something – not much, but something. One can hope. That’s about it. The song is based on a Christmas poem by Longfellow, written after his oldest son died in the Civil War, and just after his wife died in an accidental fire. Longfellow wasn’t having a good Christmas. Few really do.
Fox News isn’t helping matters either, as they seem to exist to create politically useful feelings of outrage, even when there’s nothing particularly outrageous going on. Obama never did apologize for America, and the Affordable Care Act doesn’t establish Death Panels that will order the execution of granny, and Obama shook hands with Raul Castro at that massive rally to celebrate the life of the late Nelson Mandela because it was the polite thing to do, a simple courtesy, not because Obama is actually a communist who wants to destroy our way of life – and he’s not coming for anyone’s guns either, he’s just suggesting tightening up the existing rules on who can buy what, when, because some awful things have happened and continue to happen over and over. And, by the way, there is no War on Christmas. Every year, year after year, Bill O’Reilly says there is, but everyone loves Christmas, oddly enough. People pretend to be nice. Some actually are nice. Gifts are exchanged, and even if the gift is not really the right thing at all, it really doesn’t matter all that much – gifts are good. If the Christians want to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, that’s fine – let them – but much more is going on, and none of it is a war of any kind.
Bill O’Reilly doesn’t believe that, and this year’s manifesto was the usual stuff:
Over the years we’ve taken on the role of protecting the federal holiday of Christmas. As you know, there are some Americans who are offended by any reference to Jesus Christ and that’s what the USA celebrates on December 25th, the birth of the baby Jesus. President Grant signed the holiday into law after Congress passed legislation in 1870 acknowledging the country’s Judeo-Christian tradition.
And so Americans officially got the day off from work. Everything was swell up until about ten years ago when creeping secularism and pressure groups like the ACLU began attacking the Christmas holiday.
Not really – they just suggested that using taxpayer money to fund all the Christian stuff in what had become a much larger holiday was unwise, as the Constitution actually does forbid the government from favoring one religion over another. President Grant suggesting a national holiday was a nice gesture, one of respect, but he wasn’t suggesting we take the first steps toward a theocracy, which would be recognizing a national religion, starting with funding its ceremonies from the general coffers. Churches already are tax-exempt, but so are synagogues and mosques, and Buddhist temples. The government recognizes that religions are a good thing, binding communities together and all the rest. Some like Christopher Hitchens dispute that premise – but at least the government is strictly forbidden to favor one religion over another. The guys who wrote the Constitution knew full well all the trouble that had caused back in Europe over all the centuries, and what had happened in England in 1688 when James II decided to marry a Catholic. They’re still fighting that out in Belfast every other weekend. There’d be none of that in the New World.
Bill O’Reilly disagrees, and what he sees as a War on Christmas is a reaction to being denied special and unique status, and funding, that no other religion is offered. He sees that as a War on Christianity itself, and it’s more than the government:
On the national front, there are three primary culprits seeking to diminish Christmas, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association. The most aggressive is the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which routinely threatens to sue small towns and school districts if they dare utter the word “Christmas” or allow choirs to sing carols in public schools.
The irony is that nobody is bothering the atheists. They are free to celebrate whatever they want to celebrate. They are free not to believe and they are free to snicker at anybody who does believe. That’s not good enough for these people. They want to banish any mention of Jesus in the public square. They are the oppressors.
O’Reilly misunderstands atheists. Yes, they are free to celebrate whatever they want to celebrate, but so is Bill O’Reilly, on his own dime. And atheists aren’t snickering at anyone. They don’t openly oppose religion, save for the grumpy Christopher Hitchens and the acerbic Richard Dawkins – they’re indifferent to it. They’ve moved on to other things. Bill O’Reilly can believe what he wants to believe. It’s a free country. It’s hard to see how Bill O’Reilly is being oppressed. He’s actually being ignored, which infuriates him – but it’s not a war.
And as Abby Ohlheiser observes, O’Reilly is not even being traditional about all this:
If you’re going to fight a war on Christmas, an all-out ban on the holiday seems like a pretty solid goal. It’s also something the Puritans actually accomplished, in multiple countries, for decades, putting today’s Christmas haters to shame. From 1659 to 1681, Bostonians faced a five-shilling fine for celebrating Christmas, a law that followed a similar ban in England during Oliver Cromwell’s rule, when the Parliament was controlled by a Puritan majority. Puritan Parliament there even decided to make Christmastime a period of “fasting and humiliation,” for all of the sins of celebrations of Christmas past.
The New England anti-Christmas sentiment was a de facto reality from pretty much the beginning of the Plymouth colony, too. On Christmas Day in 1621, at the brand-new Plymouth Colony, Governor William Bradford asked settlers – both Puritan and otherwise – to spend the day working on a shelter.
The dour Puritans didn’t like celebrating, in general – things always got out of hand. President Grant, suggesting a federal Christmas holiday, didn’t think that way. He was, after all, a bit of a party guy, or at least a notoriously heavy drinker. Bill O’Reilly does need to look into these things.
Modern Christmas did get out of hand, in spite of the efforts of Charles Dickens and Frank Capra. It developed traditions beyond its Christian underpinnings, and there’s no going back, no matter what strict rules Bill O’Reilly and Sarah Pakin would like to have us all follow, or slink off in shame. These things happen, and it is, after all, a free country. Santa Claus has nothing to do with Jesus, nor do the New York City City Radio Music Hall Rockettes – and Santa looks pretty cute on a surfboard.
The holiday evolved, even if you’re one of those Fox News folks who don’t believe in evolution, and at Slate, Aisha Harris argues that it’s time for the holiday to evolve again:
When I was a kid, I knew two different Santa Clauses. The first had a fat belly, rosy cheeks, a long white beard, and skin as pink as bubble gum. He was omnipresent, visiting my pre-school and the local mall, visible in all of my favorite Christmas specials.
Then there was the Santa in my family’s household, in the form of ornaments, cards, and holiday figurines. A near-carbon copy of the first one – big belly, rosy cheeks, long white beard: check, check, check. But his skin was as dark as mine.
Seeing two different Santas was bewildering. Eventually I asked my father what Santa really looked like. Was he brown, like us? Or was he really a white guy?
My father replied that Santa was every color. Whatever house he visited, jolly old St. Nicholas magically turned into the likeness of the family that lived there.
That didn’t help much:
In hindsight, I see this explanation as the great Hollywood spec script it really is. (Just picture the past-their-prime actors who could share the role. Robert De Niro! Eddie Murphy! Jackie Chan! I smell a camp classic.) But at the time, I didn’t buy it. I remember feeling slightly ashamed that our black Santa wasn’t the “real thing.” Because when you’re a kid and you’re inundated with the imagery of a pale seasonal visitor – and you notice that even some black families decorate their houses with white Santas – you’re likely to accept the consensus view, despite your parents’ noble intentions.
Two decades later, America is less and less white, but a melanin-deficient Santa remains the default in commercials, mall casting calls, and movies. Isn’t it time that our image of Santa better serve all the children he delights each Christmas?
Maybe it is time for that, and she has a proposal:
I propose that America abandon Santa-as-fat-old-white-man and create a new symbol of Christmas cheer. From here on out, Santa Claus should be a penguin.
It seems she’s serious here:
For one thing, making Santa Claus an animal rather than an old white male could spare millions of nonwhite kids the insecurity and shame that I remember from childhood. Whether you celebrate the holiday or not, Santa is one of the first iconic figures foisted upon you: He exists as an incredibly powerful image in the imaginations of children across the country (and beyond, of course). That this genial, jolly man can only be seen as white – and consequently, that a Santa of any other hue is merely a “joke” or a chance to trudge out racist stereotypes helps perpetuate the whole “white-as-default” notion endemic to American culture (and, of course, not just American culture).
Plus, people love penguins. There are blogs dedicated entirely to their cuteness. They’re box office gold. Most importantly, they’re never scary (in contrast to, say, polar bears and reindeer). Most kids love Santa – because he brings them presents. But human Santa can be terrifying – or at least unsettling.
And, with a penguin Santa, much Christmas folklore can remain unchanged. Being a penguin, Santa Claus can still reside in a snowy homeland – though for scientific accuracy we’ll need to move him from the North Pole to the South.
Well, she’s almost serious – but she does make some good points. The holiday, at its core a Christian holiday, has become much more than that too – by addition, not as Bill O’Reilly thinks, by subtraction – and it may be time for the Santa stuff that was added to evolve a bit too. The penguin thing may be a bit much, but it’s not a bad idea.
That Slate item caused no end of consternation at Fox News:
On Wednesday night Megyn Kelly declared on her Fox News show that both Santa Claus and Jesus were white. Discussing a piece in Slate by Aisha Harris about a black versus white Santa, Kelly that “just because it makes you feel uncomfortable it doesn’t mean it has to change.”
“You know, I’ve given her her due. Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change,” Kelly said. “Jesus was a white man, too. It’s like we have, he’s a historical figure that’s a verifiable fact, as is Santa. I just want kids to know that. How do you revise it in the middle of the legacy in the story and change Santa from white to black?”
And there’s this:
The unusual segment, where the panelists also debated whether Santa Claus should be a penguin as Harris writes in her piece, seemed to be directly contradicting what Kelly said on Monday when she appeared on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”
“I’m a straight news anchor, I’m not one of the opinion hosts,” she told Leno. “The way we do it on the Fox News Channel is the straight news anchors like us give a hard time to both sides.”
It seems as though there may be other things to debate that are “straight news” beyond whether Santa and Jesus where white.
Well, there is a war going on, as they see it, but by the end of the week, that unlucky Friday, it seems it was just a misunderstanding:
Megyn Kelly said tonight on her Fox News Channel program that her Wednesday show segment, in which she said that Santa Claus and Jesus are white, was tongue-in-cheek and that anyone who says otherwise needs to lighten up. “Humor is a part of what we try to bring to this show, but sometimes that’s lost on the humorless,” she said on tonight’s The Kelly File. “This would be funny if it were not so telling about our society, in particular, the knee-jerk instinct by so many to race-bait and to assume the worst in people, especially people employed by the very powerful Fox News Channel.”
She shifted the talk from the War on Christmas to the War on Fox News. Everyone calls them racists when they simply point out that this is a white world, so get used to it. It’s so unfair!
Kelly will have none of that:
Kelly said Wednesday. “Santa just is white, but this person is just arguing that maybe we should also have a black Santa. But Santa is what he is, and just so you know, we’re just debating this because someone wrote about it, kids.”
Then on tonight’s show, Kelly said: “Contrary to what my critics have posited, neither my statement, nor Harris’, I’m sure, was motivated by any racial fear or loathing. In fact, it was something far less sinister: a lifetime of exposure to the very same commercials, mall casting calls, and movies Harris references in her piece. Should that change? Well, that debate got lost because so many couldn’t get past the fact that I acknowledged, as Harris did, that the most commonly depicted image of Santa, does, in fact, have white skin.”
She did acknowledge tonight that her assertion Wednesday that Jesus was a white man “is far from settled.”
All that was left was to play the victim card, as the trump card here:
“The fact that an offhand jest I made during a segment about whether Santa should be replaced by a penguin has now become a national firestorm says two things: Race is still an incredibly volatile issue in this country, and Fox News, and yours truly, are big targets for many people.”
There may be a reason for that, and Andrew Sullivan, passing over the Santa thing, is not impressed with the Jesus thing:
Now it’s clear this was an ad lib, not really thought through, so we should cut Kelly some slack. But she’s wrong on two levels – wrong because Jesus was not a Northern European white person, but a Middle Eastern Jew. And as a Middle Eastern Jew under the Roman Empire, Jesus was at the bottom of the heap in the power-structure of his time. And that’s the point. The Messiah came from the lowest rung, not the highest. The comfort that white people feel when they are a majority in a democratic society is about as far away from Jesus’ experience of the world as it is possible to get.
She’s also wrong in even considering the color of Jesus’ skin – something unmentioned in the Gospels – as relevant.
There’s a reason for that:
The categories of race, of gender, and of social class are abolished in the Christian vision. This doesn’t mean they cease to exist as part of the world, for reasons of biology and social construction. But it does mean that Christians will never seek to underline these distinctions, to build a politics out of them, or to identify a nation according to them. Some on the left do this, as do some on the right. But Christians shouldn’t.
These folks see themselves as noble warriors in the ongoing War on Christmas, defending the faith itself, but something odd is going on here:
It has been fascinating lately to watch Fox News go after the Pope for reiterating long-standing Catholic and Christian doctrine about the false god of materialism. By echoing Jesus’ insistence that you cannot know the kingdom of Heaven if you are bound up in wealth and possessions, the Pope drew charges of Marxism (which is anathema to Christians for the same reasons that unrestrained market capitalism is) and engaging in politics (from a channel that has long insisted that Christianity cannot and should not be relegated to the private sphere). Maybe it’s because they have not subjected their own views to anything passing as critical engagement for so long that they have forgotten that Christianity is deeply, profoundly opposed to any system of government that values human beings by the material wealth they create.
And there’s more:
When you absorb the constant racial undertones on Fox, and its constant worship of the god of money, when you absorb their long list of fears about the “other” – whether immigrants or gays or the poor – when you recall their glee at the torture of human beings, or their passion for the death penalty, you can’t help but wonder if they are not one of the most powerful forces against Christianity in our culture.
Maybe they are, and Christmas was hard enough already:
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men. …
And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
Ain’t it true, ain’t it true… And Fox News isn’t helping at all.
But it doesn’t matter. There’s shopping to do.