"The Birth of a God and the Death of a Dream: Faith and Investment in America," Guy Slater (Spring 2013)
Though celebrated the world over, the Christmas holiday is a direct reflection of the American Dream. Its origins and evolution are as difficult to pin down as the trajectory of the American Dream itself, but both are imbued with a mixture of Christian and secular roots. What we value as a people culminates on this one day of the year like no other. In twenty-first century America, the holiday also encapsulates our increasingly consumeristic identity as a nation and the materialism that we are enthralled by - in both senses of the word. As Christmas’s material significance increases, its spiritual meaning diminishes proportionately. And so it goes with the “Dream”.
For me, Christmas is marked by ambiguity. I had loved it as a child but became increasingly disenchanted with it as I approached adulthood. I had all but sworn it off in my early twenties and didn’t care to look back - that is, of course, until I had kids. Suddenly, all of my secular cynicism had no raison d’etre and my beloved complexes were scheduled for deconstruction. My first born, who would reintroduce me to many things in the world, temporarily revived the thrill of Christmas for me. Through her, I was able to re-imagine the magic that had been lost to me over the years. The smell of noble fir, the twinkling of lights, the tinsel and shiny baubles, the aroma of homemade gingerbread, the repetitious issue of corny holiday songs, the stockings hung with care and, last but certainly not least, the promise of smartly wrapped presents in curly ribbons had made sense to me again, for the first time. Through my eyes, it was a deja vu; through hers, it was cast anew. As her brother followed shortly thereafter, Santa Claus, his reindeer, his elves and his grandfatherly jollity took on new dimension. The tables were turned. I had become a patron of St. Nick and a purveyor of Christmas cheer. But this was not to last. As my kids have gotten older, I have slipped more and more into that earlier posture of disillusionment. With the veil slowly lifted again over the years, I have come to see mostly the corporate machinations and the materialistic glut of the holidays. Admittedly, I have always known material comfort so, by proxy of twenty-first century Western hubris, it is my privilege to disdain it. In any case, Christmas’s expression in my home is ultimately tied to my level of faith and investment in our culture at any given time.
I recently read Truman Capote’s account of his childhood memory of Christmas in his autobiographical short story “A Christmas Memory”. It reminded me of my misgivings about Christmas but in an inverted sense. His story is obviously a bitter-sweet portrayal of the spirit of Christmas kindled in the hearts of innocent true-believers in the face of all odds, but I can’t help but get the feeling that there is something slightly insidious implied under the surface. The subtext strikes me as a kind of romanticized discontentment. It is as if he and his “friend” are refugees of a world that forbids joy. Steeped in Depression era ethos, their triumphs are marked by their ability to make the most of the little material they have, bolstered only by their love for one another. Without that love, it seems that none of it amounts to very much as every other circumstance of their lives wants to engulf the flame. It is their insistence of holding up a tradition that seems set against them that gets to me. Capote’s juxtaposition of poverty in the 1930’s as it relates to Christmas crystallizes for me that, for modern Americans, Christmas is the celebration of material one way or another.
Materialism is more important today than ever before in America. It is the principle on which our entire socioeconomic system now firmly resides. The impetus of social mobility and equal opportunity to attain material comfort and status is the hallmark of the post war (WW2) American Dream; a panacea for Depression Era iniquity. Its steady grasp on our cultural ethic has led us here, but the world has drastically changed and that vision is dying. Like many other aspects of American life today, Christmas has been contorted into a disarticulated, quasiecclesiastical celebration of stuff. And we have more of it; lot’s more. Our social mores (pun intended) today are less driven by unified social, political or religious imperatives and more by a kind of digital, prosaic mosaic. If social media and YouTube are accurate reflections of our culture, this is borne out pretty clearly. In terms of the influence this digitization of the American soul has on us, I would say that pre-internet generations interact with the world differently than the pure post-internet generation of my children for example. The world is less tactile and less informed by real interactions with others. We are connected by isolation now. Our social values are changing by the consensus of what is culturally important on the fragmented cyber-plane. It used to be that a bike and a Barbie and a baseball-mitt were the hottest kid commodities. Now it’s desktops, lap-tops, video game stations and handhelds; virtual currency, like the credit they were most likely purchased with. At the end of the day, however, stuff is stuff. We have all this abundance, but with diminishing returns. This has always been the arch of the American Dream narrative. Suffice it to say that Christmas is no longer the quaint Victorian holiday we inherited from our English forbearers. The question is, what does this all mean in terms of Christmas’s prime objective of celebrating the spirit of giving? Does the love of hearth and home and family triumph in a world that values the warm glow of a computer screen more than the warm glow of a holiday fireplace?
Every year since my children were born, my wife and I have fallen back on all of the basic tenets and trappings of Christmas as we had been taught them. Neither of us are particularly religious, however, so we have kept Christ more or less out of it. These days we dutifully fulfill the basic obligations of the holiday without much thought to innovation. We kill a tree, shop ‘til we drop, eat and drink too much, lavish material gadgetry on our loved ones, fight with instruction manuals and registration procedures, drive hundreds of miles to visit family, return and exchange ‘til we drop, collapse on the couch and then start all over next year. Blind repetition has become a substitute for tradition. Moreover, amidst this insanity, the meaning of the holiday that we convey to the children is peppered with lots of liberal lip-service about giving being the important thing even as we know full well that much of what we give, others have given more dearly for. According to an expose in the New York Times following a 2011 explosion at a factory in Chengdu, China, “Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple’s [and many other leading consumer electronic company’s] products, and the company’s suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records...” That iPad we purchased didn’t get manufactured without victimizing a bunch of people on its way into my daughters hands, not to mention the negative effects of its mass production on the environment. Our Judeo-Christian roots are increasingly trumped by our capitalist impulses, but designed obsolescence is an empty sacrament. Much of what we consume has such a short half-life that it is either outdated before it is broken in or, indeed, just broken before very long. Most are less expensive to replace than repair and summarily find their way into our garages, or worse, into the county landfill. To mix a metaphor, we barely notice the white elephants in the room. Nevertheless, my now adolescent kids tell me that they still get it. They understand that in the exhilaration of accumulation, love is at the heart of it. Like Capote’s Buddy and his fruitcake baking counterpart, they still see it as an adventure.
Though a child can reason with beautiful guilelessness, it is sometimes little consolation to me. I worry about a future that they cannot fathom. I worry that their world is going to hell in a gilded hand-basket. Even if the love is there, the technology that they have access to spoils them in a hundred little ways. They are able to download many of their experiences instantly without regard to the vast, often oppressive, machinery at work in the background. Consumerism reinforced by a holiday like Christmas, the touchstone of our American Dream, leads them further down the slippery-slope of material gratification. Perhaps a reformation of Christmas is in order. But how can we implement it? I am loath to think that some of that “old time religion” is the cure but I have raised secular humanists who celebrate the Son of a God; quite a conundrum.
Perhaps it is the lack of religious shelter, in my family’s case, that has led me to my feelings of emptiness on Christmas. Though we do not invoke the Christian teachings of Jesus directly, we definitely identify with those moral underpinnings as scant as they may be. I wonder what Jesus, the man, would say about his birthday today if he were here. The ultimate irony, of course, is that he was Jewish. The monumental structures of Christianity didn’t even find footing until a hundred years after his death, and the war and pestilence in his name in the millennia that followed would probably horrify him. Perhaps, after a review of the historical events that have unfolded in his absence, he would concede to the comfort of lesser evil. Post-modern, American consumerism might appear to him a refreshing contrast to the Inquisition or the Crusades. Who knows? He might even be as seduced by my daughter’s iPad as we are. In any case, I imagine he would probably tell me to count my blessings, and in that moment I would realize that maybe this is just as good as this “Dream” gets for better or worse.
Capote, Truman. “A Christmas Memory” English 1A Online. Jennifer Royal. Santa Rosa Junior College, 2012. Web. 16 Marcy 2013.
Duhigg, Charles and Barboza, David. "In China, Human Costs are Built Into an iPad" New York Times., 25 Jan. 2012. Web. 31 March 2013.