Letter From America: Bah, Humbug!

It's Nov. 26. Exactly a month to what the British call "Boxing Day" and I (with relief) welcome as the day after Christmas. Big Illinois carpenters are doing their stuff in the lobby of the Hilton in downtown Chicago. And there, placed archly by the revolving doors, is the little sign: EXCUSE OUR DUST. ELVES HARD AT WORK.

Once again, the season of cloying coyness and enforced good cheer is upon us. Lord God, how I hate it! And there is no escape. Outside the Hilton, on my way to see a sensational exhibition of Gauguin and Van Gogh at the city's art museum, I happen to stroll through the plaza named for the jowly and chunky Mayor Richard J. Daley, home to a gargantuan outdoor sculpture that locals call "The Picasso." Opinion divides as to whether its apparent visage is that of a raging bull or a lean-faced rent collector. Whatever, it's hardly something to easily pass unnoticed. And yet there it is, the great metallic figure, almost lost in a seasonal surround of gingerbread-village stalls, blaring "Xmas" music and hawking tinselly junk for the "Ho Ho Ho."

Chicago under the Daley machine used to be derided as a "one-party state," evoking a certain spirit of totalitarian group-think. That's America during The Holidays. In all public places, from train stations to pharmacies, the same music. On all channels of the TV and radio, all the time, the same jokes and jingles and relentless propaganda. In the streets and in the schools, the same exhortations, the same conscriptions to belief, the same repetitive invocation of the birth of a "Dear Leader." And it goes on from Thanksgiving to the New Year.

This is hard enough to take, merely in our capacity as citizens. But what of those of us who are also members of the honorable journalistic profession? Every supposed standard is allowed to collapse, as if the Lord of Misrule had been given a month's sway over the newsroom. The stories write themselves, from sentimental pieces about the plight of the homeless to the hardy perennial about the American Civil Liberties Union and its regular lawsuit about cribs or Nativity scenes on public property. Do these violate the hallowed separation of church and state? The yawn begins before the controversy.

I've only read one original Yuletide report in the past decade. Some enterprising correspondent in Tokyo decided to file a story about the way that Japanese salesmanship was responding to the annual festive surge. In the window of one Tokyo department store, I learned, there was a new commercial icon--a figure of Santa Claus nailed to a cross. Unclear on the concept, you might say. But this is now the preferred centerpiece of my own seasonal dining table, summarizing an eternal question. Is Christmas a religious festival, and if so, is it a Christian one?

The issue doesn't possess quite the same force in Europe, where the idea of a monotheistic late-December fiesta has somewhat deeper roots. But the American Christmas, confected hastily out of one "Yes, Virginia" response in a letters column, and one awful poem about the night before, fully deserves Tom Lehrer's famous denunciation as the acme of kitsch:

The nation already has one distinctive and unique holiday, with historically religious origins but no ghastly tradition of gift-giving. Christmas follows too soon upon Thanksgiving not to tread upon it.

Again in contrast with Europe, Americans allow themselves remarkably few days off. Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Columbus Day, Veterans Day and that's about it. I suspect that there are a number of people who would rather have their mail delivered, be able to do some business and get an intelligent answer out of the other end of the phone than ingest another pointless and often tasteless roast fowl.

Take these two points together and one has the basis for a reasoned objection to the whole Christmas imposition. It is (a) pseudo-Christianity in a multicultural society, and thus as offensive (one hopes and presumes) to Christians as to nonbelievers. It is (b) a pseudoholiday that creates as much boredom and depression as exhilaration. This ought to be enough to qualify it as anti-American.

Returning from Chicago to my hometown of Washington, I read with interest the many upset comments about this year's White House plans. The annual tour of the Executive Mansion's various trimmings has been closed to the public and will be available only to the elite. "Security" was of course the justification. But there was more than one Washingtonian who thought that any diminution of the Christmas hysteria was better than none.