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A Christmas Reflection

December 25, 2011


I used to love Christmas time.  I still love the time.  I’m not sure why there has been steady pressure to convert it into a bank holiday.  I’m not sure who benefits.  Even the commercials on television have gotten so puny and small.  Santa as a car salesman. Santa running to Target.  Santa with an iPhone.  I am sure the ad company that came up with campaigns found them amusing.  They only work by the transitive property of algebra.  Here is something that had an unknown value.  Santa.  Now we swap it for something that has real value. Target.

Of course the problem is that it is a lie. Target has no real value.  It has no significant history.  No mythology. No universal appeal. The commercials don’t seek to reaffirm goodness in the world, but only to underline the absolute absence of magic in our lives.

A few years ago I was driving the carpool to school.  It was the day of the Christmas program.  I told the kids I was eager to come to the show.  I asked what Christmas songs they were singing.  There was a lengthy pause followed by the innocent reply, “We’re not singing any Christmas songs.  Our teacher says that they are too religious.  We are only singing songs about the Winter solstice.

It was one of those moments I wished I carried small caliber weapons.  I took a breath and said, “Who is your teacher?”

Alex answered back, “Mr. Webster.”

I said, ”Alex, you know Mr. Webster probably doesn’t know this, but the Winter solstice is religious too.  It celebrates Paganism.  So if he really wants to cut out religion he should just stick to Beatles songs.”

Alex was silent. He recognized the signs of an adult quietly flipping out while driving.  I was too angry.  I couldn’t stop. I calmly said, “Alex.  I have a question for you to ask Mr. Webster.  Tell him that Mr. Tobolowsky wanted to know many songs Johann Sebastian Bach wrote in honor of the Winter solstice?  How many paintings of Michelangelo were inspired by the solstice?  In fact I would like Mr. Webster to cite one reference to the solstice in the works of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Jane Austen. Just one.”

The decision to remove Christmas songs from a children’s Christmas show was the definition small-minded.  I shouldn’t have been surprised. It was the kind of choice you expect from an expensive private school in Los Angeles. 

I dropped the kids off.  They ran inside for another date with meaninglessness.

I calmed down when I realized there are a lot of fools in the world.  It was a good education for my kids to experience them at an early age.  I never went to the show.  I watched the video.  The children wore red and blue sweaters and sang meaningless songs about sunshine and mead. 

Last year I ran across the video in a pile of computer cables in a drawer of my son’s room.  I rescued it and put it in a safe place. Now it sits in darkness waiting to share that precious moment of my son’s childhood with forgettable songs and vapid philosophy. A celebration Dickens would have christened, The Ghost of Christmas Lost.

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  1. sanford sklanksky permalink

    Since your sons went to a private school Mr Webster should not have worried about singing Christmas songs. In a public school there is a big difference. Of course even in a private school there will probably be kids or the parents who don’t want their children singing songs. I would think some jewish students might not want to sing Christmas Carols.

    • Dear Sanford, that may be true. I only know from my experience – I never minded singing Christmas Carols. I never took them as theology. I took them as music. Pretty, joyful music. In Texas we also sang a few Hannuka songs. I don’t think anyone objected. Does the bar become set at only participating in a philosophy we agree with when it comes to art? Then where do you draw the line. Do you not listen to the Masses written by Mozart and Bach because they were church music? Speaking directly to your objection I do have a memory. As President of the student council I had to give the devotional for an assembly. At the end it was written out for me to say “In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.” I deleted IN Christ’s name we pray and went straight to the Amen. It did raise some eyebrows and brought some uncomfortable moments. In that case I was addressing theology. Maybe that is the line.

  2. James permalink

    After a parent complained about Christmas celebrations in our public schools, the Fort Worth ISD banned Santa, gifts etc. during “instructional time.” The backlash culminated in an district administrator announcing that “Fort Worth ISD loves Santa” while wearing a fuzzy red and white hat. But we still weren’t supposed to sing “Rudolph” in class.

    You won’t raise wise children if you act the fool.

  3. Mr. Tobolowsky (Stephen? Tobo?)–

    Thanks for that recollection. Your Christmas story leads me to think about a lot of things. I’ll just mention one or two.

    Religion in America isn’t officially opposed or suppressed, which it was under Communist rule in many countries, and which it still is in China. At the very least, that means individuals and families are free to sing the old hymns and songs in church, sing those and the more secular ones at home (like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”), and sing all of them out caroling. What changes over time is prevailing views about whether public schools, and other publicly-funded places like courthouses, are prevented by the Constitution from honoring one religion. And even private schools have to consider their audience, their market; if they’re open to families that are Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Taoist, etc. (immigrant families often come from those cultures), they might not want to observe Christmas.

    There was a Snickers TV ad back in the 90s that addressed that multicultural problem. Scene: football locker room before a game. Coach says a word or two, then, to provide a devotional moment, he turns to a priest. Behind the priest there’s a line of others, all in costume: a monk, some sort of American Indian ceremonial figure, etc. We hear “Not going anywhere for a while? Might want to grab a Snickers,” as we see a suited-up player shrugging his shoulders and peeling open a Snickers bar.

    As it happens, I don’t recall a Christmas pageant at any of my public schools in Texas back in the 60s. Maybe there were some–if so, they’ve slipped my mind. What I remember best are singing those songs with my family. Maybe your children had the same experience.

    Speaking of Texas, I knew who you were back at SMUT (you’ll remember the acronym, I imagine) and saw you in Ubu.

    Gladi I discovered this blog and your radio show. Will have to miss you tonight in Brooklyn–too tired to go anywhere after scads of work recently. See you somewhere else, I hope.

  4. Steven, as another Jewish guy growing up in Dallas, it wasn’t so much the Christmas thing I found confusing. It was the O Tannenbaum thing. Wasn’t Christmas an American holiday? What did the Germans have to do with it?

    • That’s certainly an imaginative question, dxkraus. It seems like a good setup line for a joke, or even a wry joke itself, but I can’t tell, so I’m taking it straight. Some questions in return: Does the word “Christmas” sound American? Ever heard of Michaelmas? It has the same ending (which means “mass” in the Catholic sense), and both words come from Old English.

      I grant that we Americans are pretty inventive, but–one more question–did the world need us to invent a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ?

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