It is bleak, colorless January, the time so many of us breathe secret sighs of relief. It is over—at least until August, when the engines of commercial Christmas will rev with a high whine. For a time, though, we are freed from expectations and comparisons, checklists and chores.
What is wrong with U.S. culture? Maslenitsa, the Slavic “Pancake Week” that ends harsh winter, does not prompt suicide hotline calls. Rarely do Brazilians complain of exhaustion and frazzled nerves after the monthlong costumed dancing and bonfires of Festa Junina. Here, we drag Christmas out for almost half the year, gearing up months in advance, then race grimly to the finish—quite a few of us crashing and burning along the way.
I imagine Christmas as once a calm and lovely holiday, even for nonbelievers. A swaddled babe, nuzzled by gentle cows. A young couple, awkwardly wed but happy to start a family. A bright star, mingling shepherds and kings to welcome the child. Hope, warmth, shelter, grace. For centuries, this holiday glowed bright in the dark of winter, offering an excuse to gather merrily with loved ones, share especially delicious food and drink, exchange tokens of affection, sing and pray.
But then we started to enforce it, using advertising to tell one another how to celebrate—and where to spend our money. And because we are a competitive people working out our destinies within a competitive economic system, we began to train for the event, one-upping each other by baking more elaborately, decorating more brightly, buying fancier presents.
Along the way, Christmas became more and more secular—understandably, because everyone wanted in on it. Even Hanukkah—a minor holiday for Jews—quickly commercialized itself as an alternative, growing bigger and shinier and pricier each year. But everybody celebrated Christmas anyway, because in place of the religious core, we had a cultural overlay of extracted virtues. In a profit-motivated effort to be inclusive, we romanticized these virtues in secular stories, layering in marriage proposals and family reconciliations and heroic acts done to save or delight those we loved. The stories—O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi” and the like—soon had a visual counterpart, with backdrops courtesy of Currier & Ives, then Norman Rockwell, then Seuss.
Vast as the States are, the Christmas imagery was all wintry New England: sleigh rides through the woods, skating on a pond, rolling a snowman, caroling… Then the aesthetic hollowed into Hallmark tropes, trapping Frosty inside snow globes and dropping the carolers into lit-up ceramic villages. Pink-cheeked families posed in matching pajamas in front of a full and symmetrical, perfectly tinseled tree and/or roaring fireplace.
These images are hard to match when your Uncle Fred is passing gas every time he barks an unkind laugh at the bratty six-year-old who keeps whining about a present he begged for but now finds boring and Mom, fried by weeks of solitary decorating, baking, and maxing out the credit cards, is hitting the martinis a little too hard, and Dad keeps sneaking off to his study to do a little work, avoid all the fuss and jangle. And global warming melted the white Christmas. And that Fraser fir is on the endangered list, because it has been farmed so purposefully, it no longer grows on its own in the wild. There is a big warning sign on the pond because a kid tried to skate last year and drowned. Researchers report that holiday music can be bad for your health because its repetition triggers stress hormones. Carriage rides work the horses too hard.
We work ourselves too hard. We are so eager for fun and profit that we lose all sense of timing and restraint. Christmas is like a U.S. presidential election or a big wedding, and because the preparations start too soon, more and more money is poured out during those months of anticipation.
Imagine if, instead of watching movies about Vermont Christmases, families went for a walk at their favorite park. If, instead of scribbling quick signatures on a hundred cards, we wrote a few heartfelt letters to our closest friends. If instead of a pile of presents, kids got a puppy. If Christmas dinner was a hodgepodge of everybody’s favorites, not a Martha Stewart hommage.
What is missing from that neo-romanticized version is the outpouring of cash. Capitalism is what ruined Christmas, because its minions wiggled into our brains and told us our lives were not picture-perfect. Stricken, we gladly agreed to console ourselves with stuff. This made eminent sense, in fact, because stuff, unlike familial affection, was concrete, tangible, and controllable, and would therefore guarantee satisfaction.
It guaranteed the opposite.
Restless dissatisfaction fuels the U.S. economy. So does the sleighbell jangle of new technology. In early December, I caught a snippet on the radio: asked about the future for Santa, one pundit envisioned a self-driving sleigh; another said milk and cookies would be delivered by drone. There were knowing chuckles. But do you see what we do? We remove teamwork. Quite literally, in this case. What use is Rudolph’s nose if the sleigh drives itself? And once you automate Santa’s wish fulfillment, kids play no role at all; they have no small kindness to offer in gratitude for all that stuff.
There is one holiday that celebrates gratitude, pure and simple. Granted, the narrative behind Thanksgiving is distorted. But if we set aside the pilgrims’ tricks and slanted national mythology for one more minute, we can strip that annual Thursday to a shared meal and a sense that we are lucky, blessed, grateful to be together. A day off, the sort of food that leaves you too sleepy to be irritable, loved ones near. Nothing to buy, other than the turkey or tofu and their accompaniments. No decorations but a vase of wheat or a toss of acorns. Granted, the very next day we will be rushing to put up those Christmas decorations, but Thanksgiving is an oasis, a time when—oh, wait. Black Friday now starts at two on Thursday afternoon.