Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Who's Really 'Killing' Christmas?

Anyone who knows me even at a relatively minimal level probably knows of my devoted love of all things Stephen Colbert. That his new television show on Comedy Central is getting increasingly better after an unsure start is one more feather in the Colbert cap.

A segement which I particularly enjoy is his nightly commentary about the supposed assault on Christmas. Since Colbert's angle is as a mock television news show host in the mold of Bill O'Reilly, it makes sense that he has chosen to make these over-the-top soliloquies about Christmas, and it is incredibly funny. Here's an example:
Evidently the Storm Troppers of Diversity think there's a nicer way to say Merry Christmas. Sorry, Reich Marshal of Tolerance. I happen to think saying Merry Christmas is pretty nice already. And for the record, wishing a non-Christian Merry Christmas isn't excluding them. It's including them in our celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the only son of God.
...This war on Christmas is just a part of the larger war on Christianity. Christians in the United States are a persecuted minority (the phrase "all 80% of them" flashes up next to Stephen).

As one commenter on the above-cited website puts it, Colbert's technique is to "embrace the prevailing ideology so completely and so extremely that [he] end[s] up undermining the credibility of that very ideology."

As you can see, the whole "war against Christmas" idea has been pretty much a joke to me until today. I was listening to a local radio station, Mix 101.9, and the two radio DJs were lamenting the changing of the lyrics "Silent Night" to "Cold in the Night" at a nearby school. I'm sure Bill O'Reilly and John Gibson, another Fox News man and author of The War on Christmas, are as happy as anyone about this: more fuel for their pretty weak war against Christmas fire. Me on the other hand, I'm sad to see a station like 101.9 jump into this superficial fray.

I am Jewish, but there are certain things which I have always admired about Christmas. Some of these things are best encompassed by my two favorite movies of the season: It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and The Bishop's Wife (1947). These movies are great, but not in an easy, superficially warm and fuzzy way. Instead they deal with the darker aspects of the Christmas season with a nonetheless firm belief that human goodwill can prevail even--and maybe especially--in difficult situations.

It's a Wonderful Life
centers around a man named George Bailey brought to suicidal thoughts after losing a loan that threatens the bankruptcy of his family's bank. Bailey, played excellently by Jimmy Stewart, has already given up his personal aspirations to run his family's business. A humble man who has sacrificed so much for others over the years, George Bailey could now use the solidarity of his friends in their small town of Bedford Falls.

The Bishop's Wife, stars the wonderful David Niven as Henry Brougham, a bishop who, in planning the building of an extravagant new cathedral that is endowed by a widow as stubborn as she is wealthy, runs the danger of putting those that mean the most to him last. Cary Grant does a great job as Dudley the angel who comes down to guide Bishop Henry and his wife Julia, played by Loretta Young. The movie has a meaningful theme, embodied by one of my favorite movie lines of all time. As Sylvester, the kindly cab driver who appears a couple of times in the film is taking Julia and Dudley to the town skating rink, he says:
The main trouble is there are too many people who don't know where they're going and they want to get there too fast!

The movie indeed juxtaposes the couple's new life of going too fast without direction in the suburbs with their old life at a smaller church in the city and suggests that even a spiritual man like Bishop Brougham can get caught up in secular concerns. The triumph of The Bishop's Wife is that no one is portrayed through a black or white lense. Niven's Brougham is not an opportunistic louse but a man who has merely gotten caught up in the pressures of life. Even Cary Grant's angel is not wholly angelic.

Where am I going with all of this? Well, I wonder whether O'Reilly and John Gibson and the DJs in 101.9 desire an empty kind of Christmas: a Christmas that is prominent in word--on shiny letters on store windows and Christmas cards--but is absent in deed. A recent Christmas movie like Jingle All the Way reveals some of what Christmas today is lacking by concerning itself merely with the acquisition of material objects. If O'Reilly, Gibson, et al. want to bring back the Christmas of It's A Wonderful Life and The Bishop's Wife, a Christmas concerned with generosity and giving back to one's society, I'm right there with them. I suspect, however, that they have something else in mind, and by distracting their viewers/readers/listeners from the real problems of poverty and illness that ail our society with their empty gripes, they're getting us as far away from the meaning of Christmas as anyone.

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