Merrie Christmas

Posted by on December 25th, 2009 at 12:14 PM

Used to be on this day the entire page of newspaper comics carried, strip by strip, a Christmas greeting. Nice. Festive. Fostered a sense of community throughout a vast and increasing readership. The practice, however, did not originate in any particularly festive sentiment. Pure practicality prevailed. Back when newspapers were numerous—at their peak in the 19-teens, there were 2,200 daily English-language newspapers (today, that number is about 1,200)—some of them didn’t publish on Christmas Day. But some did. Cartoonists who were navigating continuity strips in the 1930s needed a way to steer through the confusion. If they simply continued their stories, readers of newspapers that didn’t publish on Christmas Day would miss a day’s continuity and be frustrated. So some brilliant syndicate official (no doubt) told his cartoonists: on Christmas Day, take a day off from your continuity and post a Christmas card instead; resume your story on the day after Christmas as if nothing untoward happened. And so they did. And the practice spread.

But as continuity strips died off in the years after the television influx, the original reason for Christmas greetings on the funnies page faded. And it died off altogether as the number of daily newspapers decreased: most of the survivors published on Christmas Day so the other reason for anyule greetings disappeared. These days, only a few strips are Christmas Cards; most are not. For those that are, tradition, not practicality, prompts the practice.

Most of those that aren’t Christmas Cards (wishing readers a “Merry Christmas”) are still “Christmas themed”: their characters find gifts under a tree or have big family dinners or are visited by Santa Claus. Such strips are following another trend: the trend, since, say, For Better or For Worse, of being “realistic” by reflecting the preoccupations of  “real life” in society at large. At this time of year, the prevailing preoccupation is mostly Christmas. The Denver Post, which I consumed daily, runs 66 comics, 53 strips and 13 single-panel cartoons. Of the 66, only 8 are Christmas Cards; 50 are Christmas themed—that is, 58 of 66, almost 90%, acknowledge the holiday in some fashion.

Christmas themed comics, by mirroring the world outside their borders, handily sidestep the brouhaha about where religion belongs in the contest between church and state. Newspapers are not government funded, so the Constitutional issue isn’t germane, but that doesn’t matter to the combatants. Those who want to put Christ back in Christmas meet those who want to keep government out of religion on the public square, where they have been squaring off for decades, the hysteria pitching higher every year.

Not everyone in the funnies avoids the issue. In his One Big Happy Sunday strip for December 20, Rick Detorie bravely confronted the issues and won, I think. Young Joe is telling the Christmas Story (each statement accompanied by an appropriately illustrative panel): “It all started when a bunch of ghosts visited an old grouch named Scrooge. Then Clarence the Angel scared George Bailey. After that, a guy on 34th Street decided to be Santa Claus. Pretty soon, a kid named Ralphie got a BB gun, and a snowman with no pants came to life, and Santa hired some flying reindeer and an elf who wasn’t really an elf. And that’s the story of Christmas,” Joe finished. But Ruthie has the last word: “Mom—Joe left out the Baby Jesus again.” The last word, “again,” turns an otherwise incendiary Christmas polemic into a family joke. Nicely done.

In Pajama Diaries, cartoonist Terri Libenson, who’s Jewish, explored another facet of the dilemma. She recognized the December 25th holiday by saying: “This time of year, it’s widely assumed that everyone celebrates Christmas.” In the ensuing panels, a gentile kid holding a gingerbread man cookie confronts a Jewish kid, saying: “It’s, like, one of the things everybody eats at Christmas. How can you not know that?” Libenson counters with a caption: “Then again, we all have our own assumptions”—followed by the Jewish kid saying: “Well, if it’s Christmas, where’s the Chinese food?” A little nonsense goes a long way.

But side-stepping or avoiding the issue, or changing the terms of the argument, doesn’t lay the matter to rest. It persists. To put the issue in more generic terms: What would Christmas be without a visitation from the Cratchits and the Scrooges? And here in the holy city of Denver, the disputation can take place on a Grand Scale.

Downtown, the city and county building, an imposing but gracefully spired and colonnaded edifice located at one end of a long park-like sward of green and flower gardens with the state capital building at the sward’s other end, is, as usual during this season, bathed in green and red floodlights and hung with evergreens that provide a festive setting for Kris Kringle and his cattle-drawn sled, a regiment of toy soldiers, and a nativity scene in which life-size plaster figurines bow before a plaster baby in the plaster manger while a recording of somebody singing Christmas carols is played over a loud speaker—a massive assault on the state by the church, you’d think, but you’d be wrong.

Denver’s Christmas extravaganza has survived every legal challenge mounted against it for 90 years—that’s right, the festooning of city hall has happened every December since 1920. And those who mutter that it’s illegal are wrong: both the U.S. and Colorado Supreme Courts have ruled that nativity scenes on government property are permissible if the decorations also include figures such as Santa Claus, reindeer and toy soldiers. Denver Post columnist Susan Greene professes to be baffled by that ruling: “It’s like telling your kids it’s okay to burp really loudly at the dinner table as long as they fart too.”

A Hanukkah menorah was added to the display a few years ago, “presumably,” Greene says, “to appease Jews who were cranky about the creche.” Greene is a Jew, but she doesn’t object that the menorah has, inexplicably, disappeared lately: “I am comfortable with its apparent removal on the theory that less religion is usually more at city hall.”

Legally speaking, the dispute is moot: since 1870, Christmas has been a national holiday by federal fiat. And since the Constitution forbids the state from establishing any religion, Christmas as a national holiday is, ipso facto, not religious. But there are other considerations than the legal in a multi-cultural milieu.

Paul Rudnick at The New Yorker (December 21 & 28) offers “some tips to help the sensitive Christians make everyone feel at ease and have a Happy Interfaith Holiday Season.” Among his hints are these: (1) When non-Christians are present, don’t call Jesus “Our Savior,” “Our Lord,” or “Mister Perfect.” Refer to him more casually, as “the Son of God or maybe not,” “the Jew that got away,” or “the bachelor.” When chatting with Jews, try to avoid the subject of the death of Jesus. If a Jew asks, “So how did Jesus die?” simply say, “Natural causes.” (2) Try to take a delighted interest in the Jewish holidays by asking questions like “Do you ever create a tiny Victorian village under your menorah?” “Does your family sing ‘Silent Night’ in Hebrew?” (3) Never refer to Hanukkah as “their Christmas,” “Merry Wannabe,” or “the Goldberg variation.”

Very few, if any, of Rudnick’s hints would appear to help Muslims have a Joyeaux Interfaith Holiday, but maybe it’s too soon.

Up the road at Fort Collins, Sheriff Jim Alderden, the man who tricked the Balloon Boy’s parents into admitting the kid’s flight was a stunt and a fraud, conducts what he calls the “Apparently Annual Politically Incorrect Christmas Tree Trimming Party” as a protest against those who protest public displays of the accouterments of what most of us regard as a Christian festivity. The party includes prayers, Christmas carols, horse-and-buggy rides, and a visit from St. Nick.

“It’s a real Norman Rockwell type of event,” Alderden said. It’s privately funded and takes place on land beyond the city limits. This year, the Leaders of Freethought and the Colorado Coalition of Reason had a sign on the premises: “During this winter-solstice season, illuminate your mind with reason. Let friends and family warm your heart. And celebrate that we all take part.” The satirical Alderden had no objection to the sign (or, we surmise, to the sentiment). Said he: “I told them I got a big empty spot out there just for atheists.”

Whatever our persuasion, we admire his sense of humor: among the things we need most these days a good laugh is near the top of the list. But maybe all the fuss is for naught, regardless of denomination or faith or the lack thereof. Quite apart from its legal status as a national holiday, in the popular culture, Christmas is no longer, and hasn’t been for decades, a religious event.

Christmas as we now know it was invented almost single-handedly by Charles Dickens. Before Dickens started writing about Scrooge’s miraculous transformation (which was effected by secular ghosts, not by any religion) and dancing at Fezziwig’s annual office party and the gustatory delights of roast goose and plum pudding at the Cratchits, few of our present Yuletide practices existed. Christmas as it is presently celebrated in public for most of December (and, lately, November) is therefore a literary convention, not a sectarian one. The religious aspects of the season are celebrated in the privacy of one’s home or heart or other place of worship. And that, you would think, should resolve the issue both Constitutionally and personally, legally and spiritually.

Personally, I plan to play it safe henceforth. I’m going to be wholeheartedly evenhanded about it. I intend to vacillate, year by year. This year, I wish everyone Merrie Christmas; next year, Happy Holidays. For the time being, then, here’s hoping your holidays include a few good laughs and other merriments, satirical or not, a dash of Dickens (the goose and the plum pudding at least), a plentitude of burps and farts, but no zombies.

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2 Responses to “Merrie Christmas”

  1. I must be missing a joke, but Merrie is purposely spelled oddly…right? I mean it is that way in the title too, I just don’t get why. I hope I don’t look like a dullard…maybe if I mention how I am, in fact, Jewish, that would explain why I don’t get the joke.

    • R.C. Harvey says:

      “Merrie” isn’t a joke. It isn’t even part of a joke. It’s merely an old English (British) spelling of “merry.” I like old stuff, so naturally, when it comes to ye spelling, I opt for antique vintage versions. Sorry.