By Marc Jampole
I started feeling under the weather at around Noon the day before Christmas, so I spent much of the late afternoon and early evening drifting in and out of sleep while the television blared Christmas-themed episodes of “Married with Children,” the 1990s dystopic situation comedy about a lower middle class family of selfish, self-seeking, uneducated, ignorant individuals who think only of material possessions.
All the Christmas episodes revolved around the father of the house, Al Bundy, trying to get his hands on money to buy Christmas presents, and each time coming up short. His various part-time jobs and schemes all backfire, or he fails to get to the bank in time or he gets drunk and buys drinks for the house at the bar where he ends up after a stint as a Santa, with all the other poor blokes playing Santa in Chicago. That one has a bizarre ending, as Al uses his one positive trait—his athleticism which combines strength, agility and speed—to take possession of items from the bar, all labeled “Ray,” and give them as presents to his family. Best gift: A gold necklace with the name Ray on the gold medallion to Peggy, the wife Al loves to hate and hates to make love to.
Along the way, the Bundys, and most other characters, display vile and venial behavior and say many cruel things, all of which is hilariously funny, because they form a harmless exaggeration of the real world. In none of the episodes do any of the characters consider anything about Christmas other than the tradition of buying, giving and receiving presents. Virtually all the action not in the Bundys’ seedy home occurs in the marketplace: Al’s shoe store, next-door neighbor Marcy’s bank, the department store and other mall fixtures. No spirituality. No finding the true spirit of Christmas. No affirmation of traditional values. Even the parody—no, travesty—of “It’s a Beautiful Life” in a misogynistic, misanthropic vision in which his wife and two children are all better off in every way if the miserable Al had not been born. We laugh because we recognize in the extreme meanness and venality of the Bundys a parallel to our own lives and the people we know.
In Al Bundy’s world, love, friendship and every other emotion can only be found in money and material possessions, the values of American consumerism.
Also in the world of Donald Trump. All his talk about a war on Christmas involves the public market of commerce and has no spiritual element. It’s as if anything having to do with the religious aspects of Christmas—the story and its meaning, going to a mass or other church service, volunteering to feed the homeless, even caroling—has been consumed in a miasma of commercial values.
From Bill O’Reilly in 2012 through Donald Trump this year, the war on Christmas has always reduced to the secular marketplace. Do clerks and cashiers say “Merry Christmas” and thereby manifest their religiosity or do they utter the blasphemous “Seasons Greetings” and risk eternal damnation? Do the decorations have images of the Christ child and the legend “Merry Christmas” or do they rip all Christian doctrine to shreds by interspersing “Happy Hanukkah” and menorahs among “Seasons Greetings” placards and sundry Santa Clauses, sleighs, decorated trees and colorful wrapped-and-bowed packages? Instead of letting the marketplace operate without constraints, like conservatives are supposed to, those who believe that Christians must fight back in some religious war propose to regulate the market by stressing their one holiday. The authoritarian plea is meant to intimidate other cultures by stressing the primacy of one religion as a means to establish it as a de facto, and (they hope) someday de jure, national faith. This intimidation is a kind of softening up of all minorities for other assertions of Christian dominance such as refusing to bake wedding cakes for gay weddings, making abortion as hard as possible if not illegal, buying into a global war on Islam, and tampering with science and history text books.
Many pundits have already detailed the many reasons why conceiving of a war on Christmas as a Trojan horse for a war on secular values is wrong. Briefly, we are a secular society founded by fairly unreligious rich folk. Furthermore, Christmas iconography already dominates most celebration, even if has ceased to have or never had religious significance. Moreover, making potential customers feel uncomfortable is never good marketing. As a Jewish atheist, I won’t shop in any store, online or brick-and-mortar, once someone has said “Merry Christmas” to me. I imagine many other Jews, Muslims, Hindi and Buddhists have similar feelings. The idea of secularizing Christmas in the marketplace makes good business sense, and it doesn‘t disturb the private celebrations of Christians. Let’s also consider that making “Merry Christmas” the standard greeting debases its religious connotation, because it turns the phrase into a secular greeting that everyone gives everyone.
The rightwing media has taken up the battle cry against the war on Christmas for five years, but most mainstream media has recognized it is a false issue, a fake war.
So who else but a charlatan to declare victory in a fake war? It makes perfect sense that Donald Trump would claim that he had won the war on Christmas by re-instilling Christian values in the marketplace, from which secularists (read: liberal, feminist, gay, immigrant and minority) had vanquished it. At his rallies over the past few weeks, The Donald has been patting himself on the back for bringing Christmas back. Now, a nonprofit started by former Trump aides is going to run a Christmas day commercial in which a series of everyday Americans thank Trump for what he has done since his administration took over. Among the many faces of casually dressed people in various locations, mostly white but a token number of people of color —all manifesting traits associated with working class people—is a beautiful young white girl who says, “Thank you for letting us say “Merry Christmas” again.” Someone should tell that little girl that it was never against the law to say “Merry Christmas”; it’s merely thought in polite company to be poor manners to assume someone you don’t know is Christian. Unless, that is, if she’s an actress playing the role of grateful little girl.
Of course, they don’t really care about Christmas as a religious holiday, not Trump, not Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, not Meghan Kelley (who insisted both that Santa Claus was a real historical figure and that he had to be white), nor any of the other rightwing shills who said secular forces were destroying Christmas by their continuance of the decades-long American practice of marketplace recognition of other religions. They have all proved themselves many time to be committed to the values of conspicuous consumption and consumerism. But as elitists and authoritarians, they like the idea of giving the ignorant something they can be angry at other than the greed and acquisitiveness of their corporate masters, and in Trump’s case, fellow rich folk. All of them supported the mean-spirited tax overhaul, which Trump is publically calling a “Christmas gift” to the American people, knowing full well that it only the gift to the wealthy He has admitted as much to his rich friends at Mar-a-Lago.
Here in New York, we see very little evidence of more people saying “Merry Christmas” and fewer people saying “Seasons Greetings,” no stripping signs of Hanukkah from decorations, no increased religiosity in the sentiments people express in public interactions. Beggars in the subways make sure to include everyone in their solicitations. I did see one group of young men, mostly Hispanic, in seminary garb roaming together in the East Village saying “Merry Christmas” to everyone and being greeted with typical New Yorker’s scorn by the people with whom they tried to engage. I have also seen collections of Orthodox Jews publicly celebrating their version of Hanukkah in the streets to the same reaction.
But it may be different in the hinterlands.
In any case, let Trump have his victory, a hollow one because the more that people focus their celebration of Christmas in the marketplace, the more the true spirit of Christmas suffers. That was the lesson of “Married with Children” two decades ago, and nothing has changed since then. The marketplace long ago Bundyized the celebration of Christmas.