"Bah Humbug", "Orwellian Nightmare", "War on Christmas", 1984, A Christmas Carol, And Yet..., Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Bind Crosby, Christmas, Christmas Songs, Christopher Hitchens, Cultural Compulsion, culture, Danny Kaye, dystopia, Essay, George Orwell, Grinch, Holidays, Individual Will, Literature, North Korea, Novel, Over Commercialization of Christmas, Politics, Rosemary Clooney, Rosemary Clooney is a Goddess Supreme, Satire, Scrooge, Totalitarianism, Two-Minute Hate, White Christmas, Why do I never get a well built underwear model for Christmas?, Winston Smith
Bing Crosby does not at first summon up images of North Korea. At least not for me. He summons up images of Rosemary Clooney because, ever since my family started watching White Christmas at least three times a week every week during the Christmas holidays, I’ve discovered that I have an ceaseless and unashamed crush on the woman. I think it’s her smile, honestly, but before I become superficial to my regular reader, it’s important to remember that I fell in love with her voice first. Still despite my never-ending adoration of Clooney and Crosby, and especially Danny Kay, I have a conflict because it’s very quickly returning to the most dreaded holiday of the year.
I truly hate Christmas. The only upside to the holiday is that I get to listen to my Seth McFarlane Christmas Album and watch White Christmas, which, as I addressed before, I really only enjoy because of Rosemary Clooney. Apart from these small pleasures the entire holiday can go eat a bag of dicks.
Before the reader assumes anything, no, I never had a bad Christmas and that’s why I wrote this article, though I will admit, I never do seem to get exactly what I want for Christmas.
I’m sure the reader has their response aimed and ready though. But what about the giving and receiving of presents? What about all the wonderful amazing food that you get to eat? What about spending time with your family? And what about getting a few paid days off from work when you get to do nothing but sit around, read books, watch movies, play video games, and get sick on chocloate? To this last counter-argument I don’t really have a solid defense because who doesn’t love a day off from work?
Regardless of these points, I still really despise Christmas, because the holiday does something to people that is at times frustrating to the point of being irredeemably monstrous. The roads become congested with grumpy, frivolous people who forget how stop-lights work, the stores become crowded with people who are driven purely to buy and consume objects and be dicks to people who work in retail. And of course one has to listen to bloated gases that pass themselves off as human beings who complain about the so-called “war on Christmas.” Beneath all of this however is this compulsion to “create” Christmas as an idea, an atmosphere, and an ideology unto itself and there’s something about this collective, cultural “push” that is unnerving.
It’s for this reason that I look to Christopher Hitchens.
As of late my reading habits have shifted and so along with at least one novel, one graphic novel, one work of non-fiction, and at least one 1000 page tome, I’ve tried to add one collection of works to my reading list. This can include collections of poetry or essays, and a few months back I decided to splurge on myself and buy Hitchens’s book And Yet…. The book appears to be the last collection of essays Hitchens wrote before he died, and I’m steadily buying up every book, pamphlet, and biography the man wrote so that I can have a Hitchens library. I read the essays, one a day, and near the start there was one that leapt at me because the title was simply Bah, Humbug. Hitchens reminded me why he was my hero by just reading the opening lines:
I used to harbor the quiet but fierce ambition to write just one definitive, annihilating anti-Christmas column and then find and editor significantly indulgent to run it every December. My model was the Thanksgiving pastiche knocked off by Art Buchwald several decades ago and recycled annually in a serious ongoing test of reader tolerance. But I have slowly come to appreciate that this hope was in vain. The thing must be done annually and afresh. (87).
I had a similar intention once, back when I believed my writing was good enough to get syndicated in a periodical of note, that maybe I would write one “fuck Christmas” essay that would be great enough, or insightful enough, or at the very least funny enough to be published year by year. I’ve slept since then and recognized that few people will ever give enough of a shred of a shit about me or my work, and so even if I could write such an essay, it will have to be written here. Looking at Hitchens’s opening though I recognize a similar feeling of defeat because Christmas is very much like a Hydra: even if one does manage to sever one head, two or three more will burst from the stump. The endless call to gaiety, selflessness, and rampant greedy consumerism simply has a better PR firm than I do and so I recognize that, even I did manage to write something great about how much Christmas sucks there is too much cultural capital behind it to permanently quash it.
I secretly suspect that I am a hipster because I find myself hating much more than I love but that’s getting off point.
Hitchens’s small article (916 words, I counted) is like reading my own thoughts at times, because along with the criticism of the supposed “religious” aspects of Christmas, Bah Humbug is really a stern criticism of the compulsion towards merriness and cheer. There is a collected push against individuals during the Christmas season to be happy, to see in all the rush to buy and spend and receive a terrific sense of merriment and happiness. This of course belies the very point that when someone else is telling you to be happy that’s almost certain to do anything but make you happy. And in fact, if this isn’t too much of a push, the entire rhetoric of Christmas borders on some sort of sick consumerism based totalitarianism.
Hitchens notes this as he further decries the holiday:
This was a useful demonstration of what I have always hated about the month of December: the atmosphere of a one-party state. On all media and in all newspapers, endlesss invocations of the same repetitive theme. In all public placer, from train stations to department stores, an instant din of identical propaganda and identical music. The collectivization of gaiety and the compulsory infliction of joy. Time wasted on foolishness at one’s children’s schools. Vapid ecumenical messages from the president, who has more pressing things to do and who is constitutionally required to avoid any religious endorsements. (88).
It was about not long after this passage that I realized that Hitchens was leading up to something, something that he did not push, likely because he knew it was a stretch and thought experiments can be rather dreadful to read. Christopher Hitchens was not one to hold anything back, in fact his reputation as a writer was built on the idea that nothing was sacred, in the most literal sense. Still, after reading the essay I couldn’t shake off the idea that Christmas had a smacking of something totalitarian and of course Hitchens makes this point beautifully:
And yet none of this party-line unanimity is enough for the party’s true hard-liners. The slogans must be exactly right. No “Happy Holidays” or even “Cool Yule” or a cheery Dickensian “Compliments of the season.” No, all banners and chants must be specifically designated in honor of the birth of the Dear Leader and the authority of the Great Leader. By chance, the New York Times on December 19 ran a story about the difficulties encountered by Christian missionaries working among North Korean defectors, including a certain Mr. Park. On missionary was quoted as saying ruefully that “he knew he had now won over Mr. Park. He knew that Christianity reminded Mr. Park, as well as other defectors, of ‘North Korean ideology.” An interesting admission, if a bit of a stretch. Let’s just say that the birth of the Dear Leader is indeed celebrated as a miraculous one—accompanied, among other things, by heavy portents and by birds singing in Korean—and that compulsory worship and compulsory adoration can indeed become a touch wearying to the spirit. (88-9).
I can anticipate my reader’s reaction before I can continue. Are you seriously about to suggest that the Christmas celebration that takes place in the United States is anything remotely akin to the political dictatorship of North Korea?
Sure. Why the fuck not?
Now obviously the actual physical atrocities, torture, rape, and persistent abuse is nothing akin to the institution of Christmas, that would be, as Hitch pointed out, a bit of a stretch. My effort then is not to compare the compulsion to celebrate Christmas the same thing as the compulsion to respect the authority of Kim Jong-Un, rather it’s my concern to just try a thought experiment about whether Christmas has some level of totalitarian sentiment to it. The purpose of these essays was to explore my thoughts about various works of literature and cultural achievements and public rhetoric, and as of this writing I can’t shake a question that, until recently I haven’t had the language for: Is Christmas the Orwellian nightmare?
The Orwellian Nightmare is a concept that I suspect most people would recognize but would probably be unable to accurately describe it. It is a condition in which the government exudes inexorable powers over the individuals and citizens of the state. It is a power structure however that surpasses the mere outward political landscape and digs deeper, sinking into the meat and bones of a person’s consciousness until a person is aware of the government at all times, especially in the home. An individual living in the Orwellian nightmare is surrounded by propaganda manifesting in the form of advertisements, music, television, radio, films, and public demonstrations which not only promote the party in power, but in fact uses these mediums as extensions of the state to propel the idea that the state is the ultimate benevolent and necessary force. The individual is compelled to celebrate the dominant party, and is encouraged and often culled into the habit of accepting their own dominations, eventually buying into the suggestion that welcoming and empowering the dominant power is not only personally advantageous, it’s their own idea. The state becomes this ever-present reality that brings one comfort, even when it is leaving one emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually dominated.
The Orwellian nightmare is a direct reference to one of my favorite writers, who also just happens to be the favorite writer of Christopher Hitchens the one who got me started on this train of thought in the first place, George Orwell. In life George Orwell did not achieve a tremendous literary fame, and despite the popular understanding the man in fact wrote several novels and essays that are still regarded as literarily significant. However it was his novels Animal Farm and 1984 which helped Orwell in the popular consciousness, and even before John Hurt played Winston Smith, the latter novel had effectively established Dystopia as, not just a literary genre that would eventually get subsumed and then corrupted to the point of irrelevance by bad YA writers, a creative outlet that had lasting relevance to human society.
Looking at one passage in particular of 1984 I’m sure of my hypothesis that Christmas is some kind of Orwellian Nightmare, because I just observe too many parallels. If the reader has never read the novel, the book takes place in the distant future of 1984 (funny how the future’s always several years in the past) where England has become a totalitarian dictatorship headed by a shadowy leader known only ever as Big Brother. The citizens of England are required in their places of work to attend something referred to as a “Two Minute Hate.” After that I’ll have to allow an unfortunately long quote by Orwell to speak for itself:
In its second minute the Hate rose to a frenzy. People were leaping up and down in their places and shouting at the tops of their voices in an effort to drown the maddening bleating voice that came from the screen. The little sandy-haired woman had turned bright pink, and her mouth was opening and shutting like that of a landed sh. Even O’Brien’s heavy face was flushed. He was sitting very straight in his chair, his powerful chest swelling and quivering as though he were standing up to the assault of a wave. e dark-haired girl behind Winston had begun crying out ‘Swine! Swine! Swine!’ and suddenly she picked up a heavy Newspeak dictionary and flung it at the screen. It struck Goldstein’s nose and bounced off ; the voice continued inexorably. In a lucid moment Winston found that he was shouting with the others and kicking his heel violently against the rung of his chair. The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge- hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp. Thus, at one moment Winston’s hatred was not turned against Goldstein at all, but, on the contrary, against Big Brother, the Party, and the Thought Police; and at such moments his heart went out to the lonely, derided heretic on the screen, sole guardian of truth and sanity in a world of lies. And yet the very next instant he was at one with the people about him, and all that was said of Goldstein seemed to him to be true. At those moments his secret loathing of Big Brother changed into adoration, and Big Brother seemed to tower up, an invincible, fearless protector, standing like a rock against the hordes of Asia, and Goldstein, in spite of his isolation, his helplessness, and the doubt that hung about his very existence, seemed like some sinister enchanter, capable by the mere power of his voice of wrecking the structure of civilization. (100-101).
The Two Minute hate is the only real evidence I really need here because anyone who has been forced to go Christmas Shopping during late December recognizing this exact level of torment. There is never a parking space at the mall, and if there is it is ultimately a handicapped space and one finds oneself hating the handicapped for having that sticker in the first place and it doesn’t matter anyway because there’s always an able-bodied person who parks there anyway. The crowds of the open markets and the endless lines that one is forced to slog through are filled with individual people who have been brought to these retail outlets by the promises that “giving is the real Christmas gift,” and so brought by the prospect of a moment on Christmas morning in which their loved ones will enjoy their gifts they endure a sea of grumpy angry people who often look like they just smelled the inside of a homeless man’s boxer shorts. This agony is punctuated by this year’s female “country” pop-star’s rendition of “White Christmas” which again, let’s be real here, Rosemary Clooney rocked decades ago, why are we microwaving a turd when there’s gold recorded already?
But the sensation of Christmas shopping has been better documented by countless writers before me. In fact it’s almost become kitsche to be the person who says they hate Christmas, which is fucked in its own way, because then the people who love Christmas have their “Grinch” or “Scrooge” in which to further develop their mythos.
There’s nothing original about looking at the capitalism and the discomfort of Christmas and the violence it brings out in people. There is something however to the idea that people actually like this tradition of pain and dissatisfaction. People like, in fact they love, the stress and torture and annoyance and atmospheric pressure that is the Christmas holidays because it’s a chance to surrender their will.
By the end of 1984 Winston Smith has been psychologically broken by the torture of the state, and the closing lines, “He loved Big Brother”(370) reveal a man who is absolutely broken by the system which has infected every level of his consciousness.
At work I have a co-worker who comes in, sits down, works on the December Events handouts, and begins to hum Christmas jingles like Jingle Bells, Noel, and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Hearing the melodies my mind summoned the songs and before I knew it I was singing along under my breath, and not but a few moments later I began singing the song out loud infecting another co-worker who became exasperated with me for “putting that song in her head.” There was a small joy in recognizing that I had passed along my compulsion to her, that I could share in someone else’s joyous misery. I love that sensation the way I love having the song “Sisters” and “Snow” stuck in my head.
Big Brother may be a jolly, bearded man wearing a red suit, but at the end of the day they both have an incredible PR team.
All quotes taken from Bah, Humbug came from the hardback first edition Simon & Schuster And Yet…: Essays. All quotes taken from 1984 were taken from the Hardback Houghton Mifflin Harcourt copy of Animal Farm and 1984.
If the reader is at all interested in reading the essay Bah, Humbug I’ve provided a link below to the original article.
While writing this essay I listened to Rosemary Clooney sing Christmas songs to try and “put me in the mood.” While it was somewhat successful I fear I may have pushed myself a little too far in order to get in the necessary frame of mind to write this peice. Still, the essay is done and I got the chance to remember why I love Rosemary Clooney’s voice. If the reader would like to have some background music as they follow the relentless beat of Big Brother’s Capitalistit enterprise, or if they just want a great Christmas record to put on I would definitely recommend this link. Enjoy:
For the record there are plenty, PLENTY, of great YA writers. They just don’t either get the press they deserve, or else you simply fade out when your friend tries to tell you that they finished a beautiful YA novel. You might have taken the time to at least give the book Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz but instead you politely nodded and thought that your friend was a loser even though she actually had a point and you missed the opportunity to read a beautiful story about two young men falling in love, while one struggles with his individual personal identity and perception of his masculinity. Instead you got drunk and binge watched Riverdale which is just a cheap knock off of Twin Peaks. You judgmental tool…Merry Christmas.
****Writer’s Note To the Reader Who Doesn’t Appreciate the Writer’s Morbid Sense of Humor****
It’s satire for fucks sake. Get the joke or fuck off.