It's strange how, over the same period that Christmas has become de-sacralized, we nevertheless begin to see and hear about it much earlier than before, giving the holiday more exposure time.
When I was little, Thanksgiving and Christmas had a buffer of maybe a couple weeks where we were in the orbit of neither the one nor the other. Now there's stuff up for Christmas even before Thanksgiving, but certainly in the days after, the songs, decorations, and everything else starts to go up almost immediately. I remember getting our Christmas tree pretty close to Christmas day, maybe a week or two at most beforehand -- and I don't recall seeing trees sold farther back. I recall putting the ornaments on as a Christmas Eve tradition, although our stockings might have gone up a week before. Ditto for buying egg nog, candy canes, and Christmas stuff in general.
In Christmas Vacation from 1989, they don't show the preparations unfolding right after Thanksgiving. It seems like it's set well into December, with Thanksgiving nowhere in sight, all of it taking place no more than one or two weeks before Christmas. Not until 1993 do newspapers begin mentioning Black Friday behavior.
What's the connection between an ever lower appreciation of and respect for Christmas and a seemingly greater length of time that we've got it on our minds? I think the function of much earlier preparations has been to dilute our emotional investment in the holiday, spreading it thin over a month instead of concentrating it into no more than two weeks. A longer but less intense series of encounters leaves a weaker impression on us than a shorter but more intense series.
It also deflates the surprise and excitement that we ought to feel on the day itself -- shoot, we only saw it coming a month away -- so again it doesn't make as much of an impact on us.
Finally, it sets us up for fatigue. When our investment is concentrated, it doesn't last long enough for us to get bored of it. But when it's strung out for a month, those already small investments toward the end are not even giving us the mild enjoyment that they did at the start. By weeks 3 and 4, we've habituated and no longer respond emotionally to the sounds of yet another broadcast of some song, nor to our 20th viewing of the neighbors' decorations.
All of these effects seem to be understood by the general public, who complain about how early the Christmas season keeps getting. But because these practices have only grown over time, it must be that most people want to induce emotional detachment from the holiday by stretching out the lead-up period. That interpretation fits much better with all the other evidence of people increasingly not caring about the holiday at all.
This same process has affected Halloween, the second-most obvious case of a holiday that's been corrupted within my own lifetime. Party plans, decorations, candy, costumes going on sale, costumes being thought up and crafted by hand, etc. -- all that begins around the start of October. All of this boring homework for so many weeks deflates the excitement that should have surrounded just the week of Halloween.
Thanksgiving probably comes next, with preparations beginning right after Halloween on November 1st. And again it doesn't feel that special once it comes around because we've more or less been incorporating it into our ordinary routine for several weeks beforehand.
It's almost as though we have entire months rather than single days for celebrations. By spreading them out over a whole month, we blend holiday-related thoughts and activities into our daily routine, violating the taboo of keeping the ordinary and the special apart to complement each other. The season was more memorable back when we might have had generic fall or winter-time feelings in November and December, but not specifically about Thanksgiving or Christmas until right before they arrived.
Although they're not major holidays, I sense something similar but to a lesser degree for Valentine's Day and Easter.
But there are two genuine exceptions -- the 4th of July and New Year's Eve. Maybe it's just because it would seem silly preparing in June for July 4th, and because New Year's Eve falls so close after Christmas that it can't compete for the earlier weeks in December for attention. Or perhaps these two holidays would be safe from dilution-by-preparation if they fell on more agreeable dates. They are the least religious or supernatural, for one thing, and so haven't been targeted so harshly as the others have.
Still, I think people begin making detailed plans for these two earlier than they used to, especially planning what you're going to be doing on New Year's Eve. It's not so bad that people begin counting down the days to the New Year, 31 days in advance -- talk about anti-climactic on midnight January 1st -- but still.
The lesson here is that even the most secular holidays and rituals are not safe from the corrosive efforts to strip our communal lives of special meaning and activity. The ramp-up in secularism over the past 20 years seems to be part of something larger -- the drive to atomize and cocoon ourselves. That means religious activity has to go, but so does all sorts of other secular community-binding rituals like the raucous 4th of July parade and spectacular fireworks display, or trick-or-treating on Halloween.
That's why it's important to stick up for religious activity (beliefs / theology is not very important), even if you're not very religious. All that other good stuff goes along with it to give us enjoyable lives; therefore it all comes under common attack. And what kind of team member would you be if you didn't back up your other team members, whether you're on the friendliest terms with them or not?