December 21, 2009

Christmas: victim of a war or ironic atrophy of interest?

Most of what the "War on Christmas" people detail is how special interest groups have been chipping away at public signals of Christmastime over the years -- removing Christmas trees from public spaces, bullying people into saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas," and so on. But none of this could have succeeded if the group under attack really cherished Christmas; they'd tell the scrooges to go mind their own fucking business, and we wouldn't have seen any of these changes. The blandness of the Christmas season these days says more about how little the mainstream cares to stick up for it, and less about the power of whiny special interest groups.

Over the next several days I'll look at data on various aspects of what used to make Christmas fun and how they've changed.

It's always worth trying to see the big picture, and I think this is just part of the decline in sincerity and sentimentality and the rise of ironic screwballery that's infected the culture since the mid-1990s. I mean, we're like too sophisticated to get into the Christmas spirit. The same is true for other holidays that people used to get into, like Halloween. Now the point of Halloween is to show how cleverly meta and ironic or sarcastic you can be with your costume, instead of dressing up as one of a few stock characters in order to not draw so much attention to yourself. It's easier to let go and have fun when you're not critiquing everyone's costume like some book award panel.

In fact, we see the exact same thing for Christmas in the form of the "ugly sweater party," where you spend a month or so finding just the right ugly Christmas sweater, and join a bunch of other ironic morons to show how above Christmas cheer you are. While the ugly sweater party only began in 2006 (as shown by Lexis-Nexis and Google Trends searches for the phrase), the dissing on ugly sweaters actually started earlier.

I searched all US newspapers and wires using Lexis-Nexis, which gives results back through the 1980s. The phrase appears in the late '80s but only referring to what sports coaches wore. The first time it appears in the context of grousing about Christmas is -- would you guess it? -- 1994, and it appears reliably after then. It's not as though there were no ugly Christmas sweaters during the '80s and early '90s, nor that people didn't recognize that they were ugly. They just figured that they should get a life and move on without dwelling on the matter. But once the movement toward sarcasm began to take over the culture, suddenly everyone starts complaining about those damned ugly sweaters.

Here are a few examples from the mid-1990s, when the primal scream therapy began.

"Memories of presents bring smiles and a scowl" (Dec 1994)

The most unforgettable gift I ever received would have to be this tacky green and yellow sweater, and I had to wear it, too, because it was a present from family. I hated that ugly sweater, and I hated wearing it even more. It really isn't that unusual, but goodness it was ugly.

"Back to the mall; Returns, bargain-hunters keep store clerks hopping" (Dec 1995)

Not only were people eager to exchange gifts, that ugly sweater, those pants that don't fit, but they were savvy enough to know good bargains would be abundant.

" 'Tis the season for traditions" (Dec 1996)

Shredded wrapping paper, colored lights, the aroma of a turkey baking in the oven. The Charlie Brown Christmas special, leaving cookies and milk for Santa, ugly sweaters from your aunt and mom's Christmas morning cinnamon rolls. Going to grandma's house.

Traditions. They are the things you count on every year about this time.

"Thanks for the Memories; Childhood reminiscences can last a lifetime" (Sep 1997)

What do you remember about the holidays of your childhood? Is it great presents under the tree? The ugly sweaters Aunt Gladys knitted for you every year? The time Uncle Irv got drunk and danced with a lampshade on his head?

To reiterate, the phrase does not appear at all during the 1980s or the early 1990s, then all at once we see predictably regular complaints about ugly sweaters starting in 1994. It's this sort of mindset -- blowing a tiny nuisance all out of proportion -- that marks the turning away from Christmas. There are other signs that I'll look at later, but these are the real sources of the War on Christmas' success.

After all, it's not as though the ACLU haven't been trying to kill Christmas for much longer. They brought cases against public displays of religious holiday symbols in 1988. Back then, the culture would have told those fags to go do something productive with their time. Here's how the Supreme Court ruled on a similar case in 1985:

In 1985, the High Court deadlocked over a nativity scene case from Scarsdale, N.Y. The Scarsdale government had banned a private group from erecting a creche in a public park. A Federal appeals court struck down the ban as an unconstitutional infringement on ''religious speech,'' and the Supreme Court's inability to decide the case left that decision intact.

Given the constant force that the armies of rabid busybodies are always pressing against the gates of civilization, the only reason that they should succeed is that the guardians and the populace have given up on giving a shit anymore.


  1. The movie "Bridget Jones' Diary" (2001) has a scene built around Colin Firth wearing an ugly sweater; I'm pretty sure the scene is not in the original novel (1994).

  2. The Ugly Sweater scene is most definitely in the novel :-)

  3. Optimistic-Humanist12/30/09, 12:50 AM

    You have not shown any indication that "ugly sweater" was anything more than a lyrical meme that was adopted. None of the examples provided show anyone blowing anything out of proportion. In fact the entire sentiment (blowing a minor nuisance out of proportion) doesn't mesh with anything else you've said or shown us. It's an absolute non-sequitor.

    Also you might want to be careful about telling "those fags to go do something productive with their time" when you just posted five or six blog posts on analyzing the changing nature of christmas.

  4. I guess you're just out of touch, then, since ugly sweater parties are pretty common -- common enough to be listed on Stuff White People Like.


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