|Photo by jag9889 at Flickr.|
For my whole life, Macy's Herald Square, the World's Largest Store, recycled an increasingly dingy-looking window display every Christmas consecrated to the store's own peak presence in popular culture, the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street, starring Natalie Wood as the little girl raised not to believe in fairy tales and Edmund Gwenn as Mr. Kris Kringle, the man who believes he is Santa Claus and who ends up not only convincing the little girl that he exists but in bringing about a Christmas truce between the warring titans of capitalism, Macy's and Gimbel's.
But a couple of years ago they finally abandoned it in favor of something new, referring to the story of Virginia O'Hanlon, the eight-year-old who asked the New York Sun, in 1897, to confirm for her the same saint's existence, to which the editor Francis Pharcellus Church notoriously replied, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," in language attempting to double-speak the audience between parents who'd see the line as a metaphor and children who wouldn't:
Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there.They lifted the window-dressing concept from a Lord & Taylor display of 2003, and the plot line from a 2010 TV special with the voice of Neil Patrick Harris, but animated with grotesque balloon-faced creatures like the Virgin Shopper who looms, with a sinister half-smile of psychopathic determination, over the 34th Street entrance, see above. And with the window display an awful soundtrack of pseudo-symphonic furniture music, shapeless and directionless, with bits that sound like the Capriccio Italien but without any harmonic movement, and an apotheosis of Jingle Bells in ballet adagio tempo, as if the one-horse sleigh were slowly inflating with hydrogen and rising into the air like the doomed Hindenburg. (Yes, I work in the neighborhood and walk by there a lot.)
This is a bad development not only from the aesthetic but also from the moral and theological standpoint. Seems to me the United States has hardly been a Christian nation ever, thank goodness, but a land of many cults, faiths, and spiritual disciplines, but that a kind of civic religion you might call Christmasism or Santaism has quietly grown up among us, the veneration of Santa-the-Bringer-of-Love, which is not in itself a bad thing, in spite of the furious Christianist put-the-Christ-back-in-Christmas criticism it's been given over the decades. It certainly has a vulgar cargo cult aspect, the mobs of us praying for more stuff, but also a more refined side marked by the spirit of sacrifice (O. Henry's ghastly story with the combs and the watch fob) and generosity, and the ritual incarnation of Santa, represented by the guys on Macy's eighth floor and the Salvation Army freaks out front but really embodied by all the parents, who are also the polis, in whom the Santa-spirit descends for a trance-moment from late November to the depression of New Year's Eve.
In traditional Christmasing, as firmed up around 1947, we're all acting out our dedication to the common good, realizing the Santa-spirit with our good actions, and this is beautifully dramatized in the film, with the Everyman figure, Mr. Kringle, inhabited by it—nobody is expected to believe he's physically coextensive with a 1600-year-old Anatolian bishop. He is all of us, doing Santa's will in our name, or symbolizing the good acts we are performing ourselves.
In postmodern Christmasing on the other hand, taking its inspiration from the "Yes, Virginia" editorial, a Leo Strauss deception has entered the picture:
Unable to find the answers she's looking for, Virginia writes to The New York Sun newspaper. Her letter makes its way to the desk of curmudgeonly editor Francis Church, who has better things to do than respond to a little girl's questions. But through Virginia's determination (and a little help from a scraggly Santa) Mr. Church is persuaded to write his answer...an answer that becomes the most famous newspaper editorial of all time. (IMDb)The little girl coerces the editor to give her the answer she wants. And the reluctant deceiver is rewarded for the eloquence of his lie with incomparable fame! WTF is that about? And I can't help feeling the Calvinism aspect sneaks in at the same point, in the sense that this really-real Santa who distributes the presents like Grace according to the child's intrinsic niceness-naughtiness score is exercising his arbitrary universal judgment, as opposed to the parents embodying the Santa-spirit each taking care of their own as well as they can. It's a rightwing Santaism, and a cultural loss.
Cross-posted at No More Mister Nice Blog. Good Yule, everybody!