A Contempory Christmas Carol, Part 2

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“Ghost of the Future,” he exclaimed, “I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart. Will you not speak to me?”  – A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

Reviewing my initial post on this subject, I recalled the lyric from REM’s “Losing My Religion”:  “Oh no, I’ve said too much; I haven’t said enough!”  Mostly, I haven’t said enough.  So I’ll make a second pass over this important topic.

The unspoiled spirit of the holiday season is something most of us raised in the Christmas tradition want to cherish and enjoy every year.  For me, like many people, the growing commercialization of Christmas over my lifetime has sadly detracted from what we regard as its true meaning and spirit.

For those of us who observe the Christmas holidays, it is a time when families come together, reuniting to demonstrate special love and caring, and to produce, as the years go by, many of our fondest and lasting memories.  The family Christmas tradition was huge for both me and my wife while we were growing up and, as an adult, for more than two decades each December I played my guitar and sang holiday music at the office with “The Choristers.” [1]  For many years my wife and I took our children to Schenectady’s historic Proctors Theater to see the Nebraska Theatre Caravan perform Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”  It was an annual highlight.  At one point, my daughter had committed virtually the entire script to memory.

“A Christmas Carol” is essentially a “morality tale about the perils of ignoring poverty and being blind to people’s problems when you have money to spare.” [2]  The promotion of generosity, caring, and brotherly love in a mercantile society is fundamental to our celebration of the birth of Jesus, because it is embedded in the philosophy and teachings of Jesus himself.  But what is happening in America today makes Ebenezer Scrooge, a symbol of the small-time banker in Dickens’ England of 1843, look like a piker.  Scrooge, as the story reveals, feels guilt and has a conscience, qualities not shared in today’s capitalist system by its profit-maximizing corporations.

The Wall Street crash of 2008 ushered in an economic collapse that I believed, without major policy changes, would just keep getting worse, and it has.  By the Christmas of 2010 it was clear that the American economy and society was still in a deep crisis.  On November 23, in one of my letters to the editor of the Albany Times Union, posted here, I announced with alarm: “America won’t wake up to all the harm it is doing to itself until it is too late.  Watch as the United States becomes a third-rate nation.”

We shared Christmas 2010 with my son, home on break from law school, and with my daughter, her husband, and their 6-month-old baby.  We observed greater frugality than before, focusing less on gifts and more on togetherness.  When, by the end of the year, the Bush tax cuts for wealthy people were extended, I knew that my life had changed: It was going to be a real struggle to try to help save America from plutocracy, and I was going to have to get deeply involved.

This watershed year of 2011 witnessed new, more aggressive forays by the 1% in their war against the middle and working classes, with intense efforts to decimate the federal budget, to privatize local government in Michigan, to eliminate collective bargaining in states like Wisconsin and Ohio, and to disenfranchise voters wherever possible.  Three months ago, the lower 99% took to the streets in response, and the arrival of the holiday season this year witnessed police action to evict Occupiers around the nation.  More than ever before, this 2011 holiday season brings daily news of major assaults on the middle and working classes, such as the insistence of Congressional hardliners that to avoid a federal (payroll) tax increase on the lower 99%, the middle and working classes will have “pay” for the privilege by surrendering funds from federal programs like Medicare and Social Security.

As I witness the meaning of Christmas so thoroughly violated in our country, I can take little comfort in the holiday season.  This year, ordinary shopping rituals seem like bizarre anachronisms. The elaborate holiday enticements encouraging people to spend their money seem far less an innocuous part of the commercial holiday cycle and far more a harbinger of the fast-approaching economic demise of the bottom 99%.   To me, they seem little more than an ugly demonstration of the predatory games capitalism’s elite played to siphon off trillions of dollars from the bottom 99% over the last 30 years.  As American prosperity vanishes, the phrase “commercialization of Christmas” has taken on a whole new, terrifying meaning.

Crucifying  Santa in Leesburg

In this context, we encounter the recent story of a “crucified” Santa in Leesburg, VA.  A week ago Monday (12/5/11), following through on an application he filed last March, Jeff Heflin, Jr. set out to erect a display on the Loudon County courthouse lawn in Leesburg depicting Santa on a cross.  His point, according to his application, was to “depict society’s materialistic obsessions and addictions and how it is killing the peace, love, joy and kindness that is supposed to be prevalent during the holiday season.” [3]  Fox News along with local press immediately covered the story, and when a citizen tore the display down before it was finished, Fox News filed a TV report and this story:

County Displays Crucified Santa on Courthouse Lawn

A Christmas display outside the courthouse in Leesburg, VA featuring Santa Claus crucified on a cross was torn down by an angry resident in spite of arguments by elected leaders that the display was Constitutionally protected free speech. 

“I am shocked that the county would allow such a thing as a crucified Santa on the courthouse lawn,” Elizabeth McGuirk, a mother of three told Leesburg Today.  She [said] it would “seriously disturb my children.”

“Disgusting, outrageous and absurd,” Supervisor-elect Ken Reid told MyFoxDC.com. “This fellow crossed the line. I’m worried about kids seeing this at the parade Saturday. * * *

“The county would not dismantle it, the county gave [its] permission for it to be there,” Supervisor Steven Miller told the local newspaper. “We had the same thing happen a year ago when Ed Myers put up some vulgar parody lyrics of the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Well those came down within an hour and that’s vigilantes.”  * * * 

“It was meant to show the over-commercialization of Christmas,” said Jonathan Weintraub, of the NOVA Atheists. “I agree. It is over commercialized. People should keep their hands off the display, all the displays.”

The display was torn down by an unidentified local resident, according to the Loudon County Sheriff’s Dept.  So far, no one has been arrested.  [4]

In my first post on this incident, A Contemporary Christmas Carol, Part 1, I discussed how our reactions to such a photo are influenced by both the presentation of the subject in the photo and the accompanying text.  I said that I found the image repulsive, and agreed with those comments objecting that young children should not be exposed to such a display.  However, I indicated support for Heflin’s right to express his views, beyond the potential need to protect young children.

I have since continued to ask myself, “Why all the fuss about this display and what, exactly, was offensive about it?”  Fox News and the local press, in my view, had sensationalized this incident with  its use of terms like “shocked,” “outrageous,” “disgusting,” “vulgar,” and “absurd.”  But beyond suggesting that support for the display’s protest against over-commercialization came from atheist groups, and appearing critical of the County’s display policy (over which the County apparently has agonized endlessly), the Fox News report did not touch on any matter of real import.

No doubt, this was a fun break from more serious news:  In a 12/5/11 update announcing the county board’s controversial decision to keep displays, the Loudoun Times published this photo showing the”vandalized” skeleton on the ground:

“It’s that time of year again,” said the Loudoun Times, “when holiday cheer fills the air and the Loudoun County Courthouse lawn is scattered with potentially offensive displays and outraged citizens.”

I pointed out in A Contemporary Christmas Carol, Part 1 that Leesburg is a bedroom community on the commuter line from West Virginia to Washington, DC, with low poverty compared to the entire state of Virginia “and an Occupy Leesburg Together with, it appears, only the bare minimum of two members.”  It is not surprising that this “incident” took place in something of a circus atmosphere, evidently on a slow local news day in Leesburg.

In the end we know little about the incident.  We know that Mr. Heflin had not finished his display, but we don’t know whether someone shaped the unfinished display to heighten negative reaction to it.  We cannot even be sure that the story was not manufactured.  It is clear from various reports that the “unidentified” and “angry” woman who knocked it down did so in plain view of a sheriff’s deputy and news reporters.  Still, no one appears to have interviewed her, or even identified her in this small town, and we are left with the wry Fox News observation that “[s]o far, no one has been arrested.”

There are important free speech issues involved here, to be sure, but they were not front and center in this story.  On further reflection, I am now convinced that even my concern for the impact of the display on little children was likely overblown.

What Real Substantive Problems Does this Protest Raise?

There was little danger that this display might have abused the faith of little children in the “real” Santa.   In the holiday hoopla, Santas appears everywhere, including places like the annual “Running of the Santas”  in Philadelphia,

and in Liverpool, where “festive runners” set a record this year.

By now, even the youngest children would seem unlikely to be fooled by any courthouse yard display featuring a representation of Santa, and certainly not abusively.  Interestingly, when you think about it, the concept of a “crucified Santa” actually seems more likely to be offensive to adults than to young children.

This protest uses a mixture of both secular (Santa) and religious (the cross) symbols to metaphorically represent the death of the true spirit of Christmas by the death of Santa.  It must have occurred to Heflin that the perfect presentation of this metaphor would be Santa’s skeleton on a cross.  He’s right, of course – as metaphors go, this is about as good as it gets.

There are two problems that render this metaphor potentially distasteful: (1) The skeleton is graphic in its representation of death, and coming in the holiday cycle so soon after Halloween, it can seem like tasteless overkill; (2) The crucifying of Jesus does not come to our attention on the religious calendar until shortly before Easter, so enlisting the cross at this juncture in support of such a metaphor also can seem like tasteless overkill.  The cross itself has become such a fundamental symbol in Christianity, however, that its association with the story of the birth of Jesus may not seem problematic for the devout. [5]

Notably, Heflin is not the first to employ this method of protesting the commercialization of Christmas.  Here is a lawn crucifiction of Santa from 2006:             The blogger reports:  “Bah Humbug! isn’t good enough for Jimmy Wright.  The Metchosin artist, known for his paintings of stylized polar bears, has put an effigy of Santa Claus on a cross on his front lawn to make a statement about the orgy of consumption in the modern world.” [6]

And Christmas 2007 brought this front porch crucifiction to Bremerton, WA:

Reporting for the Seattle Times, Staff Reporter Susan Gilmore wrote:

It’s not so much the Santa impaled on the cross in front of Art Conrad’s Bremerton home, it’s the headless Santa that sings carols on his front porch that has neighbors crying humbug.

“It’s horrible and gruesome,” said Vickie Marquina, who lives near Conrad on Olympic Avenue. “It’s offensive, and Santa with no head is just horrid.”

Conrad, 52, who just moved into the house, said his Santa-on-a-cross is his personal protest against the commercialization of Christmas.

The headless Santa on his porch is the unfortunate result: He needed a Santa head for his cross display, so he pilfered it from his singing Santa. * * *

Conrad isn’t anti-Christmas, but to him the holiday is a celebration of family. “That’s how I’ve always celebrated it,” he said. “We always treasured Christmas. It’s a time we all got together.”

But the commercialization of Christmas, with displays appearing before Halloween, drove Conrad to erect his unusual display.  “Santa has been co-opted by our corporations as a symbol of consumerism. Every year Christmas comes earlier and earlier,” he said. * * * [7]

A Strange Triviality of Sensibilities

I argue that the bottom 99% is in a depression – today.  Google “Christmas in the Great Depression,” and you might get an article like this one Damon Sims wrote in 2008 for the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

Merry Christmas. Here’s your orange.

No joke. An orange was a pretty common Christmas gift during the Great Depression, according to the folks who lived through it.

And for those who may darkly mutter about Depression deja vu, in light of the current economy, the kids of the 1930s say that when it comes to the holidays, we aren’t even close . . . yet.

Who were the “we” that Sims was referring to and who are they now?  I would wager that neither Damon Sims nor I nor anyone else not living it has any better feeling for the full meaning of the rapidly growing poverty in America today than we do for the deep poverty that existed in the 1930s.  Over the last four years, the median income in America has fallen by 10%, and poverty has increased dramatically.  How common must a Christmas present of an orange, or a hot meal, become today before those of us who are better off begin to feel alarm about what it would be like to live that way?

Back on the morning of 12/1/11, I was seated in a dentist chair waiting for my dentist to come in and attach a new crown.  On TV Meredith Vieira was hosting “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” with guests David Johnson and Peggy Finnegan, TV anchors from Pittsburg, PA.  They were playing for charity, specifically for the Greater Pittsburg Community Food Bank.  In her opening remarks, Ms. Finnegan explained that Food Bank applications are rapidly increasing, by the thousands.  I was struck by the contrast between the hope to strike it rich underlying the show, and embodied in the traditional American Dream, and the demonstration this episode was making that a dream of even modest prosperity and self-sufficiency is drifting ever farther from the potential reach of tens of millions of Americans.

Feeding the poor and unemployed should not be left to charity.  It is the function – a bedrock responsibility – of government in a civilized society.  However, today Congress is preparing to let billions of dollars of unemployment insurance benefits expire by the end of the year.

Although those of us who still have jobs and/or enough money to live comfortably are only beginning to feel it and see it around us, prosperity is being steadily drained from the bottom 99% as depression worsens under the iron thumbs of a government controlled by the top 1%.  That is why there is an Occupy movement in revolt against economic oppression.   That is what tens of millions are openly protesting this Christmas.

It isn’t fun, or entertaining.  The over-commercialization of Christmas, to many a sign that American culture has been on the wrong path for many years, has become trivial by comparison.  Yet we persist to frame our problems in the ways of the past, to symbolize our discouragement with controversial images like a crucified Santa, or parody lyrics to “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Here is an image of Santa that more appropriately symbolizes what is happening today:

The 1% Santa

*    *    *    *    *    *

The Spirit stood among the graves, and pointed down to One. He advanced towards it trembling. The Phantom was exactly as it had been, but he dreaded that he saw new meaning in its solemn shape.

“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”

Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.

“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me.”

The Spirit was immovable as ever.

Scrooge crept towards it, trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name, EBENEZER SCROOGE.

“Am I that man who lay upon the bed?” he cried, upon his knees.

The finger pointed from the grave to him, and back again.

“No, Spirit! Oh no, no!”

The finger still was there.

“Spirit!” he cried, tight clutching at its robe, “hear me. I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?”

For the first time the hand appeared to shake.

“Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life.”

The kind hand trembled.

“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”   – A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

JMH – 12/14/11

_____

[1]  In 2001, I produced and recorded with the Choristers a CD (“Glad Tidings We Bring”) in the living room of my home.

[2] Answer.com, What is the Meaning Behind Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol?

[3]  Leesburg Today, Displays Go Up And Down At County Courthouse, December 6, 2011.

[4] Fox News, County Displays Crucified Santa on Courthouse Lawn, by Todd Starns, December  6, 2011

[5] See, for example, From Cradle to Cross, by Samantha Krieger, December 13, 2007, where Krieger stated: “We celebrate the cradle and the cross this Christmas.  Above all, we celebrate Love.

[6] Arbroath, Santa Shot Jesus Out of the Saddle.

[7] The Seattle Times,  Newcomer on block calls Santa display art, but Bremerton neighbors repulsed, by Susan Gilmore, 12/23/07

[8] The Cleveland Plain Dealer, “Fruits of the Great Depression: Christmas memories”, by Damon Sims, 12/18/08

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This entry was posted in - FEATURED POSTS -, - MOST RECENT POSTS -, Culture, Freedom and Democracy, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A Contempory Christmas Carol, Part 2

  1. thanks for including my quote in this article. Very interesting! Merry Christmas.

  2. Pingback: Religion |

  3. Pingback: Freedom and Democracy |

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