To high-energy, sanguine, chipper citizens who like to step in and improve other people’s lives, the ever-earlier onset of the “Christmas” season is a gift from the baby Jesus. Now they can start before Thanksgiving to make up the lists of “improving” presents they will shower on friends and family: that diet book “you simply have to try,” the supply of intestinal bacteria cookies that will “knock out your Crohn’s disease,” that copy of The Theology of the Body your twice-divorced aunt cannot live forever without, the Spanx your sister really should be wearing if she insists on leaving the house, the box of nicotine patches that could “add decades” to your aging dad’s life.
The bloated, front-loaded Season is also a pretext for endless gatherings of people who wouldn’t otherwise choose to congregate—melancholic co-workers, emotionally distant relatives, the parents of children’s schoolmates, standoffish neighbors, and solitary bachelors who absolutely, at any cost, must be dragged from their odorous lairs to blink in the light. (“You’ll be alone on the Friday night before Christmas? Absolutely not. You will come to our Bobbing for Apples Soiree! We’ll be drinking cider and singing folk songs.”)
Suddenly public spaces begin to look creepily like those paintings of Hell by Thomas Kincade. (At least, that’s what those fuzzy daubings of teddy bears and leering children suggest to me.) Everything flickers, shimmers, flashes, even moves—as in those mechanical front yard dioramas where Santa endlessly cracks his whip over a team of hyped-up reindeer. In most displays, there isn’t the slightest hint of Mary, or Jesus—not even in spots where a menorah is permitted, which at least serves as a reminder that all these glamorous portraits of the sacred Winter season have some faint origin in ancient desert events and a Semitic religion. We really are in for four long weeks of Santaclaustide, as Evelyn Waugh dubbed sacred winter in Love Among the Ruins.
Not all of this is a loss, of course. To those of us with a solitary bent and a naturally Augustinian suspicion of mankind—especially when he shuffles forward and presents himself in groups—the snowing over of Christ’s-Mass, and the real presence of animatronic elves, presents a unique opportunity. Were the Season that everyone else is celebrating actually Christmas, and were they in fact excited by the advent of a Savior for their sins (I’m keeping a list), then we misanthropes would have to find a way to celebrate it, at risk of blasphemy. Just as it’s wrong to fast on Sundays, so we’d feel religiously obligated to attend some of the parties, to pin on a grin, to pile up gifts for our friends to return, and even to wear together those clashing, unflattering colors, red and green.
Happily, none of this is true. Advent not a festive season. Black Friday is not a feast day. Still, by the time the turkey bones had been thrown away, the noisiest neighbors’ yards were already pullulating with colors, and radio stations were pumping out the treacly voices of Johnny Mathis and Paul Anka, reminding us of the deep cosmic meaning that underlies each icicle. So the feast—whatever it is—that everyone’s celebrating isn’t religious at all, and we are perfectly free to absent ourselves, or dissent. It’s the moral equivalent of Basque Independence Day, and we don’t have to wave the flag.
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In fact, we can make good use of our real religious convictions, and fend off the social chairmen who pester us, with solidly principled objections to the festivities. We can tell us ourselves we’re being “apostolic” and countercultural (when in fact we’re just feeling ornery) and check off a partial indulgence each time we refuse to indulge someone. Here’s a short list of ways that we misanthropes, cave-trolls, loners, and pessimists can make Santaclaustide more pleasant for ourselves, and instructive to others: