Columns » Max Brantley

Merry Xmas, everyone

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It is the time of toys for tots and cookie recipes. Ned is monitoring the radar for the white stuff.

But it’s not all holly and ivy and Xboxes.

Some Christmas-observing Christians actually get in the Biblical spirit. They give to charities instead of themselves. And there are the op-ed spoilsports, like Adam Cohen in last Sunday’s New York Times, who noted that Christmas as a shopping season was, until recent times, something devout Christians opposed as a pagan ritual.

Christmas isn’t just commercialized, it’s politicized. Conservative Christians take a breather from gay-bashing to bash those who say “Happy Holidays” or, worse, don’t observe Christ’s b-day at all. A good Christian family marched in protest in front of an Arkansas Wal-Mart because the chain’s advertising failed to say “Merry Christmas.” A Fox News shouter is peddling a book on the “war on Christmas.” Right-wingers are using Samuel Alito’s judicial approval of publicly financed religious displays to push confirmation of his nomination to the Supreme Court. Cohen wrote, “What the boycotters are doing is not defending America’s Christmas traditions, but creating a new version of the holiday that fits a political agenda.”

It’s almost scary to witness the ardor with which people impose their religion on others, all the while claiming they are being discriminated against. Normally, I’d be inclined to get mad. Today, I prefer to get memories, those idealized things that we store up from our annual rituals, be they Christmas, Kwanzaa, or the opening of deer season.

Mine is a memory of a middle-class family in a medium-sized South Louisiana city. My first Christmas was a miracle. I toddled into a living room where a pine tree wrapped with strings of multi-colored lights had appeared overnight. There were presents beneath it. For me. Jubileo.

A late-arriving Christmas season was one of many family rituals. Elderly cousins made divinity, our pecan trees and the humidity willing. We were low-watt Methodists (is there any other kind?), but we often joined the throng in heavily Roman Catholic Southwest Louisiana for the spectacle that was Midnight Mass. (I’d love to know how some of the fundamentalist Wal-Mart critics would feel about being in the minority with a clean forehead on Ash Wednesday.) We never failed to deliver a ham and other gifts to the man who fed 11 children on his meager earnings from cutting our yard and others. I don’t remember taking him anything at other times, when those 11 mouths were just as hungry.

I remember a few gifts, none better than my first bike, a fat-tire Rollfast. Mostly my mother produced a standard lineup — new underwear, a book from the remainder bin at Muller’s department store, maybe a new wallet or sweater. The tree would be down before the clock struck Dec. 26. I am not complaining. These are warm memories of a complete, comfortable family, before death had begun calling.

My Christmas cliche is simple — how much more less can be. The seven-year-old me could take a five-dollar bill, alone, down a main street as festive and thronged in memory as Broadway. He’d emerge several blocks later with presents for everyone he loved, not to mention a new Chip Hilton book or a box of chocolate-covered cherries from the Kress store for himself.

I’ve been extraordinarily lucky since — in marriage, children, work, Christmas gifts — and happy. But happier? Not possible.

Happy Holidays y’all. Whenever.




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