Keeping Christmas, Part II: How the (Conservative) Grinches Stole Christmas


…And replaced it with commercial nostalgia.

Back in the 1970’s and 1980’s, there was still a comfortable feeling about Christmas and Easter.  True, they were being undermined by hardworking non-Christian retailers who preferred to hawk Santa and the Easter Bunny rather than proclaim the birth and resurrection of the Savior their ancestors rejected, and one of my pieces in The Southern Partisan took up the commercial sacrilege we had to endure twice a year.  Some friends, Christian as well as Jews, were annoyed, but perhaps in these benighted times they will think better of their response.  When I find time, I’ll retype the piece and post it.)

Staying out of big institutions—government office buildings, shopping malls, doctors’ offices, and hospitals—has always been a part of my formula for keeping Christmas merry.  This year, unfortunately, has been unusual.   I hate all medical facilities, but I have spent the past several months taking family members to doctors, hospitals, and clinics, and, more recently I have  been making the rounds on my own account:  Two routine trips to the bone-cracker, one annual visit to the vampires who draw blood on the pretense that they need it for tests, a flue shot at the pharmacy, and—best of all—four trips to the dentist, one for what they unselfconsciously call “prophylaxis” and three for a root canal plus crown replacement.  Ho ho ho!

What is the most unpleasant part of these visits?  It is not the actual pain or discomfort of needles and drills, but it is hard to say, whether it is the disruption of schedule and waste of time, the spectacle of Americans going out in public dressed in dirty jeans and stinking parkas, or the condescending familiarity that is now de rigueur for anyone remotely connected with the health industry—from surgeons and hospital executives down to receptionists and dental hygienists.  I used to adopt a demeanor of Stoic indifference that turned quickly to acerbic resistance the first time I got the first-name treatment.  In later years I have not so much mellowed as adopted the persona common among slaves and POWs:  I become an amiable idiot.

Now, I can often be idiotic but amiable is perhaps not the first word my family and friends would use, but, especially in medical offices where I am at all known, I am the model of courtesy, cordiality, and rattling good humor, always ready with a vapid witticism or pleasant inquiry about children, vacations, and endless garrulous descants on the weather.  The character is part Scarlet Pimpernel and part Doc Brown (Christopher LLoyd in Back to the Future).

Fortunately, the two hour sessions over the root canal got me off the hook:  With all that stuff going on in my mouth, it hardly mattered what I might have had to say.  If the dentist were a social science professor, the conversations could go something like:

“So the, Tom, whaddya think?  Was Trotsky more right in promoting global revolution than Stalin’s desire to build communism in one state?”


“So, yur sayin’ they were both equally brilliant and humane?”


“Yes, I think I agree.  But what about Miley Cyrus?  Isn’t she even greater than Britney and Madonna or are you still stickin’ to your old school traditions?”

“Yeah, I see what you mean.  When they’re both so great, we don’t really have to choose, do we?”

This past visit, only two afternoons before Christmas Eve, was even more painful than I could invent.  My excellent dentist (a lady married to my other dentist) was chatting with the very nice technician as they ground my teeth, sprayed them with water, and sucked out the fluid with an intense vacuum pump that almost took part of my cheek with it.  In the background we were hearing all the great old classic Christmas music—you know, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Brenda Lee, and  Gene Autry.  Perhaps it was the music that set the ladies to thinking about the Season.

“So, the kids excited about Christmas?  Have you got their elf yet?  I suppose you have to.  I mean they all expect it now.”

“I’m a little late this year, but I tell them whenever the elf comes it’s the right time.”

“Do they like Christmas movies”

“Yes, we have a set of the old classics, you know, Elf, Rudolph, National Lampoon’s Christmas..”

“Do they really like those old-fashioned movies?  Aren’t they too old-school.”

“They like to watch them, but, you know, I think they’re happy to watch anything…”

“How you feeling, Tom.  Need to take a break?”


These are good, hardworking women, and I am sure they do a better job as parents than I ever did.  But this is it?  When is “the elf (whoever in the name of Hell that is) coming to your house?  I did not expect a chat about ember days, much less the Incarnation, but, apparently, even pop commercialism of my childhood—the Coca Cola Santa Claus, the “partridge in a pear tree,” hearing “Winter Wonderland” and baking Christmas cookies have been displaced by 60’s pop tunes and 90’s movies.  It’s not so much that it is an unChristian distraction from one of the great events in the history of Creation but that, as mythology and cultural tradition it is such cheap tinsel.  If only Simon Magus had given up trying to learn the Christian magic, he might have bottled snake oil and got rich selling salvation by the glass!

Even nominally Christian parents, apparently, find it impossible to stand up against the tide of commercial degradation.  But, how are they much worse off than the conservatives who blather every year about the “War on Christmas?”  They sigh after the good days of department store Christmas displays and the music of Glen Miller and Guy Lombardo, when even Jews and atheists said “Merry Christmas,” and everyone watched the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.  Yes, those were certainly more comfortable times when all you had to do, to pass as a Christian, was to go to church a few times a year, send greeting cards, and mouth the appropriate phrases.  I am all in favor of hypocrisy as a means of letting the rest of us lead our lives, but when hypocrisy becomes an end in itself—as it had become by the 1950’s—it is time to act less like Norman Vincent Peale and more like Stephen the Protomartyr.

Let me confess:  I hate the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, just one more piece of faux non-Christian mythmaking in the tradition of A Christmas Carol, with the important difference provision that Dickens—as little as I like him—knew how to tell a story and had some feeling (as he shows in The Pickwick Papers) for the old English Christmas traditions.   Dickens could not bear to invoke actual Christian traditions like angels and invented his own supernatural beings, but he knew that classical liberals like Ebeneezer Scrooge were destroying Christian charity.  Little did he know that some day Scrooge’s spiritual descendants would invent Black Friday and convert Advent into “thirty more shopping days till Christmas.”


Yes, Charles Schulz was not a bad fellow and disliked the commercialization of Christmas that helped to make him rich, but what an impoverished imagination we must have to turn away from the birth of Christ to Lucy and Charlie Brown, from Bach and Handel to Perry Como.  And, after spending some time listening to Big Band Music, I have come to realize how saccharine most of Glen Miller was.  I’m sure he was a nice guy, especially when compared with an exacting musician like Benny Goodman, but Glen Miller’s music hardly ever rises above the level of Muzak.  It is simply not worth preserving—any more than “Jingle Bell Rock” or “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas.

If I have to listen to pop Christmas—excuse me, Holiday music—I infinitely prefer blues and rock music:  Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas, baby” (and “Please Come Home for Christmas”) or even “Blue Christmas” (a hit for Ernest Tubb when Elvis was still a child) or Ray Charles’ “The Snow is Falling.”  I am a little tired of Nat King Cole singing Mel Torme’s “Christmas Song,” but all the good secular holiday songs evoke something real:  the powerful yearning we experience at this time of year and the almost overwhelming desire to be with the people we love.  These songs are less saccharine and speak to the genuine unhappiness that postChristian men and women fight against, every year at the Winter Solstice, with the feeble weapons provided by reruns of the Andy Williams Christmas specials, with actors hired to play Andy’s family, while his real wife was doing time for murdering her lover.

Comservativee nostalgia-mongers are waging a far more dangerous war on Christmas than neurotic Jewish novelists or the homosexualist atheists at Target.  By pretending that the world of Ed Sullivan—the friend of gangsters—and Perry Como and Charlie Brown and Doctor Seuss was somehow an acceptable alternative to both the ugliness of postchristian life and the rigors of the Faith that demands our obedience, they fog over our understanding with commercial sentimentalism we too quickly confuse with faith, hope, and charity.

Perhaps I should not be so unkind.  This is a hard and ugly world that we and our parents’ generation have created.  If watching Miracle on 34th Street for the hundredth time can distract us from the ‘glamorous’ ugliness of the Kardashians and the brutality of urban violence, we should be grateful to the kinder gentiler Hollywood that produced such films.  But perhaps, just perhaps, it would be better to turn off the television and radio, light the fire (and the candles on the tree—who wants to live forever?), and read each other “Beasley’s Christmas Party.”

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

19 Responses

  1. Robert Reavis says:

    I never realized you were editior of Southern P. That was the only magazine we subscribed to for years but it’s publication seemed always erratic and more so in early nineties. This second meditation on contemporary Christmas in America is true. We have always had poor soil for Holy Days to grow in and I doubt it will improve but it might.

  2. Alexander Coleman says:

    I have always loathed the “Charlie Brown Christmas Special” as well.

    The only filmic adaptation of Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” that I go back to, as I did today, is the 1984 iteration starring the genuinely inspired George C. Scott as the miserly liberal individualist.

    Ernest Tubb receiving a mention here is wonderful. I’ll confess to having a slight weakness for Bobby Helms’s “Jingle Bell Rock,” probably from hearing it too many times as a small child. Nostalgia used to be better as they say.

    The dentist dialogues provoked a smile and a laugh. Though there is also terror at the idea of making otherwise useful people into social science professors, of which there are already too many, I fear.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Clyde Wilson and I created the Southern Partisan Quarterly Review and ran it on a shoestring before giving it to a foundation whose corrupt and dimwitted people proceeded to make it impossible for us to continue to work on what we had created. It’s an unpleasant story doomed to be repeated.

  4. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Speaking of A Christmas Story, my wife refused to get me a Red Rider BB gun with a compass in the stock. She was afraid I would shoot her eye out. Even worse, she would not let me buy a leg lamp, advertised by the local Tuesday Morning, for our front window.

    The Annapolis paper had a column this morning by an assistant professor of English at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, PA, explaining the hidden Christian message in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas by Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss). Who knew?

    There was another column by a writer in Doylestown, PA explaining the lessons of A Christmas Carol. That, too, is a Christian message that “shows us the hope and power of a helpless baby born in the poorest of circumstances, friendless, penniless, his bassinet a feed box. And so we are challenged, once again, to envision a Christmas Yet to Come when every child born to us receives the gift of hospitality, a smile from a welcoming world and plenty of room in the inn.” Is this a “hidden” anti-abortion message?

    Both columns were originally written for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

  5. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    I guess that I must be fortunate to have professional relationships with my dentist and doctors. They all call me Mr. Van Sant and I call them Doctor Johnson, or Doctor Abraham, etc. My dentist reserves small talk to the time waiting for the anesthetic to take effect or after the work is complete. And the talk is usually about our mutual interests or our families. He also builds intricate model ships in his spare time that he displays in his office. Very reassuring when your dentist is sufficiently dexterous to build models.

  6. Allen Wilson says:

    Even as a kid there was something about Santa Claus I didn’t like. I always liked the English Father Christmas and the Dutch Sinter Klaus better. Then the discovery that the modern red-clad Santa and the modern red-clad Father Christmas are creations of Coca Cola really clinched it. Now I hate them both. The real, green-clad real Santa and the real, green clad Father Christmas seem much more wholesome. Maybe we should make an effort to revive them?

    This year I dodged all the cheesy holiday music by keeping the car radio on the only classical music station in the state: lots of choral music, which I don’t care much for, but it was a lot better than Rudolph and the other usual suspects.

    Speaking of professional informality, it must not be a coincidence that it arose alongside rudeness and bad manners.

  7. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    it is amazing what utter nonsense is now written by lit profs who interpret books as if they were Holy Scripture. The history of Santa Claus is an interesting topic. Clement Moore, Frank Baum, and Thomas Nast all played important parts. The North Pole, I believe, was contributed by Baum, and the authors of Babar send the elephant to the mountains of Bohemia in search of the jolly fat man.

    I do not entirely object to this commercial mythmaking, but it is inherently thin and stupid–like so much science fiction. Gene Rodenberry, to justify some of the dubious background for Startrek, pointed out that while the Creator took six days to create the universe, he only had one weekend. Yes, indeed, but in six months or six years, he would not have done any better but merely overlaid his thin derivative conception with detailed pseudo-history as George Lukas and his collaborators have done. Even CS Lewis did not bring it off either in the Narnia books or in the Space trilogy, where he worked much harder on creating his parallel history. Tolkien, despite certain weaknesses, succeeded but that was because he had a deep understanding of several Western cultures–Roman, Celtic, Nordic–that he used as analogues for his own world. I cannot think of another writer who has done anything remotely so successful in this vein. In fact, I rather think fantasy is a dead end for the imagination.

  8. Clyde Wilson says:

    Read Beasley. And what about William Gilmore Simms’s “A Golden Christmas”?

  9. Robert Reavis says:

    Tom, It doesn’t surprise me about Southern Partisan. It was recommended to me while a very young man by an old Thomist type professor, Frtiz Wilhemson. He was also one only of two or three I have ever met,and you, who noticed the difference between the fantastic and the imaginary.

  10. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, definitely Simms. I wanted only one reference and used the Tarkington story because, oddly enough, it may be less familiar to our readers. I never met Wilhelmson, though of course I read him. If, Robert, you join us in Charleston, perhaps you’ll have time to meet a former Latin student of mine. He’s a good deal older even than I am, a disciple of Fritz W whom he followed to Spain on one or another excursion. When he was my part-time student, he gave me a missale romanum, which we still use. He lives on Suyllivan’s Island, where we’ll be staying, and they have a somewhat creakily produced Tridentine Mass on Sunday afternoon in a musty little seaside church with a wheezy organ. Good enough for me. There is also the old Episcopal Church I was dragged to when my parent decided that a little outward conformity with conventions would be appropriate.

  11. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Prof Brownlow would have a better handle than I do on the distinction between fantasy and imagination, but as I recall the locus classicus for discussion is in Coleridge.

  12. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Beasley’s Christmas Party is fun, partly because it is a comedy of errors and misunderstanding in which a romantic young librarian jilts her fiancee because he is a dull plodding lawyer without any imagination only to find out that in his kindness he is infinitely creative.

  13. John Seiler says:

    On modern medicine: Back in 1999, my father was recuperating from a quadruple bypass in a hospital in Phoenix. Wandering around, I noticed a wall in a hallway that featured the graduation pictures from the hospital’s school for registered nurses. Around 1972, the graduates gave up their pretty white nurses’ uniforms and the nurses’ caps, distinctive for each school; my late mother always was proud of hers from 1941 from Detroit’s Grace Hospital School of Nursing. The uniforms and caps gave the RNs an easy maternal authority that comforted patients while the necessary duties were performed. After around 1972, in place of the uniforms the graduates in the pictures donned the horrible smocks that have greeted us ever since, indistinguishable from those worn by the other medical staff, even many of the doctors. Around 1975, the pictures started featuring male nurses.

  14. Dot says:

    Hawking Santa and the commercialization of Christmas started a long time ago, precisely in 1939, 78 years ago, in of all places – Chicago’s Montgomery Ward’s dept. stores (if they are still around). The company developed these illustrated booklets for children about Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer and they were handed out to them at Christmas time.

    Seventy two years ago, in 1945, Rudolph made her debut in the song Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. It was first sung by the famed singing cowboy, Gene Autry. This year marks the 57th anniversary of the film Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. You all know the “rest of the story”.

    Happy Christmas Season and New Year!

    So it was this company who commercialized Christmas by developing the illustrated booklets for children by inventing Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer and his sleigh of other reindeer who carried Santa to the tops of houses and down the chimney to give children their presents – all purchased at Montgomery Ward.

  15. Allen Wilson says:

    What may be worth preserving could be an interesting subject in itself. Of course, we would have to approach the subject with the understanding that just because we may like something doesn’t mean it’s worth preserving, nor can we let nostalgia cloud our judgement; nor is it likely that we’ll be the ones doing the preserving anyway (a troubling thought indeed, considering the state of the younger generations). It’s a little disturbing to admit it, but it’s likely that in the long run, big band and even jazz itself are not worth preserving for the ages, though there may be individual exceptions to that judgement.

    Maybe we could start with traditional folk music, the older and more traditional Christmas myths, nothing commercialized, and go from there? For literature, we might throw in Simms and Tolkien, and we may need a modern version of Vitruvius or Palladio, for when future men crawl out of the mud and finally decide to build something beautiful again, and need to know what plantation houses, Victorian cottages, or Second Empire style looked like.

  16. Robert Reavis says:

    Years ago I read Adrian Fortescue’s study of the Roman Liturgy. Then a French priest told me a few years later it was customary in France among some families to give Don Guerange’s Litugical Year as a confirmation gift. Those two incidents were probably actual graces that have helped me understand more than any other commentary, the meaning of leisure as the basis of culture and to enjoy holidays however feeble our efforts. Maybe not for everyone but were important for my understanding of the difference between working to live and living to work. Or to borrow a phrase from Mark VanDoren’s essay,”How to praise a World that will not last.”

  17. Robert Reavis says:

    Merry Christmas Mr Peters. Here is one we won’t read about, probably because just a few southerners or some Christians. As always, good to hear from you.
    Switzerland: Anti-Christian attack in Longeborgne: three wounded, including one seriously
    by Christian Larnet
    December 25, 2016
    Christians were attacked with cold steel — always the weapon of Islam — for going to Mass this Sunday morning at Our Lady of Longeborgne, Brumous.

  18. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I have deleted Robert Peter’s fine reminiscence and reposted it as an independent piece.

  19. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    On the question of Bobby Helm, I agree: He is closer to Charles Brown and Ernest Tubb than Andy Williams. To Allen Wilson, I would reply that not all art, especially the popular forms like pop songs and novels, will last or deserves to. However, much of it makes sense to its original audience and to a few subsequent generations. My children are puzzled that I have come to like the songs of Jerome Kern and Rogers and Hart, which were mostly written before I was born. The pop culture world of the 1920’s and 30’s is, nonetheless, an intelligible alternative to the current nightmare, and it took real talent to write songs like Alec Wilder’s “I’ll Be Around” or the songs from R&H’s “Roberta.” I don’t like using Mozart and Brahms as background for drinks with wife and friends, but a little Mel Torme and George Shearing is pretty fine Tafelmusik. (Similarly I’ve been playing a lot of Jimmie Rogers and Ralph Stanley.) Indeed, I sometimes think that Shearing deserves to last. He could not help being blind, which meant the only career open to him as a pianist was jazz–he did not have to read music in braille. He could read it and did but not at a rate that he could have built a repertoire on his favorite composer, namely, Bach. I take the same approach to films, popular fiction, and television. Some of the best of it is good enough to justify an hour at the end of a day of reading and writing, and at their best filmmakers, novelists, and songwriters help to make sense out of the world in which we find ourselves. I stop far short of watching the mind-rotting pornography of shows like Downton Abbey, but we enjoyed Foyles War and the original House of Cards.