Down my street, one family is doing its best to pump up the Christmas spirit. They have filled their modest lawn with inflated ornaments, each about five-feet tall. On one side of the walkway stands a Frosty the Snowman and a Rudolph the Reindeer, both with scarves wrapped around their necks and big smiles on their faces, as well as a miniature Santa Claus and Rudolph waving from inside a snowdome. Across the walk, a larger Santa holds the reins of a red sleigh with a yellow border that is pulled by two reindeer with normal-colored noses; a jaunty penguin sits behind him, surrounded by boxes of presents. The front of the house is fringed with dozens of lights and red and green balls and thick ropes of gold tinsel.
In my high-priced neighborhood, a short drive from Washington, DC, this kind of display is frowned upon. Christmas lights are fine, of course. But the height of fashion is to place a single faux-candle bulb in every front window and a demure little wreath on the door.
Yet whenever I pass that neighbor’s house, I smile. Without kitsch, it just wouldn’t feel like Christmas to me. For the past two weeks, I have been tuning my car radio to satellite channels that play nothing but Christmas pop songs. I sing along, badly, with Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby. Over the years, I’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life so many times I can narrate many of its scenes by heart. Long before I became a left-wing historian, Mr. Potter, as played by the incomparable Lionel Barrymore, taught me to dislike big businessmen. Every year, I re-read “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” to anyone who will listen. By December 25, I’m as filled with holiday rapture as a Jewish atheist can be.
You may conclude that I am a desperate sentimentalist or, worse, a self-hating Jew. But that would not explain why I am so comfortable expressing my fondness for Christmas kitsch. You see, I have both personal history and American history on my side.
First of all, my mother brought me up this way. A German Jew whose ancestors emigrated to the U.S. from Frankfurt before the Civil War, she assumed that Christmas was as inclusive a national holiday as Thanksgiving or Independence Day. Every year, we had a tree, festooned with frosted glass balls and little ornaments, some plastic and others cardboard. A few of the latter were handed out by local businesses. I recall one tiny Santa distributed by a local savings bank who advertised the prevailing interest rate on his red pot-belly. Of course, my mother filled my stockings and bought me a team of milk chocolate reindeer and put my presents under the tree. I knew the words to all the most popular carols, although I stuttered trying to pronounce “Good King Wenceslas.” One night before the big day, we would drive around our suburban New Jersey county to find the prettiest or, at least, the most outlandish lawn displays.
How my mother and I observed Christmas was firmly rooted in American tradition. As Stephen Nissenbaum shows, in his indispensable book, The Battle for Christmas, most devout Christians refrained from celebrating the holiday until the middle of the 19th century. They scorned the way peasants, slaves, and laborers marked the occasion with heavy drinking, cross-dressing, and fornication. In 1659, the General Court of the Massachusetts colony even “declared the celebration of Christmas to be a criminal offense.”
But with the emergence of a modern market economy in the 19th century came the desire to exchange gifts in a domestic setting that, for an increasing number of urban-dwellers, was no longer a place of work but a refuge from it. In the 1820s, some German immigrants introduced the Christmas tree, a relatively new custom first popularized in Strasbourg, and it was promoted by Unitarians and other reforming types who saw it as a device to help turn the holiday into a romantic ritual centered on teaching children about the joy of being good. The branches of the evergreen tree, wrote the feminist Margaret Fuller in 1844, “cluster with little tokens that may, at least, give them a sense that the world is rich, and that there are some in it who care to bless them. It is a charming sight to see their glittering eyes…”
Because Santa Claus—as concept and mass-produced image—made kids brighten up even more, he too became part of the new ritual. His artisanal workshop, comments Nissenbaum, evoked a pre-industrial past which disguised “the fact that most of the presents he brought were commodity productions.” And because Santa made presents for all children everywhere in the world, he became a grand surrogate or even a substitute for Jesus. Salvation may be possible for all, but, in the meantime, a new train set or a necklace would be just fine. Singing about a white Christmas and displaying a balloonish St. Nick on your front lawn are thus not commercialized departures from tradition but the logical extension of it.
So I am enjoying Christmas in a completely appropriate, even patriotic fashion. Can I make an aesthetic argument for my preferences? Not really. But then, when it comes to holiday observances, the heart wants what the heart wants. So say what you will: I am going to have myself a merry little Kitschmas.
Michael Kazin's most recent book is American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. He teaches history at Georgetown University and is co-editor of Dissent.