“Stairway to Heaven” doesn’t stir me anymore. Neither does “Heart of Gold” or “Old Man.” When “Smells Like Teen Spirit” first broke, I went gaga. Within a few weeks, it was the only song on Nevermind that I regularly skipped over. For a guy who lives for classic rock, alt-country, and grunge, this is saying a lot. After all, these are some of the prototypes for their respective genres.
Now, do me a favour. Hold that thought. We’ll get back to why I feel this way in a moment.
In the meantime, please humour me as I try to address the latest round of social media outrage to flash across our screens. Maybe afterwards we can all hug it out. Or start up a rousing chorus of “Kumbaya.”
Most of all, don’t try to take this to heart — or too seriously. I’m just another shmuck writing about Christmas.
With that out of the way:
I really can’t get worked up over the Starbucks cup so-called fiasco — really, people are trying to somehow rescue Christmas* by bitching about symbols that are either pagan in origin (I’m looking at you holly and mistletoe) or were introduced/popularized by department stores in order to entice you to shop more (hey there non-specified reindeer and snowman). Not only that, but these secular images are enjoyed by countless non-Christians as a way of celebrating a generic capitalism-fueled winter break.
In short, beverage cups are as representative of the day that Christ was born as, say… well…
Actually, they have absolutely nothing to do with the day that Christ was born. In truth, they’re a lot closer related to Black Friday.
Similarly, I don’t even really understand the whole “won’t someone think of the troops?” Christmas-before-Remembrance-Day meltdown. I mean, it’s a false dichotomy. One has absolutely nothing to do with the other. I’ll just say this: Humans are complex beings capable of switching emotional gears from celebratory to solemn as needed. It’s what separates us from the chimps. Actually, come to think of it, chimps probably display this trait too.
It’s what separates us from fungi.
For reference, please see: pre-funeral wakes and/or Easter (show me a pious Christian and I’ll show you a dozen kids drawing Easter bunnies before Good Friday). Actually, the best bet would be to check out an average Leaf season, where the fans start celebrating in October and then begin mourning by November.
If we really want to end the pitchfork and torches juxtaposition of Christmas and Remembrance Day, we could start by taking a healthy portion of the money that we spend on (quite often) gratuitous presents and (you guessed it) scandalous Starbucks beverages and donate it to organizations that help soldiers battling mood disorders and the ravages of poverty. Make that donation every Movember… er… November 11th.
Lest we forget? Man, the number of living vets we forget about on a daily basis is staggering. But, oh, the traditions we could start!
It’s a silly debate really — one that was scoffed at by a veteran I spoke to at market this past weekend. One who, it just so happens, was selling Christmas fruitcakes.
You’ll note I said the veteran at market was selling Christmas fruitcakes. He was one of several, actually. And had no qualms about it in the least. None of them did.
“What kerfuffle over celebrating Christmas before Remembrance Day?” he asked. He was slack-jawed with incredulity. “I don’t care what kind of holiday nonsense you get up to beforehand. Just be sure to come out on the 11th.”
No, my beef with the whens and hows of Christmas celebrations are more about the watering down of passion and the lessening of unique experience through over-saturation.
I remember the first time I really listened to Neil Young’s Harvest. It filled me with delight, bliss, and an urge to share it with as many people as possible – I told you we’d return to that musical thought. It was like Christmas to my 12-year-old soul. These days, when “Old Man” comes on the radio, I’m usually quick to turn the station. The same thing happens with Sgt. Pepper, far too much early Bob Dylan, and the weeping twin guitars of Derek and the Dominoes’ “Layla.”
Quite simply, these classics have been played far too often and usually out of context. The same can be said about many great pieces of popular music. That which was once truly special has become commonplace, ordinary, and even mundane. Some is downright annoying (“Na-na-na-na… Hey Jude”).
For me – for many – the same has happened to Christmas. As a holiday, it’s become a lot like that summer when “Losing My Religion” was released and rock fans went from loving R.E.M. to wishing that Michael Stipe would be banished to a frozen asteroid floating somewhere on the fringes of the Kuiper belt.
The difference is that I don’t want to banish Christmas. I want to preserve some of the unique emotion that comes with its rare magic.
Joy and wonder are not sustainable conditions. Nor would we ever want them to be. One cannot survive on Pumpkin Spice Oreos alone. We crave emotional variety. We depend on it. Joy and wonder stem from those moments that are sparked by the special, the extraordinary, and the unique. Stretching or repeating the conditions that produce joy and wonder don’t produce more of these moments. Rather, the opposite occurs. It makes these moments less special, less spontaneous, less noteworthy, and all the more commonplace.
These days, with people pushing an early-November holiday start time, it’s like being stuck in a car for two months with someone who only listens to top-40 radio. By the time we get to the actual holiday, it’s a whole lot like watching the Grammy’s – an overly-commercialized celebration of moments that have been played to death, all in a pageant that is so often devoid of novelty, surprise, or creativity. And let me tell you, there is nothing at all novel about a song you’ve listened to 347 times. Or a decorated cardboard coffee cup for that matter.
I’ve often argued that if we spent as much energy making the week around Christmas as special as we currently do making all of November and December, every Christmas would be “the best Christmas ever!” Instead, we water it down further by constantly trying to pour in extra calendar days.
I know… I know… “Donald is a Grinch.”
To which I respond “haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate.” In the spirit of this metaphor, I’ll “Shake it Off.”
And then go on ignoring the Christmas hype until the week that (for me) it really matters.
There are a couple of albums that I absolutely refuse to listen to for about 363 or 364 days of the year. OK Computer is one of them. So is Rubber Soul. Once or twice a year, I’ll dust these recordings off, pour a bath, pour some wine, put on headphones, and absolutely bliss out.
The reason I refuse to listen to them at any other time is because I want to maintain that spark of electric magic that comes with hearing these works through fresh ears. I want to feel the wonder of being moved – and even surprised — by the harmony between, say, vocal and glockenspiel. I do so in order to keep them special.
And such is the way I approach Christmas. It is not about a month and a half of eggnog frappuccinos, but rather a few days where we throw off the day-to-day ordinary and celebrate the magic of being together and sharing laughter, good cheer, and song. It is a time when we can give our full attention to loved ones. And it is a time when we can celebrate in ways that would lose their spark if they were attempted every day — not to mention causing mass obesity and rampant liver disease.
No, I’m not going to get worked up over what Starbucks is pouring their coffee into – chances are good, I wouldn’t have noticed in the first place. And I’m sure not going to tell people when or how they should be switching the dial from serious to celebratory – that’s something that really should be dictated by how you feel, rather than what others say or choose to stick in their storefront windows (though I do hope that your Remembrance Day solemnity is not that easily distracted).
But nor am I going to get all holly jolly Christmas anytime soon. In fact, I’ll probably stay away from all holiday-themed shenanigans until a heck of a lot closer to the actual date.
And then, when the holiday season truly arrives, it’ll be like listening to the Beatles with fresh ears – vibrant, unique, and magic.
By then, I’ll truly be ready to rock.
*I’m calling it Christmas, because that’s what we call it at home. If I go to someplace where they are celebrating Kwanza, Hanukkah, or Festivus, I’ll wish them joy and peace on whatever occasion they honour.