Jen Gerson: The True Meaning of Christmas
A few notes on the latest volley in the War on Christmas, Santa Inc.
One of the increasingly bizarre effects of our retreat into respective informational echo chambers is the way different social media networks highlight disparate stories and controversies.
Certain media outlets, like the Wall Street Journal, work with this trend; See Red Feed, Blue Feed, and you start to understand the degree to which we are living in totally different universes. The divide is even more striking when you compare the social media networks themselves.
On Twitter, one of the great culture war wounds of recent weeks was this insane article from the CBC, which is now fulfilling its crucial mandate to dictate what words ought to be used by Canadians. Mission creep is a thing, friends!
But I admit that Twitter is not the only social media site I frequent. At the risk of being labelled a total reactionary lunatic, I admit that I also spend too much time on YouTube. I'm mostly just there for the ASMR spa videos and sewing tutorials; even so, it was impossible not to get sucked into the blossoming horror of Santa Inc.
The eight-part television show made for HBO Max by comedians Sarah Silverman and Seth Rogen may soon attain the record of one of the most poorly rated television series of all time. And watching but a brief trailer, it's not hard to see why.
I mean ... Jesus. If you were trying to craft a perfect example of hate-bait for the reactionary right in a lab, this is pretty much what it would look like. It's got woke politics, feminism, hatred of white guys and a pot shot in the War on Christmas neatly tied up in a claymation bow. The fact that the show is fronted by comedians who are Jewish has dug this mess into the very ugliest, muddiest trench of the culture war.
And let's address the anti-Semitism right off the top. It's an unavoidable strain in the outraged commentary about the show online, almost all of which makes note of the fact that (((Silverman and Rogen))) are tearing down "our" most sacredest holidays, and desecrating the holy figure of St. Nicholas by calling him white. Some of the commentary is far more explicit than this, with no shortage of outright white supremacist dog whistles and language.
Hence Rogen's response:
Which, I mean, yes, the film has pissed off a lot of literal, actual white supremacists, and I don't doubt that some nasty people are down-voting the trailer and the film. But going full Godwin's Law is a little like mixing Styrofoam with gasoline in a garbage can to make a homemade napalm layer cake of incendiary online reaction and counter-reaction.
It's a little like everyone is playing the same game, here. The reactionary right is getting off on the apparent awfulness of the show and the show is getting off on the reactionary right's circle jerk.
(Seth, how Americanized do you have to be to operate under the solipsistic delusion that Christmas is only celebrated in America?)
Because it's impossible to separate what's genuine from what's performative, the only answer was to do my duty as a journalist. I signed up for, God help me, Crave TV. I grabbed a bottle of Prosecco I found in my fridge. I set up my computer on my sewing desk. And I watched the entire goddamn series.
I can now inform you in a direct and an unbiased manner that Santa Inc. is not funny.
I wasn't able to dredge a single genuine chuckle out of any of it, and I have hurt by own brain trying to figure out why.
Look, there's nothing wrong with satirizing Santa Claus, and the reindeer, and the claymation format. There's no reason to approach any of this material with reverence. There's nothing wrong with a raunchy Christmas special as this is, proudly labelled as coming from the creators of Sausage Party.
Fine, fine. I just don't know who the audience for this is.
If you want to create an outrageous, bawdy Christmas movie that features a miserable and bored Mrs. Claus giving head to Santa, or a gag with a miner's hat filled with dildos, there's nothing wrong with that. But there's a very specific audience for "sausage party" humour — lacrosse-playing young white men, and older white men who wish they were still young white men who could play lacrosse. In other words, people who look like Seth Rogen.
And do you know what that crowd doesn't generally enjoy?
Thinly veiled manifestos on how awful white men are; the terribleness of corporate America, and a show featuring a lot of downtrodden women complaining about health insurance and lack of maternity leave.
On the other hand, if Santa Inc. was trying to appeal to the #resistence pussy hat and rainbow tattoo crowd, certainly a woke-appropriate message is here for them. But, does this crowd need to be so lectured? Meanwhile, the juvenile humour is off-putting. Is the feminist set going to keel over laughing because one of the female reindeer characters brags about having a threesome with Donner?
There's no sophistication here. No clever set up or punch line. It's just a story about an angry female elf who wants to be Santa Claus that pretends to be funny by leaning on sex jokes.
Raunchiness is fine for a cheap laugh. It relies on the taboo of shock and sex to generate an emotional reaction. But, man, one of the most popular music videos of the last few years was Wet Ass Pussy. Who even notices swearing anymore? Who is shocked by a scene in which the main character's mother bangs the Easter bunny?
This kind of lazy humour is old hat. It's boring.
So, no, Santa Inc. is not good.
But it's still worth addressing one of the most pernicious critiques of the film; that it was not a humour created with a deep love for Christmas, but rather, was created by two Jewish people who come off as if they're deeply resentful of the holiday.
I don't think the show is bad because of Silverman or Rogen's religious background. I think it's bad because they're trying to decorate a humourless message with lazy sex jokes. If they wanted to raise awareness about vaccines, or maternity leave, or poor pensions, they should have produced a documentary because I don’t think these comedians know how to make such sensitive subject matter funny anymore. To do so would require a degree of irreverence that I no longer see in progressive politics.
Christmas doesn't really belong solely to devout Christians. Yes, many Christians reverently celebrate Dec. 25 as the birth of Jesus. But it is also a cultural holiday that is celebrated by families who regard it as a winter festival. Yes, Santa is derived from the Catholic St. Nicholas; for most of us, he's also the guy who drops down the chimney, leaves presents for kids under the tree, and flies around on a magical flying sleigh pulled by flying reindeer.
I remember my years in Abu Dhabi, a country that was devoutly Muslim. This is a place that confined Christian churches to a small district of the city where non-Muslims could congregate and pray. Yet that country celebrated Christmas by dressing up its desert malls with Santa photo booths and fairy lights on palm trees.
Christmas is great. And I don't begrudge anyone celebrating it whether they be an atheist, Jew, Muslim or Wiccan.
In fact, one of the great ironies of the ongoing annual War on Christmas is the way that Christians are now so quick to be outraged by any small infringement on the holiday's traditions. It's not so long ago that the most puritanical Christians railed against Christmas for its pageantry, gluttony, vanity and status seeking. The whole affair was castigated as a thinly disguised pagan festival because — sorry to say this, guys — it very much is.
Almost all of our Christmas traditions have their deep origins in post-Christian and pre-Christian festivals like solstice and Saturnalia. There's no consensus on when the actual historical Jesus were born, and even if he was born in a manger on some winter night, how many pine trees were lying around in Bethlehem waiting to be decorated with tinsel and popcorn? Do we even need to start on the beloved holiday parade of Krampus?
When you insinuate your holiday onto secular society, this is the inevitable cost: you don't sacralize your society, rather you de-sacralize your holiday. You can treat Christmas like a true holy day if doing so serves you. But in creating a state-sanctioned day off within a secular state, Christians lost a degree of ownership over Christmas, who celebrates it, and how.
Treating Christmas as sacrosanct and ginning up outrage over "Happy Holidays" and Santa Inc. misses the point. Christmas is and always has been a holy syncretic mess; Die Hard and Midnight Mass. A hodgepodge of traditions, beliefs and customs that have evolved to reflect the society celebrating it. It doesn't belong to anybody, and you can take or leave what works for you and yours. The point of Christmas is to gather to yourself good food, beauty, light and the people you love through the darkest stretch of the year.
And I have no problem with Jewish people — or anybody else for that matter — poking fun at the holiday. Have at it.
Just make it funny.
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