“You have already delivered,” my dear wife said to me several weeks past, "your first tirade of the year against Christmas." It would be disingenuous of me to deny that I had, or to argue against her perception that this has been a recurring event in our lives together, or to claim that most persons do not find such utterances appalling. (Perhaps I'd beg for a slightly less unrelievedly unpleasant description of my remarks than tirade if I were to quibble or object at all, which I shall not.)
What I will say is that I am aware of my propensity for blurting out the odd objection, for rendering finely-wrought sarcasms that good and decent persons going about their preparations for the birth of their blessed Holy Savior or camping on the sidewalk outside the Maine Mall Thanksgiving evening do surely find annoying. I know I say these things; I see the looks of horror and disgust I draw. I am not lately so bold, nor do I declaim so forcefully or as long as in my impetuous youth, but if I am now tempered, restrained, self-regulated to a degree, I am still nobody you'd want to have along for a day of shopping.
And one may understand one's faults but be unable or unwilling to change. But I do come before you here tonight to see if I can claw my way back some distance toward common ground, that we may in some measure agree that we have something worthy of celebration and decoration and maybe even a degree of blessed, blight-blotting drunkenness, that we might in our mutual inebriation hug and kiss and tell each other what grand fellows and lovely ladies we are and enjoy the pretty lights (those that don't blink) and the warm fire, and wish each other a harmless, generic “Happy Holidays.”
Not everyone faults the Christmas season the same. Some object to its secular excess; fewer, but some, (more Muslims and Jews and atheists than Christians in this camp, of course) think the religious aspects should be purged from any public appreciation of the day. I loathe it all: faith and folly alike creep me out. I consider the Christ-centered Christmas to be the greater humbug, but it is Santa Claus and all that follows from him that is the unavoidable, inescapable flood of Christmas as the free market has defined it in our time.
Jesus was born on December the twenty-fifth because early Christian myth-makers and spin-doctors needed to co-opt the solstice revelries of hard-partying pagans. It was necessary to get Jesus born (and born without the stain of his mom and dad having had any joy in his engendering—just a long donkey trip through the desert). He must be born so he could be flogged and nailed and tortured to death, by which effort each of us who would buy into the whole of the church doctrine might gain life everlasting. And if Jesus didn't suffer enough to get that job done, you can add to it the millions of hours of anguish loosed unto the heavens by those of us alive after 1958 who have been subjected to a hundred (all bad) renditions of the thoroughly execrable “Little Drummer Boy.”
But all that can be done privately. Mammon, however, lays his blanket of excess over all of North America from “Black Friday” after Thanksgiving until the frenzy of gift-returning burns out a few days after Christmas. Of course some pulsating displays of lawn decoration (often co-mingling Christ, camels, snowmen, Santa Claus and a great green Grinch without seeming favor or prejudice) do remain a drain on the power grid until almost the equinox.
I spent an hour walking through a large toy store a few weeks ago. It was a saddening experience; it left me shaken. All was plastic; much required batteries; virtually every product had been manufactured in a country where waste is dumped in streams, workers are abused, and children younger than the likely recipients of these amusements work for pennies an hour so that we may have our humming light sabres, our motorized toddler Jeeps and Hummers, and mind-deadening video games. Yes, my friends, it is precisely the complaint of the paragraph you even now struggle toward a desperately-hoped-for end to that Mrs. Cooper has had to endure, many times over each season, for over thirty years.
Great SUVs choke the parking lots, not a few with lighted wreaths over their radiator grilles. Have you ever been poor at Christmas time? Have you ever spent a cold December day swapping batteries or mending hoses or desperately trouble-shooting a fuel or electrical system, or hitch-hiking to a junk yard for a starter solenoid?
You've heard the story of how President Bush asked James Webb, the recently elected Senator from Virginia, “How's your boy?” Mr. Webb replied, “I'd like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President.” Bush rejoined, “That's not what I asked you; how's your boy?” “That,” said Webb, “is between me and my boy.”
And there's as revealing a vignette of a modern American appreciation of the “Spirit of Christmas” as you'll find. Thousands of our boys and girls, men and women, sons and daughters are standing under the gun in the made-up nation of Iraq, each one at great risk of getting shot, burned, dismembered, killed between now and some vague future moment when President Bush shall have picked “a way forward” from among various suggestions filtering in to his small consciousness from Bush family fixer James Baker and his cohorts, from the Pentagon and its new “I'm Not Rumsfeld” Secretary of Defense, from whatever crew of neocon theorists has the upper hand just now at the State Department, from Dick Cheney and the American oil companies, surely phoning in daily from his Undisclosed Location.
Maybe sometime in 2008 the survivors of them may come home. Then what little is left of the fictitious nation of Iraq will be allowed to disintegrate and we will have “finished the task”, “achieved victory”, certainly not “cut and run” prematurely. What do you think, Dick? Does it feel like “Peace With Honor” as you look down on us from Heaven?
If you don't believe every one of the almost three thousand Americans killed so far in Iraq in pursuit of invisible weapons, elusive Democracy, vengeance or vainglory has died for no good purpose, you surely must see that every mother's son still quick above the sand but doomed to be bagged or boxed and flown home (what of him they can find) tomorrow or next week or when the lilacs bloom again or as another year turns toward Christmas, or yet another, will have been wasted while politicians pandered, pundits pondered, and several pathetic “ways forward” were parsed as Americans slept and shopped and sipped eggnog or iced tea as the season suggested.
See how we love our brave soldiers. We put their video Christmas cards on the local news shows. They say hello and we love you to their fiancees and families, to their unborn babies, to their mothers and fathers. Fade to commercial. Send them cards. Send them candy. Donate money to buy them body armor. Ship Don Rumsfeld over to give 'em a speech about getting the job done.
“We're so proud of our soldiers, and they're in our hearts so far away at this special time” say the pretty plastic ladies paid to look sad about trailer fires in Buxton and giggle over the sparkle of the lighted spruce in Monument Square. And now, here's a message from Discount Bob about his unbelievable leather sectional sofa deal.
Of course, they're in our hearts, you stupid corporate caricature of a human being. They should be in our homes! Two Maine sons were slaughtered pointlessly last week. Watch their funerals at six o'clock and eleven. “It's especially hard to lose someone at this special season.” Bullshit. Sorrow knows no season. Death and loss and grief are always and ever, unrelenting and unyielding. From the moment you learn your child is dead, he or she dies again every morning you wake, every evening you lie in bed bereft, every instant of every day a memory surfaces. When you blow up a twenty-two year old you kill the baby, the toddler, the youth, the man, the memory, and you blight every day his mother or father may yet live.
We will continue to play out this pointless, violent video game for months, for years. Bush is in disgrace. Baker says we can't “win”, but he wants to prop up some fiction for the benefit of the oil business. The Democrats are playing it close and cautious. Hillary Clinton is raising money and Barack Obama is speaking modulated platitudes. Nancy Pelosi says impeachment of our war criminal president is “off the table.” America shops.
This might be the worst Christmas yet, and it's my fifty-seventh. I've been interrogating myself and my former and alternative selves, looking into my own heart and soul and intentions, answering an array of questions designed to tell if I am fit to adopt my just-turned-two grandson, Karter. On balance, I think it'll come out ok. I only gave the adoption caseworker a few essays where I think I could pass for reasonable, and I don't think she has a source to supply the more revealing ones. So he and I will find our own “way forward” (God, I hope that fades the way of “down the road” and “at the end of the day” soon!).
But what will I get him for Christmas? I think a cardboard box, which will have more play value, a longer life and a smaller price tag than any toy I've seen. And a promise. A promise that, however much my audience recoils from its repetition, I shall subvert the space I am allowed before my small public to say as often as I can, as forcefully as I must, that so very much has gone wrong in our country that it will require everything each of us can give to bring us back to decency, to humanity, to rationality.
I am more sorry than she may believe that I hammered my Mrs. Every year with my dark holiday invective. I do decry the excess, but I am not unmoved by bright colored lights and small kindnesses and allusions to peace and love.
I'm not sorry for displaying my distaste and disgust on this page because that is my job and my duty.
I hope my grandson, my friend, my future, Karter Austin Shaw, two years and six days old, smart and funny and the joy of my aging days, grows up strong and brave and skeptical. I hope he seeks and speaks truth. If he does not succumb to religion, if he does not bow down to the state, if he understands that ideas, not things, engage the open mind and fill the hungry heart, our time together will have come to good end. How's the boy, Mr. President? The boy is all right! And I mean to keep him that way.
Good night. Good luck. Peace on Earth to men of goodwill. To all men. All women. Of all religious persuasions, not one having more to recommend itself than another, and none worth destroying a single life for. Don't buy so much. Kiss your babies, and keep them safe from the recruiting officers.
Christopher Cooper, as he subtly reveals above, has had his fill of excess, including but not limited to overdone holidays and vicious wars of imperial hegemony. But, this being Christmas and all, he does find himself softening toward his readers, who may extend their holiday greetings to him without fear of further bad reaction at email@example.com