Merry Christmas! Well, sort of.
America’s un-Christmassy cards show a national inability to share each other's rituals and beliefs with confidence.
To understand America’s troubled soul, look to its greeting cards.
I have just spent many, many hours doing this as part of an increasingly Quixotic annual struggle to send out Christmas cards. It’s ain’t what it used to be.
In the first place, it is no longer enough merely to buy a few boxes of cards and send them out. Authenticity demands cards with photographs, sometimes more than one, printed with a personalised holiday greeting. The development of photo cards has made this easier than ever. It is now possible to order one day and to pick up the next. Even the envelopes can be pre-addressed and stamped with custom postage stamps featuring photos of children or pets. The card-makers have the technical part down to a science – easy peasy. The problem comes when it is time to choose the card itself.
Once upon a time there were two sorts of Christmas cards: the secular ones and the religious ones. They were very easy to tell apart. The secular cards had Santa, reindeer, holly, elves, etc. Inside they said ‘Merry Christmas’, ‘Happy Holidays’ or ‘Season’s Greetings’. The religious ones had pictures of mangers, angels, stars and/or Mary and the baby Jesus. Like the secular cards, they said ‘Merry Christmas’ and often something unmistakably biblical, like ‘Joy to the World, the Lord is come’.
Not so today. There are at least four categories or genres of cards. Religious cards are much as they were. Secular Christmas cards, however, have splintered into ‘holiday’ cards, Christmas cards, vaguely wintery cards and the sly new outlier for wimps and disorganised people, the New Year’s card.
I should say from the outset that Christmas card awkwardness is nothing new. Americans have been struggling with the imagery for years now. Sure, there are still Santas and reindeer, but every year they dominate a little less. Cards, wrapping papers and decorations are decidedly less Christmassy and more wintery. Snowmen! Snowflakes! Polar bears! Penguins! They’re sort of Christmassy, but not really. Like androgynous pop stars, they swing either way.
Take penguin attire. A quick perusal of penguin cards reveals the usual mix of tuxedos, bow-ties and jaunty knitted caps familiar to students of penguin couture. The colours, however, often seem deliberately chosen not to refer to Christmas overtly. The penguin may, for instance, wear a red-and-white scarf, but there will be no green unless worn by a second penguin who is not standing too close to the first one. There is red, there is green but there isn’t much in the way of red and green. More often, these are just two colours among many, casually included in a crowd of blues, yellows and oranges. Nope, nothing Christmassy here! A similar sensibility is at work in snowmen illustrations and polar bears in hats.
Photo cards present a slightly different challenge. Because the photo is the main illustration, the question is not so much one of imagery but text and colour. The result is probably the most bizarre manifestation of Yuletide defensiveness to date: Christmas deconstructed.
Greetings-card writers have literally fractured Christmas carols to produce a new genre of card featuring fragments of lyrics like ‘Holly Jolly!’ or ‘Fa la la la la!’ They are the greetings-card equivalent of a Freemason handshake, referring to a shared reference that dare not speak its name. Of course, copywriters and advertisers have referred to the lyrics of Christmas songs before – ‘tis the season after all – but the sheer volume of these sorts of cards shows that it is probably more than a mere trope.
Some most definitely refer to Christmas, albeit in an off-handed way. It’s a veritable Name That Tune from lyrical fragments like ‘Holly Jolly!’ ‘Merry and Bright!’, ‘Ring-a-ling, Hear them Ring’, ‘You’d better not cry, you’d better not pout’ (the latter cleverly rearranged from ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ to constitute ‘fair use’) and, from the same song, the enigmatic ‘I’m Telling You Why’.
Then there are the snippets from songs we associate with Christmas and sing at Christmas but aren’t technically about Christmas: songs about snow and cold weather and sleigh rides that we could listen to at any point during the winter (but don’t). These include: ‘Let it Snow!’, ‘Laughing All the Way’, ‘Oh What Fun!’ and the much-too-long, ‘And I Think to Myself, What a Wonderful World’.
Finally there are the merry wishes: ‘Merry Merry!’,’Merry, Merry, Merry!’, ‘Merry Everything!’, ‘The Merriest!’, ‘Merry Wishes!’, ‘Warm wishes!’, ‘Toasty Wishes!’ and ‘Winter Wishes!’
This deconstruction of Christmas is not about official bans on wishing Merry Christmas or renaming the ‘Christmas break’ as ‘Winter break’. It is about a deeper mistrust with our collective ability to tolerate other people’s beliefs and for them to tolerate ours. ‘Live and let live’ has been transformed into ‘live quietly and, whatever you do, don’t be seen to be too enthusiastic’.
The irony of these increasingly coy references to Christmas is that the vast majority of Americans do celebrate it. Americans exchange more than a billion Christmas cards each year and yet somehow this mass, largely secular holiday has been transformed in our collective imaginations into a particular religious and cultural event that should not carry more social weight than a holiday, say, Diwali, that is observed by comparatively few people.
At some level, this is an ambivalence about America itself, since the widespread celebration of a secular Christmas is largely an American innovation. Everything from Santa Claus – the way he looks, the colours he wears, the reindeer, the sleigh – through to the songs we sing and the movies we watch are American cultural creations. But more worryingly, it seems to show a disenchantment with the ideals of Christmas itself. Perhaps the whole premise of the holiday mocks us. It represents an aspiration for universalism that seems so out of reach that we are embarrassed we ever tried.
Fortunately, there does still seem to be a point when the holiday simply becomes about the experience of spending time with other people. There comes a point when there is nothing left to do but give a collective shrug and take time out for fun, fancy and impracticality. If the big ideas of Christmas – peace on earth and goodwill to all men – won’t fit on a card, they persist in the actuality of smiles exchanged with friends and strangers, in a lightness of heart, a wave and the words ‘Merry Christmas!’
Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.