Giving up on the Elf

I have postponed this particular post for a couple of weeks to get some distance from the fever pitch of debates about it in December.  But how can anyone really write about truth-telling without commenting on Christmas? Seriously, can we let go of The Elf? We all know the one to which I refer.


Let me start with something quite removed from Christmas, something 4000 miles from the Midwest US and 18 years ago from this year — the death of Princess Diana.

I have nothing against Princess Di. In fact, I feel like I was a big fan of hers in some ways. Like tens of millions of others, Paul and I set an alarm to wake in the middle of the night to see THE wedding. Sure, we found her dress to be ill-fitting and oddly bizarre, but we cheered her on anyway. Like many other royal watchers in the US, we were not particularly enamored with the rest of the family, but we liked Diana. Yes, she possessed a great deal of unearned celebrity which exponentially grew when she married Prince Charles, someone whom I also followed for much of my life because Charles and I are the same age. There are many video clips and photographs of them together and apart doing what royal celebrities do, things that people around the world do all of the time, but without any (literal) fanfare that the British royals get.

For me the mirage we called Princess Diana didn’t fade when she died. No, the abrupt end for me was several days later when I saw the remaining chest-high mounds of floral tributes at the gates of Buckingham Palace and heard the sweet-as-treacle verses recited by the Dickensian children who wrote them. The sights and sounds of that emotional orgy over someone they really never knew brought me back to feelings I have associated with Tiny Tim and the Christmas goose. Somewhere early in the narrative, Diana Spenser, just like Tiny Tim, stopped being a person and started to become an Emblem of Life-long Fantasies — in short, an ELF.

In these narratives, people with lots of resources tell a story about greed and victimization and hidden hearts of gold. The stories require us to gloss over some pretty basic facts, downplay others, and suspend our disbelief. Scrooge is greedy, but can get redeemed with a goose and then get invited for a delicious and festive dinner made in a snap. Diana is hounded by media which she had recently used to her advantage in her goals to retain her title and life-long financial support. Santa clearly has the market corned on child labor and sweatshops, but it’s all good with us because he has perfected what FedEx can only dream of doing, namely on-time deliveries during the holidays. Never mind that Scrooge is hallucinating. Look past Diana’s topless trysts with high rollers. Don’t notice that Santa will be hosptalized soon if he doesn’t lay off the cookies. Like Diana, the Big Elf wears oddly bizarre clothes, has unearned celebrity, and has millions of illustrations of him doing what parents do every day without fanfare.

Don’t get me wrong. These are good people (well, at least Diana Spenser was), but we are goofy about celebrity and our attendant mythology about celebrity. Because we could not see much beyond our tabloid Diana, we likely missed the importance of her spending more than the customary 60 minutes a day with her children, keeping them near home instead of at distant boarding schools, and holding them. We were well-versed in her tragic sadness being married to that two-timing Charles, but did we ever know any of her joys? To call out these simple acts instead of the more celebrated ones would be to find the absurdity of the monarchy itself. But monarchy is less absurd than the Big Guy.

SantaClausOn a recent episode of Ellen, a comedian riffed on telling his young child the truth about Santa in a very ironic way. People laughed uncontrollably at the prospect because, after all, who would actually be so cold as to tell a child that Santa is a myth? Better to let children believe that monsters eat little ones, there is a tiger under the bed, and some odd creature wants to buy their baby teeth, than to tell them that Santa, well… isn’t.

It seems that we have now adopted a new holiday tradition that even surpasses the frequency and intensity of Santa’s travels or of the non-news of so-called Black Friday. The orgy of retail Christmas is so bizarre that is becoming a bit lack-luster. But we have the new tradition that remains sparkly. I am referring to the so-called attack on Christianity represented by that apparently heinous phrase, Happy Holidays, and that obviously equally abhorrent plain red Starbucks beverage cup.

While I could go on and on about what is wrong about this emerging tradition that might soon nudge Santa out of the spotlight entirely, I will limit my points to these.

  • No one is being asked to give on their religion or their religious beliefs through the existence of a red cardboard cup. If Fox wants to pacify Evangelicals by making this appear newsworthy they need to come up with a bigger Scrooge, maybe like the news that the largest of any sectarian group today is non-believers.
  • It would be interesting if more people would remain curious about the origins of the things we do and consider alternatives. Why hang socks on a bed and put candy where you would normally put your feet? Why is there a Star in Bethlehem? In fact, why Bethlehem at all? Why a baby? There are answers to these questions, but I very much doubt that even a small percent of practicing Christians know them.
  • Wouldn’t it be great if we gave a few hundred more dollars to people in real need at Christmas instead of our retail excess? A dear friend who is the daughter of my beloved late neighbors has spent years volunteering in food programs on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. As a Jew she feels like it is a way to contribute to her Christian friends.
  • It would be reasonable to suggest that one’s beliefs are not necessarily facts and should not be confused for facts. The Emblem of Life-long Fantasies – the Elf – does not exist.
  • It would be great if we were to organize more of our behaviors on the message behind the myths instead of, or at least in addition to, on the myths themselves. Good behavior, generosity, and industry would be useful messages to preserve.
  • Evangelicals who cry foul over Happy Holidays are not seeking members to their religious sects. They are seeking contributions from their base, others who are feeling victimized by god-only-knows what.


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