I only caught the tag end of the conversation. A young woman waiting behind me in line at the drugstore shouted to her friend: "You know how much I hate Christmas!"
This was an interesting if troublesome thought, and I couldn't resist asking the reasons for her Yulephobia. She replied with the crisp logic of a graduate student, which is what she turned out to be. "I hate the cold," she said. "I hate capitalism. And I don't like my family."
You'll notice her line of reasoning left few entry points for counterarguments. I could do absolutely nothing about the weather. I knew absolutely nothing about her family. And our local CVS was no place for an extended discussion of the merits and problems of capitalism.
So I did what I could. "Well," I said lamely, "you can't blame Christmas for capitalism."
She quickly shredded that approach with a searing critique of the commercialization of Christmas. I gave up, and we turned to other subjects before wishing each other a Merry Christmas. I counted that, at least, a small victory.
My interlocutor is not alone in hating Christmas. Whole Web sites are now devoted to Christmas loathers, and you learn it's a disposition with many roots, most of them rational.
For one thing, nobody likes having to be merry on command. The relentlessness of the cheery advertising, the happy families shoved in your face at every commercial break, the Christmas tales and cartoons that always turn out right in the end--it's enough to bring whole stadiums to their feet cheering on the Grinch over the Whoville crowd. Good cheer enforced by large-scale social control breeds rebellion. At Christmastime, the Grinch is the underdog.
My CVS friend was also onto something when she spoke about her family. Holidays, especially Christmas, drive home the imperfections in every family. The sense of loss among those whose own families were (or are) a long way from the Jimmy Stewart-Donna Reed model is magnified a hundredfold. Truth is, even the happiest families have trouble approaching the standard set in those final joyous moments of "It's a Wonderful Life."
And that just scratches the surface of conscientious objections to Christmas, as you learn in the cyberworld. Hate the commercialization of Christmas? You can discover a group called the Society to Curtail Ridiculous Outrageous and Ostentatious Gift Exchanges, with its nice acronym S.C.R.O.O.G.E. Some Christians argue, with decent historical support, it should be said, that Christmas began as a pagan holiday and still carries that taint.
And--you knew it would come to this--there's the Reindeer Liberation Front, which describes itself as an organization of "committed freedom fighters dedicated to the liberation of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and all his furry companions from under the oppressive yoke of Santa Claus." The gift giver in the red suit is suddenly world-class exploiter.
Confronted with this ocean of skepticism, what is a Christmas lover to do? If there is an attitude, a disposition at the heart of Christmas worth defending, it is that sense of childlike wonder that Christmas stories--from the original to the very latest--have always evoked.
My hunch is that beyond all the perfectly reasonable objections to Christmas excesses, what irks the Scrooges and the Grinches most is that for a period of days or weeks we put our cynicism in storage, our doubts on hold, our sense of irony in check and look at the world with an attitude that the Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel described as "radical amazement." It's a sensibility that comes naturally to children but needs to be cultivated in adults. "Bah, humbug" is the slogan of those who reject this sensibility.
"Wonder rather than doubt is the root of knowledge," Heschel argues. "Doubts may be resolved, radical amazement can never be erased." The Heschel imperative: "We must keep our own amazement, our own eagerness alive."
Christmas, of course, is a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of a savior. But the sense of wonder Heschel celebrates, shared across religious traditions, is at the heart of what we call the Christmas spirit. To my friend in the drugstore, I'd say that no matter how crass the commercials get, how cold the weather is or even how disagreeable some family member might be, the radical amazement abroad at this time of year is still worth embracing.