Well, Christopher Hitchens has written a nasty little column about the oppressive evils of Christmas. Unfortunately, he’s chosen the unfunny issue of the separation of church and state on which to found his complaints, and he attempts to win his readers over by comparing America at Christmastime to North Korea all year round:
It takes a totalitarian mind-set to claim that only one Bronze Age Palestinian revelation or prophecy or text can be our guide…. If the totalitarians cannot bear to abandon their adoration of their various Dear Leaders, can they not at least arrange to hold their ceremonies in private?
Hitchens says that he wants to make his column an annual event like Art Buchwald’s Thanksgiving story rendered in French. But someone already did this a great deal better thirty-odd years ago. Harlan Ellison’s “No Offense Intended, But Fuck Xmas!” was for many years my standard holiday handout. I’m sorry to say Mr. Ellison would probably not have been pleased with my free copying and distribution of his work — he’s a notorious Scrooge about copyright, which is probably why I could only find a short excerpt of the essay online. I reprint it here, so Mr. Ellison’s lawyers can take it up with me and not with the poor graduate student who dared to retype a couple of paragraphs out of fannish devotion:
Christmas is an awulness that compares favorably with the great London plague and fire of 1665-66. No one escapes the feelings of mortal dejection, inadequacy, frustration, loneliness, guilt, and pity. No one escapes feeling used by society, by religion, by friends and relatives, by the utterly artificial responsibilities of extending false greetings, sending banal cards, reciprocating unsolicited gifts, going to dull parties, putting up with acquaintances and family one avoids all the rest of the year…in short, of being brutalized by a “holiday” that has lost virtually all of its original meanings and has become a merchandising ploy for color tv set manufacturers and ravagers of the woodlands.
Christmas is constructed and promulgated in such a way that to defy it or ignore it makes one a monster. To refuse to send cards, to toss the ones received in the wastebasket, to refuse to accept gifts and to refuse to give them, to walk untouched through the consumer-crowds and never feel the urge to buy Aunt Martha that lovely combination rotisserie-&-bidet, to maintain one’s sanity staunchly through the beserk days of year’s end makes one, in the eyes of those who lack the courage to eschew hypocrisy, an awful heretic, a slug, a vile and contemptible thug.
I think it’s the “rotisserie-&-bidet” type of imagery that makes Ellison’s essay so much more memorable and likely to become a holiday classic than the Hitchens bellyache. (The original essay was, in fact, printed two years in a row in the L.A. Free Press — the anniversary edition, if memory serves, included some bonus griping.) Other highlights include the opening line, in which Ellison says he has nothing against “the Prince of Peace, upon whom has been laid more superhero tripe than any social malcontent should have to deal with,” or his assertion that Scrooge was the only decent character in A Christmas Carol and that Tiny Tim was a treacle-mouthed little twerp (“Not even on Christmas would I God bless Nixon.”) It’s a beautifully written piece, a .50-cal barrage of fully justified invective against a hollow, bullying, inescapable set of traditions, and it’s one of dozens of reasons I recommend The Harlan Ellison Hornbook, the collection in which the infamous essay appears. (It’s out of print now, but you can find it through dealers.)
Ellison is no fan of religion or gods, as his Deathbird Stories and his classic “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” make clear. It wasn’t so much that his stories questioned the existence of God as that he pointed out how awful and tyrannical any god along the lines of our traditional model would actually be. But underpinning every complaint or jeremiad, however vulgar and pugnacious, was an essentially optimistic and sweet-hearted humanism:
My philosophy of life is that the meek shall inherit nothing but debasement, frustration and ignoble deaths; that there is security in personal strength; that you can fight City Hall and win; that any action is better than no action, even if it’s the wrong action; that you never reach glory or self-fulfillment unless you’re willing to risk everything, dare anything, put yourself dead on the line every time; and that once one becomes strong or rich or potent or powerful it is the responsibility of the strong to help the weak become strong.
It’s this kindness and real love for human beings that fails to shine through in the Hitchens piece, which feels more like an ideological salvo at religion — and red meat for the Fox News nutjobs — than anything real or personal.