Thursday, December 1, 2011

Humans matter; or, Why holiday specials suck

The other day, I had an almost crystal-clear story idea. And since I’m publishing it here, you can tell me if it’s already been done … but you can’t use it yourself. Heh-heh-heh.

Here it is: A man living in a seemingly Utopian materialist future becomes frustrated by the annual commercial madness of the “Winter Holiday”, a holiday whose purpose and origin he doesn’t know or understand. After giving voice to his confusion and irritation publicly, he receives a cryptic message which pushes him into researching this annual headache. The first major plot point, which springboards the rest of his story, is when he finally comes across a clip of A Charlie Brown Christmas — fifty-one seconds that puts his job, his marriage, his reputation and his life in peril.

You know the fifty-one seconds I’m talking about: Linus reciting Luke 2:8-14 KJV.[*]

Let’s face it: Most “Holiday” specials, shows and movies are crapburgers. They’re either too treacly or hooky to be truly heartwarming, or they’re too uneven or crude to be truly funny, or they take a big, grinchy, Scrooge-like dump on Christmas altogether in an obscenity- and blasphemy-laden fillip on “Bah, humbug!” (like A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas). And would somebody please tell me what’s so flipping magical about A Christmas Story that it needs to be shown all bloody day on Christmas Day!?

Above all, only a thimbleful of these shows have the stones to refer to the Nativity … for which A Charlie Brown Christmas is still remarkable.

According to Lee Habeeb, A Charlie Brown Christmas almost didn’t get aired precisely because of Linus’ Gospel quotation, and the CBS studio execs were certain it was going to be a flop like Nestor the Long-Eared Donkey later turned out to be. Instead, it was wildly successful, and will continue to run at least through 2015, fifty years after it was first broadcast.

Okay, I’m as big a sucker for all the non-religious tinsel and holly and red-and-green shmatte as anyone else; if I could afford it I’d probably put the Griswolds to shame with the exterior decorations. I’ll also grant that Christmas isn’t the only game in town, though I know of nothing in Hanukkah that requires trees or reindeer. (I do know that many Jewish people have taken to the secular trimmings of the holiday, though I don’t know what Barry Manilow’s grandfather would have made of him singing even a tiny bit of Handel’s “For unto us a child is born”.)

A few holiday programs do succeed without getting all religious-y … which has led to ad nauseam remakes of Miracle on 34th Street and A Christmas Carol; because the original versions succeeded, they must be remade until the stories can no longer provoke interest. But the reason why so many Christmas films and shows fail is precisely because their producers — the people actually responsible for putting the shows together and getting them aired — strip the Christian element out of Christmas.

Love one another? Yeah, that’s nice. Peace on earth? Okay, lovely sentiment. Treasure  children and childhood? We could do with a lot more of that. Cherish your family and friends? We celebrate that almost every holiday; about the only one that doesn’t involve big get-togethers for food and fun is St. Valentine’s Day. … Well, Columbus Day and Presidents’ Day, not so much. These are all nice ideas; but they don’t really scratch where it itches, do they? Hardly worth all the hubbub and hassle.

But the Nativity isn’t really about people being nice to each other.

In other mythoi, the gods are remote beings mostly concerned with their own doings, occasionally showing compassion for us lesser creatures but mostly using us to further their own ends (when they pay attention to us at all). But moreover, the gods themselves are products of an impersonal universe, beholden to some greater Tao that acts as a final rectifier of life’s injustices but is otherwise inaccessible and incomprehensible.

Long lay the world pining not just in sin and error but in an existential limbo: Why are we here? Does life have any greater purpose than mere living? Do we suffer for some greater reason? Or is there no god, even one just interested enough in us to take malicious amusement in our pain? Do we matter … or are we just matter?

The Nativity story tells us that once, in a year roughly datable and a town still inhabited, that ineffable Tao at which so many minds have futilely grasped came into the world as a baby lying in a manger. The Hands that had shaped all of creation were once too small to hold the finger of the woman who gave birth to him. The real God, the God behind the gods, did not simply take pity on us; He came to share our mortal lot for awhile. Our lives have a greater meaning and purpose, even though that meaning and purpose be still a mystery. We matter to Someone … not much, perhaps, but we do.

If you don’t get what this means, you don’t really get Christmas. Charles M. Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, got it. Many if not most Christians get it. Heck, plenty of people who aren’t Christians get it; something in their heart leaps at the vision of “the Absolute in swaddling clothes, Omnipotence in bonds” even though their minds give no credence to heavenly hosts singing “Alleluia”. I submit that Christmas/“Holiday” specials will continue to fall short of their promises until producers stop fearing the Nativity, until good directors, writers and producers find ways to introduce this element in ways that avoid rehashing the Gospel accounts.

All the other sentiments — love one another, cherish your family and friends, treasure children — will then become more powerful. We should matter to each other, because we matter to God.

[*] The clip I’ve linked to is 1:51, but includes time before and after the Gospel reading; the duration of the reading itself is 51s.