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We Americans can’t do “simple holidays.” We probably wouldn’t recognize one if it cropped up on the calendar.
This year’s Christmas, a boisterous and appealing mix of the sacred and the secular, will be bigger and gaudier than ever. Let us browse some of the Census Bureau’s collection of gee-whiz facts:
Christmas trees are a half-billion-dollar business. China is our leading supplier of tree ornaments and our leading foreign source of artificial trees. Texas is our leading supplier of candles, $16l million worth at last count. Jewelry-store sales will jump 155 percent this month.
And because we’re a sociable and family-oriented people, more than 65 million of us will be traveling to be with loved ones, undaunted by the hassle and the expense of getting there.
At some stage during the holidays, an exhausted celebrant will sprawl in a chair and wonder why we can’t have just a simple holiday. That may work for individuals, but it doesn’t work for us as a people.
Americans have been going overboard for Christmas virtually since the first European settlers set foot in North America. The Puritans tried to rein it in. So did New York, Philadelphia and other big cities in the 18th and early 19th centuries when gunpowder and alcohol made the observance a little too raucous for the city fathers.
Some religious denominations were skeptical that Christmas should be celebrated at all. They saw no scriptural justification for it, but slowly gave in to the appeal of the day, and the Gospel of Luke became the working script for generations of Nativity plays. And today there are actual businesses that specialize in supplying camels, donkeys and sheep for the pageants.
The “modern” Christmas was partly a creation of Clement Moore and “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” — Santa Claus, the reindeer and all that — and Charles Dickens and “A Christmas Carol,” which enshrined generosity and charity as the spirit of Christmas.
And now we’ve arrived where a rich panoply can occupy the same stage — Jesus, Mary and Joseph, a rented donkey, three kings, Santa and his sleigh, shepherds, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the guiding star, all very moving, very beautiful and, although it might not meet the finer tests of theology, all very spiritual.
And although Christmas is not — and as long as we have our way, never will be — a simple holiday, the underlying message is simplicity itself: Peace on Earth, good will toward men.