Steven Heller | Essays

Christmas Schmaltz

Every year at this time, I deck the halls with boughs of holly, dream of a white Christmas, listen to Nat King Cole’s Silent Night like there’s no tomorrow, play A Charlie Brown Christmas incessantly, watch Miracle on 34th Street (the 1947 version with Edmund Gwenn) 20 times over and screen Home Alone at least once. What’s more, I actually see Mommy kissing Santa Claus. I love Christmas. I love Christmas because at Christmastime there is no such thing as a discerning designer’s eye. I adore Christmas schmaltz — the sounds, the smells and the graphics. I don’t mind that the clichés of the season pop up earlier and earlier every year. And I’m not alone. This year Christmas (not Xmas), is cool. Take Bob Dylan’s latest record Christmas in the Heart, with its Currier and Ives cover, and the accompanying “Must Be Santa” video, a rousing homage to the jolly fat man. Dylan raspily revives every schmaltzy carol in the playbook, not as parody, but with respect.

The times — at least the days leading up to December 25 — are not a-changin' and never will. Despite haughty attempts to streamline the iconography of Christmas, this is a venerable brand. It cannot be modernized, nor should it. Imagine the Arnell Group tampering with Christmas as it did with Tropicana and Pepsi. Christmas in Helvetica is about as crazy as Blimpie in Futura. Christmas is not concerned with modern and postmodern design notions, it is entrenched in joyful paganism and locked in a 19th-century Victorian aesthetic. Hail, hail Olde English Gothic. 

Christmas is the one occasion when designers needn’t be true to their mission to save the world from mediocrity or waste. Christmas is both the great leveler and an official interregnum. There's a restaurant in my New York neighborhood that I would ordinarily never patronize because its food and décor insult my aesthetic values. But at Christmastime, white lights, evergreen branches and scores of silver bells and balls cover every square millimeter of wall and ceiling and turn it into a cavern of joy and wonder. Every visual cliché is fused into this extravaganza. The Nordic-style food is still as heavy as an iceberg and just as bland, but who cares? (A week in the gym will remove most of it.) The Christmas experience is worth the heartburn.

High on Christmas endorphins, I spend much of the season chasing after makeshift Christmas villages around New York City, soaking up their bounties. You can only have one or two trees, but you can’t have too many ornaments, and there are so many variations on the theme. What’s more, each year, the technology emanating from Asia allows for more novel kinetic lights and bulbs. Kitsch? Not at all — just better ways to express the joy of Christmas! 

What is it about Christmas schmaltz that makes me happy? Christmas is the mashed potatoes of design — comfort food. It's a time when (assuming you haven't just been laid off or felled by illness) all really is right with the world. I know that not everyone accepts the religious implications (I don’t), but like anything detached from its historical context, the symbolism is pretty much neutered. What is left are Western images and icons that suggest a mass suspension of reality. Christmas is manufactured fantasy, from the birth of the celebrated baby to the flight of the reindeer. Psychologists may warn that the winter holidays are times of acute stress, but for those who can withstand the bombardment of symbols and roll with the onslaught of commercial messages, the design of the season can have a palliative effect. Ordinary life is put on hold for a few weeks — Christmas is stress of a different kind.

My problem with experiencing the highs is only the ensuing lows. The buildup to Christmas is incremental at first, rising steeply around Thanksgiving and reaching a crescendo in the week before the holiday. Then the big day arrives, and I can't find a decent Christmas film on TV (network or cable). I go into a gentle depression as we approach New Year’s Eve, whose trappings, particularly the Times Square ball, I hate, and then I drop like a stone into the pit of winter. Some people hang onto their Christmas decorations until the end of January. I remove mine on New Year's Day, jumping head-first into the Arctic Sea of despair.

At least this year, I’ll have the Dylan album after it's all over.

Comments [5]

Steven - I do most of the things you mention in your opening paragraph. We're with you all the way, man! So soon it will all be over :(

That very eloquently summed up the way I feel about Christmas... now I can point all my friends here when they give me the raised eyebrow for declaring that this IS the best time of year.

Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen,
Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon!
Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen,
Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton!

All of Dylan’s royalties from the album
benefit Feeding America and other international charities.

Thank you, Steven.
Carl W. Smith

great post. I feel similarly. I once left my decorations up all year in an attempt to abate winter despair, it kind of worked.

i love dylan and buy most of work, but classic x mas songs need to be imagined in constant rotation. aside from "must be santa" and a few others here we hear Dylan in drawly-drunk, super- scratchy, rumble-tumble stanzas - perfect for christmas, or any occasion reallly
felix sockwell

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