As I write this, on Monday of Thanksgiving week, the year 2020, I sit inside a county — Los Angeles — that has broken its own COVID-19 record. Again. New cases: 6,124. We’ve also crossed a threshold of averaging 4,500 daily cases over five days, which is supposed to reactivate a stay-at-home order, like we had in March. And as bad as the numbers are today, they will be worse by the time you read this. I am hearing ambulance sirens more and more.
I can’t say what your plague situation is at present, but I bet it’s not great. This has been a national collapse. Red states, blue states, bad all over. We saw the virus, we said “fuck it” and we are living the outcome. Sometimes that, alone, is enough to drive you insane. Yet, as we enter the holidays, we’re doubling down on the risk: For Thanksgiving, millions will defy a CDC recommendation (too soft and late to be effective) to avoid traveling this season. It feels like a certainty that many who make the trip will not be able to do so next month, for Christmas.
You’ve encountered, in the messaging of Trump, Fox News and other xenophobic right-wing mouthpieces, a running narrative about the supposed “War on Christmas.” In 2019, Parker Molloy of Media Matters wrote of it as “the dumbest part of America’s culture war,” and in some ways that’s putting it kindly. It’s a scare tactic to convince white people that liberals and communities of color are going to somehow cancel their traditions. Trump’s usual lie on this front is characteristically basic and racist. He contends that under Obama, you could only say “Happy Holidays” — that ghastly, inclusive phrase! — but Americans have since revived the salutation “Merry Christmas,” thanks to his unspecified efforts.
Another front on the war involves corporate branding. Probably you know to expect faux controversy around the changing designs of Starbucks’ seasonal cups. These narratives give white Christians in this country a much-needed chance to claim they are persecuted because, in point of fact, they are not.
What does it mean to the readers and viewers who eat up “War on Christmas” propaganda that their special day has been ruined not by political correctness gone mad, but a literal disease? That the festivals, parades and services are being canceled — and families kept apart — due to a nonpartisan epidemic, and not a cabal of Democrats? Some are bound to take it as an escalation of hostilities, and rage all the harder at enemies perceived as anti-Christmas. If you happen to not believe that COVID-19 is a real or serious threat, the alarm at this stage, coinciding as it does with Biden’s “apparent” election win, must strike you as a sinister next phase. Maybe this medical hoax was perpetrated with the long-term objective of suppressing the Christian faith. The language of science has been twisted to benefit “cultural Marxists.”
I wish I were going home for Christmas, a time I have never spent away from my parents and siblings. But there is, I’m sorry to report, a small, perverse satisfaction to sitting back in my own apartment as conservative Boomers face the ruination of their holy day thanks to the incompetence and callousness of the president they voted into power, and misinformation from the very media apparatus that warned them fucking Obama would outlaw mention of Christ’s birth. They cried wolf for decades, and nature itself has come to collect. The War on Christmas, you might argue, has finally begun, at least if you measure these schisms in flag memes. Sen. Ted Cruz has already signaled his intent to continue flouting pandemic guidance with an image that fuses Second Amendment rhetoric to the promise of big turkey dinners at year’s end.
It’s tragic how many must perish for these acts of defiance — the many Thanksgiving and Christmas parties held out of spite, trutherism and stubbornness. To fight for the identity values attached to Western holidays, the most ardent observers are prepared to extinguish every warmth held there, amplifying a wave of contagion from the heart of their own spiritual lives. And they’ll do so in total confidence that it strikes a blow for the righteous and devout, in a civilizational conflict that… simply does not exist. Nobody wanted them to give up Christmas before, and isolation orders are for the collective good, hardly a religious attack. They are going to potentially sacrifice their loved ones, and perhaps themselves, to a bogus cause that was hyped by millionaires to sell weight loss supplements on cable TV. It is a death march, no less.
Secularization hasn’t killed Christmas — capitalism has an overriding need — but COVID-19 threatens everything that makes it important to us: togetherness, homecoming and public ceremony. To stand on custom is to invite a deeper decline, and even stricter separation. It’s a paradox: The tighter you hold on to Christmas, the longer we’ll have to wait for a “normal” one. That’s assuming we ever get there, of course. Whatever the War on Christmas is, it isn’t short.