A posthumously published piece by Hitchens on the holidays, and a rant about Christmas letters

According to the online Wall Street Journal, this new Hitchens piece,”Forced merriment: the true spirit of Christmas,” was commissioned by the paper but never published. I have no idea when it was written, but I suspect it was December of 2010, for it refers obliquely to his illness.

It’s predictably Scrooge-ish, but also funny, and ends with a First-Amendement criticism of public displays of religiosity and a cute anecdote about how Thomas Jefferson signed his letters at Christmas.  A few snippets:

In their already discrepant accounts of the miraculous birth, the four gospels give us no clue as to what time of year—or even what year—it is supposed to have taken place. And thus the iconography of Christmas is ridiculously mixed in with reindeer, holly, snow scenes and other phenomena peculiar to northern European myth. (Three words for those who want to put the Christ back in Christmas: Jingle Bell Rock.) There used to be an urban legend about a Japanese department store that tried too hard to symbolize the Christmas spirit, and to show itself accessible to Western visitors, by mounting a display of a Santa Claus figure nailed to a cross. Unfounded as it turned out, this wouldn’t have been off by much. . .

If you take no stock in the main Christian festival of Easter, or if you are a non-Jew who has no interest in atoning in the fall, you have an all-American fighting chance of being able to ignore these events, or of being only briefly subjected to parking restrictions in Manhattan. But if Christmas has the least tendency to get you down, then lots of luck. You have to avoid the airports, the train stations, the malls, the stores, the media and the multiplexes. You will be double-teamed by Bing Crosby and the herald angels wherever you go. And this for a whole unyielding month of the calendar.

I realize that I do not know what happens in the prison system. But I do know what happens by way of compulsory jollity in the hospitals and clinics and waiting rooms, and it’s a grueling test of any citizen’s capacity to be used for so long as a captive audience.

I once tried to write an article, perhaps rather straining for effect, describing the experience as too much like living for four weeks in the atmosphere of a one-party state. “Come on,” I hear you say. But by how much would I be exaggerating? The same songs and music played everywhere, all the time. The same uniform slogans and exhortations, endlessly displayed and repeated. The same sentimental stress on the sheer joy of having a Dear Leader to adore. As I pressed on I began almost to persuade myself. The serried ranks of beaming schoolchildren, chanting the same uplifting mush. The cowed parents, in terror of being unmasked by their offspring for insufficient participation in the glorious events…. “Come on,” yourself. How wrong am I?. . .

One of my many reasons for not being a Christian is my objection to compulsory love. How much less appealing is the notion of obligatory generosity. To feel pressed to give a present is also to feel oneself passively exerting the equivalent unwelcome pressure upon other people.

I don’t think I have been unusually unfortunate with my family and friends, but I present as evidence my tie rack. Nobody who knows me has ever seen me wear a tie except under protest, and the few that I do possess of my own volition are accidental trophies, “given” to me by the maitre d’s of places where neckwear is compulsory. Yet somehow I possess a drawerful of new, unopened examples of these useless items of male apparel.

And this is the part of Christmas I dislike most;

Compulsory bad taste isn’t a good cultural sign either. In their eagerness to show loyalty, entire families compose long letters of confessional drool, celebrating the achievements of the previous year and swearing to surpass them in the next.

* * * * *

Form Christmas letters seem to me the epitome of bad taste, for their composers can’t even be bothered to write a personal note—except, perhaps, for a few scrawled words of greeting at the bottom. And they’re depressingly jolly, usually extolling the achievements of the writers.  Once, when I had a particularly bad year, I wrote a mock form Christmas letter, adorned with pictures of holly and candy canes and describing, in great detail, all the real disasters that had befallen me in the previous twelve months. It did not go down well.

I have before me a specimen of the genre, written to my father by one of his old Army buddies.  We got one every year, and our whole family used to look forward to them, for they were unwittingly hilarious.  This one is from 1981, and I’ve saved it all these years.  It’s divided into three parts:  “Jane” (about his wife; names changes to protect the guilty), “Our wonderful vacation,” and “Generalities.”

Here are some excerpts from the “generalities” section, with names and locations again changed:

The Lincoln sat in the garage from October 12 to February 2nd.  [The fellow was obsessed with his Lincoln, its care, and its longevity.] Had the radiator off, had it cleaned, and put in new plugs, points, and condenser. Needed a good rest.  The day before Jane came back from Ohio, I went to Church, washed both cars, wrote 2 letters, washed 14 shirts, 4 pair trousers and 14 pair socks.

In June had a pleasant visit with Tim Kirby and his son of St. Louis.  Was to his wedding in 1948.  His son has a 1958 Ford Retractable Skyliner. WOW what a car. In August Janet Marcos and her daughter Sarah were here for a short visit. We were “invaded” by 17 Filipinos in 2 cars as they were there on there [sic] way to New York.  I painted the 47 2 X 4’s and 44 posts of my yard and also painted the front gable ends of the garage.

We are both on a “weight loss’ program and should be slimmed down by May 1st. The autos continue to operate O.K., the Lincoln on the 21st year, 124,986 miles and the Ford on the 13th year with 176,235 miles.

So it went on for two single-spaced pages. And those were the “generalities”—I wonder what the “specifics” were!  You can see why we enjoyed getting this letter every year, always culminating with its inevitable reading of the Lincoln’s odometer.

h/t: Llwyddythlw

23 Comments

  1. Posted December 25, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    1. I had to do that, it seemed so appropriate to this post.

    I have been on the brink of writing such a letter, to answer all the ones I got, but this has made me change my mind.

  2. Dominic
    Posted December 25, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Hitch was right – enforced jollity is awful – I like it natural. And why one day only in the year? I just read A Christmas Carol, familiar yet fascinating in how it has had bits added in adaptations, and many would blame Dickens as a font of mawkish ‘Christmasiness’, but his was a cruel age and his call for a kinder society was surely not a bad thing. Just found this article about Dickens and his failure to address the issues of the development of science except in a passing negative way –
    http://warlight.tripod.com/CHRISTINE.html

    Just had a coughing fit laughing at that letter! The mileage! Everyone who reads this, share your mileage! As a non-driver I will have to sit that out – in the garage of course. Perhaps he was an obsessive compulsive, what with all that detail?

    • Joan
      Posted December 25, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

      I should have written a Christmas letter! My car, a 1996 Chevy that was made by Toyoto, has 309,500 miles on it…and still going strong! If I ever write a letter like that I think I should list each trip to the store, doctor and friends….plus the milage for each trip. You’d all love to read it!

  3. Posted December 25, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Circa 1983 PK* we spent a week or so, every evening, penning personal notes to all our friends and relatives. Envelopes hand-addressed, stamps tongue-licked and hand-toted through inclement weather to the post office.

    Circa 1984 PoK** we lost those evenings, gained a computer, learned to produce address labels and generated the first printed Christmas Letter*** chronicling our fascinating lives. Over the years I managed to optimize the Annual Christmas Letter production cycle from several weeks to a single day: write, print, fold, stuff and stamp. Done! And all in the fulness of the Christmas Spirit. Love in every dot matrix.

    Today PoRKaLA**** we can summarize our year in a single Facebook status update:

    Kink the Cat can had a great year full of scritch scratches, tuna noms, snuggle naps and love, and he wishes you all that and moar in 2012.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the Doc Bills and Kink the Cat.

    *Pre-kids
    **Post-kids
    ***Viewable at the Smithsonian
    ****Post-kids Returning and Leaving Again

    • Still learning
      Posted December 25, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      You made my day! Many giggles, chuckles, and laughs. Thanks!

    • Posted December 25, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      Very nice!! And much better than form letters.

      I don’t even bother because fb is all year round:-) and I keep in touch (not 200!!) with the ones who keep in touch with me.

      That works.

  4. Posted December 25, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    My now not sister-in-law used to send these form letters once a year – I guess they were at Christmas time but can’t recall.

    I am no longer on her Christmas card list anyway.

    I do remember being informed that her kids were the best Eagle Scouts and Guides that had ever been. Totally outside my milieu but I surmised these were GOOD things.

    What I could never understand was why she thought an annual summary diary approach was at all interesting. It certainly didn’t require any input from the recipients. It was meant to impart not to engage.

    Now in this weird country of the UK, people send out upwards of 200 Christmas cards!!! to their friends, family and acquaintances. I guess Royal Mail is chuffed at the revenue. This is the first country I have seen card shops solely devoted to selling cards to the public. Food stores close down but card shops abound.

    Strange customs indeed. And Tom Lehrer was always wonderfully irreverent. I looked at the comments on WSJ to do with Hitch’s article. Very few actually get what he wrote about.

    What a waste. I miss the Hitch already. And will for a long time to come.

  5. Ken Pidcock
    Posted December 25, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    Meh. I rather enjoy many such letters. It is, as you say, a genre, and it is possible to make it entertaining.

    As to the essay, I am unimpressed. He follows the treatment of family letters with, in the same paragraph and without transition, a complaint about turkeys. It’s going to be hard to argue against the claim that they’re treating Hitchens like a rock star if they’re going to to be putting out any crap he produced after he dies.

  6. Hempenstein
    Posted December 25, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    I’d far rather get one that closes with the annual update on a ’60 Lincoln’s mileage than one such as I have in hand here that closes with a biblical excerpt and natters on about being guaranteed eternal life.

  7. GBJames
    Posted December 25, 2011 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    We get a letter like every year. What makes it extra special is that it is printed on dark red paper. Perhaps they mean it to be a test of the relationship’s strength?

  8. Steve Smith
    Posted December 25, 2011 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    Whenever I see those Christmas “Peace” signs, I think of the real-life Saint Nick assaulting the anti-Trinitarian heretic Arius at Nicaea.

    Peace.

  9. Posted December 25, 2011 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    Since you ask, my 2005 Ford Focus station wagon has about 54,000 miles on it thanks to living in a big city with public transport for 3 years and in a tiny university town where I have less than a mile’s commute the rest of the time.

    It looks really good from the front, thanks to the deer I ran into in May while coming back from the emergency vet to have poor Pauline the last of my original zebra finches put out of her misery. The body shop did a great job but then you turn the corner and you see the door dings! yikes! Then you see the back, with the “Cocker spaniel taxi” bumper sticker and you smile and forget the door dings.

    I didn’t make the 250-mile drive to visit family this year, so I was spared having to be nice to the very people I intended to escape from when I moved away from home. I had hoped they would at least have called me from their annual gathering, but my brother decided he couldn’t be bothered and he e-mailed me a forwarded picture of dogs with christmas hats.

    Christians I know seem to try to force themselves to be cheerful and happy and friendly 365 days a year and it’s revolting. You know they can’t possibly mean it all. It’s not like their god really cares anyway, since they’ve already kissed his arse in public.

    I can get into the spirit sometimes but then again I like tacky music. Unlike Stairway to Heaven, you only have to hear classic christmas music several times a day for about a month. My local radio station plays Stairway to Heaven and Layla every time the DJ needs to take a leak or sneak a smoke.

    p.s. I saw someone with a 1997 Contour yesterday and I told her how my 97 Contour was the best car I’d ever had and how I cried in the dealer’s office when I handed over the keys when I traded it for the wagon. *sigh* good times. I traded it in at 97k only because I decided I needed a wagon for the cocker spaniels.

  10. atheist ct
    Posted December 25, 2011 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    Hitch is just being a Grinch. As long as church and state are kept separate Christmas is not annoying at all.

    Exchanging gifts can be exciting. Not only during Christmas but around the year.

  11. Mark S
    Posted December 26, 2011 at 3:54 am | Permalink

    Hope everyone is enjoying a nice festive season, and Happy Coynezaa to all (or whatever takes your fancy). Quite pleasantly for the time of year, it appears there is some sanity being displayed in my homeland.

    http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/sydney-nsw/family-split-over-baptism-of-seven-year-old-daughter/story-e6freuzi-1226229738099

    It appears a Family Court magistrate had the good sense to think no child should have religion chosen for them. Let’s hope this continues.

    Enjoy the holidays everyone!

  12. Posted December 26, 2011 at 5:14 am | Permalink

    I am happy to join in the grinchliness.

    Things I hate about the Xmas season:

    Queues to the door in every shop you walk into including the supermarkets.
    Begging cans thrust under your nose every three feet because every charity under the sun thinks ’tis the season to panhandle.

    My family used to be the recipients of a Christmas Form Letter every year too, it always provoked howls of protest from everyone as it was usually a three page treatise on the various doings of the writer’s three amazing super-genius children, including all their school marks, extra mural activities and all round awesomeness.

    Pro-tip: not everyone thinks your kids are as amazing as you do. There I said it.

    • InfiniteImprobabilit
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 12:59 am | Permalink

      FSM save me from proud parents! One of my wife’s in-laws (male) used to describe, every time we saw him, in nauseating detail, his offspring’s achievements including – I kid you not – toilet training. My welcome to my sister-in-law was much more genuine after she split up with the twit.

  13. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted December 26, 2011 at 6:30 am | Permalink

    Form Christmas letters seem to me the epitome of bad taste…

    You say that like it’s a bad thing. I say take the form and run with it, clear over the top and down the other side.

  14. BilBy
    Posted December 26, 2011 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    My brother hated the family photos that came with such letters – everyone scrubbed and cheery beneath a veneer of seasonal desperation. In revenge, he composed one one year of him, wife and three kids sitting glumly surrounded by empty bottles, rubbish sacks, torn wallpaper hanging in strips, overflowing ashtrays, everyone turned sullenly away from each other in poses of mutual disgust. ‘Another happy year in the ….household’. It didn’t go down well for some reason.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted December 26, 2011 at 8:58 am | Permalink

      That sounds hilarious. Two interesting holiday photos I have seen recently:

      Jorge Santini, the mayor of San Juan, and his family posed with a jaguar (or leopard? accounts vary) taking down an antelope.

      This photo of a family posing with their pets.

  15. Dominic
    Posted December 26, 2011 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    My father had a stroke on Christmas Day, & died almost a year later so me had his funeral on New Year’s Eve, so that sort of takes the shine off it, however I have become softer in my old age. Richard Dawkins has no problem with Merry Christmas – listen to The Infinite Monkey Cage Christmas Special(this one not starring Matthew this time!) –
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00snr0w/episodes/upcoming

  16. Posted December 26, 2011 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Oh those Christmas letters. I especially loved those with long lists of trips and cruises that the writer had taken. Made you feel somewhat poverty stricken to read them.

    My Christmas card list is down to three, the rest get e-cards.

    • Dominic
      Posted December 26, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

      Yes! ‘Just went to Australia… Kenya on safari… New Zealand… Clifornia…” Generally people with grandchildren burning as much carbon as they can.

      • Dominic
        Posted December 26, 2011 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

        Oh dear – too much whisky – California! “I’m bound off for California
        By the way of stormy Cape Horn
        And I’m bound to write you a letter, love
        When I am homeward bound”


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