The year it got just too bad

I haven't talked to you since last week, so what say we start off by wishing everyone a happy new year? I'll wish you one, and then you wish me one, see? And then, you can turn to the people on both sides and wish them one. Won't that be nice? Just like one of those hug-your-neighbor moments churches started having about the time I quit going to church.

OK, I'll start. Haaaappy New Year, everyone! Smooch smooch smooch!

There. Now you do it. I'll give you a minute.

Feel good? I hope so. I figured we can all use a big lump of feelgoodiness about now, what with all that's been going on the last month or two. And really, I didn't want to kick off a fresh year on the negative, but there is one bit of recent unpleasantness I need to discuss with you. I wouldn't bring it up except for the fact that it's something we probably won't think about again for another 10 months or so. Yup, it's about the holiday season. The one we just slogged through.

I know. Just when you thought we'd put the tattered, snarled-up Christmas crap away for another year, here comes ol' Cope dragging it out again like he's exhuming a body for a belated autopsy. Believe me, I'd like to forget about it as much as anyone.

Trouble is, I felt something give way this time. Like, I think we finally tipped the balance. Jumped the shark. Overloaded the circuits ... something.

Call it what you want, but I predict 2005 will go down in the books as the year Americans forced Father Christmas to his knees, then put a bullet through his skull right behind his elfy ear. Ker-blooey!

I can't say exactly when I started to think Christmas might not live long enough to see another Christmas, but I suspect it was about the time all those people camped out on sidewalks to be the first to get their Xbox 360s. Remember? Oh, I suppose we could call them shameless, spoiled, vacant babies who actively encourage their children to live a life of no value as they piddle their years away in a virtual universe of meaningless images and sensations, but we can't really blame them. That'd be like blaming dust bunnies for having no heft. Besides, one person's universe of meaningless images and sensations is another person's religion.

And anyway, it's been apparent to me for years that Christmas was being kept on life support by the electronics industry. (By "Christmas" here, I'm referring to that 80 percent share of the yearly retail business, without which both our economy and China's would go as sour as the left-over eggnog.) Every year, I think Americans will have found the cell phone, iPod, Blackberry or hi-def teevee they will be content to spend the rest of their lives with ... and every year, I am proved wrong.

But then, many of us thought the Season of Peace and Joy went into a vegetative state back when they started muzaking "Feliz Navidad" into stores the day after Halloween, so the commercialization of Christmas is an old gripe. And we can no more pin the death of Christmas on Xbox 360 than Tickle-Me-Elmo a decade ago, or the Cabbage Patch Kids a decade before that.

The difference this year, of course--the kill shot, as it were--was the "Merry Christmas" insurgency, those onward Christian guerrillas so determined to whine us into submission. Frankly, I didn't pay them much attention through most of the heavy nagging. But the week before the day someone arbitrarily chose to designate as Jesus' birthday, I crossed paths in the shopping lanes with one of those foot soldiers in the seasons greetings war, a spry matron who made a production out of telling everyone in the checkout line to have a "Merry Christmas."

Which would have been fine ... had she not then turned to me with that smug look you see so often on bratty kids and, in a way that indicated she was more than pleased with herself, asked, "Oh! Am I being politically incorrect? You don't mind if I say 'Merry Christmas,' do you?"

It was like a test, get it? It was obvious that she cared a lot less about how merry my Christmas was than she did about who was with her, and who wasn't.

I failed the test. I said, "I personally prefer 'Happy Holidays,' but you can call it any goddam thing you want, I don't care." And I didn't. From that moment on, I stopped caring whether her holiday was happy or her Christmas was merry. In that brief exchange, we each had notified the other that, whatever the reason for the season was, it didn't apply to them.

But I don't blame her, either. I don't even blame jolly Bill O'Reilly, who as I understand it was one of the generals in the "Mama, they're pickin' on me!" campaign. (I must take others' word for it, since I don't listen to Bill O'Reilly. No, sir! Down that path lies madness.)

After all, O'Reilly, the spry matron, all the "Merry Christmas" bitchers and moaners put together ... they were only trying to wring some meaning out of what's already been wrung dry. (The fact that O'Reilly gets paid big bucks for his self-righteousness doesn't make the carcinogenic bile eating away at his black soul any less sincere, does it?) All I'm saying, if there was any lingering spark of goodwill left in the season, it's been snuffed. It's as obvious as the broken blood vessels in Santa's nose that Christmas has become just another tactical advantage on the cultural battlefield. Maybe it's just me, but I don't think so. I suspect the No. 1 gift on most people's wish list was for it to be the hell over with.

Hope remains, though. We can turn this around and bring the honest spirit of Christmas back from the dead, I believe. But it can only happen if we wipe the slate clean and start over. First of all, we must make it clear that no universal celebration belongs to any particular group of pious, pushy pests.

Secondly, we must separate our desire to make our loved ones happy from the commercial treadmill of an economy built on gadgetry and gizmos--that sharing an iPod or Xbox 360 isn't really sharing. It's satiating.

And finally, we must change the day. The one we have is too cluttered and spoiled, like the mess on the family room floor after all the presents have been ripped open. Just as someone once arbitrarily chose December 25 as Nativity ground zero, we must alter the sordid reality and relocate to a new time frame, as arbitrary as it sounds. I suggest the 29th of February. That's right, Leap Day. Maybe, just maybe, if we have four years to think about it, we'll be more appreciative when it gets here.

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