Sunday, December 11, 2005

The trouble with Christmas kitsch

I had the page The 12 days of Kitschmas on the Ship of Fools web site bookmarked as a fun link to share. I mean just look at this stuff. But today for the first time, I clicked on the Christ vs. Kitsch link on that page, and discovered it's a pretty powerful read. For anyone who is offended by "strong language", I should forewarn you that it has some of that...

THE PROBLEM WITH KITSCH is not readily apparent because (by definition) the treatment of what is considered unwholesome takes place off stage. Think of those Nazi propaganda films of beautiful, healthy children skiing down the Bavarian Alps. Nothing wrong with that, is there? Of course there is. For this is a world that has been purified, where everything nasty or troubling has been eliminated. The logical conclusion of kitsch, argues Kundera, is the ghetto and the concentration camp – the means by which totalitarian regimes dispose of their shit, variously construed.

This is tied in with Christmas later in the article by describing how shocking and unsettling--how "profane" the story of the incarnation really is...
Even many who felt the attraction of the Christian story believed this was going too far. Convoluted ways were sought to mitigate the offence. Christ was not really human or Christ was not really divine. Others created a firewall between the sacred and the profane within the person of Jesus himself. For the second century Gnostic, Valentinius, Jesus "ate and drank but did not defecate".

I haven't read church history for some time, but I am aware that the debates about whether Jesus was fully human and/or fully divine went on for centuries, but it never occurred to me that people speculated about whether or not Jesus went to the bathroom. (Although I have mused to myself from time to time, wondering how easy or difficult the Christ child was to potty train.)In any event, I recommend the whole article, but will include the concluding paragraphs here as food for thought.
The problem isn't that Christmas has become too materialistic – but rather that it isn't materialistic enough. Kitsch Christmas is another way of uncoupling the divine from the material, thus spiritualizing God into incapacity. I am not being a killjoy attacking the kitsch version of Christmas. Three years ago, my wife gave birth to a baby boy. The labour ward was no place to be coy about the human body and all its functions. The talcum-powdered unreality of kitsch childbirth cannot compare with the exhaustion, pain and joy of the real thing.

But perhaps the most important corruption of Christmas kitsch is how it shapes our understanding of peace. This is the season where the word "peace" is ubiquitous. Written out in fancy calligraphy everywhere, "peace and good will to all" is the subscript of the season. It's the peace of the sleeping child, peace as in "peace and quiet", peace as a certain sort of mood. But this is not what they need in Bethlehem today. They need peace as in people not killing each other.

This sort of peace requires a stubborn engagement with the brute facts of oppression and violence – which is the very reality that the kitsch peace of Christmas wants to take us on holiday away from. How ironic: we don't want the shittiness of the world pushed at us during this season of peace. This, then, is the debilitating consequence of kitsch. Kitsch peace is the unspoken desire that war takes place out of sight and mind – it's the absolute denial of shit. Political leaders who are preparing for yet more fighting will be happy to oblige. Christmas has become a cultural danger to us all, not just a danger to orthodox Christianity.