Ah, the Christmas Spirit: What a Crock of Humbug!

The cursed snowflake is up and glowing over 57th and Fifth, and the Rockefeller Christmas tree is drawing the usual number of wide-eyed, gawking yokels from New Jersey. It’s the green-and-red season: The green stands for profits and the red for losses. From all accounts, with Walmart leading the way, we’re going to have a lot more green than red this year.

Which brings up a question: Did we just live through a recession? Never mind the double-dip recession they’ve been talking about for years. Was there a single-dipper? For certain areas of the country, of which this is one, there has been a noticeable-and not painless-downturn, but overall, it’s a stretch to categorize what’s happened with jobs and business as anything meriting the name recession. With the unemployment rate up slightly and bobbling along at just over 5 percent, the country is a lot closer to an acute labor shortage than to bread lines.

Instead of calling it a recession, we might have called what we have passed through a downward jiggle. Some people expect a permanent, no-jiggle boom that goes on and on and on. If you graphed it, the line would be way up at the top and flat-on forever. But viewers of the doc-and-nurse shows can tell you a flat line is death. It may be the weather or the size of the deer population or the birthrate, but where there is no upsy-downsy, there is no life. It’s jiggle-free in the graveyard, but elsewhere nothing is rigid, nothing is fixed forever. The earth itself wobbles on its axis.

Three weeks from now, something may happen to set off a downward jiggle so steep it merits being called a recession, but as of now we’re humping along through the holiday season with prayers for peace at home and war abroad. The clink of cash registers aside, we are in the time of year when many feel called upon to tell us “the true meaning of Christmas.” One version of the true meaning can be seen all over America, where theatrical companies, professional and amateur, are performing Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim. The command that A Christmas Carol has on our sentiments grows stronger as its connection to our lives recedes. Once upon a time, Marley and Scrooge were recognizable business figures. Now, of course, there are no such partnerships, no such businesses and no such people. But Dickens’ Victorian Christmas-the Martha Stewart Christmas, if you please-has a hold on us, not on account of who we are but who we are not.

It is a sweet vision; too sweet for my tastes. It is a sentimental costume party of comfy self-satisfaction. It asks nothing of the celebrants but that they spend, prettify, eat and dream a dream of upper-middle-class, 19th-century British (not even American) life at the Yule board. It doesn’t hurt that this one true meaning of Christmas is wonderfully without a specific reference to anything Christian.

There are other spirits of Christmas. There is the scolding spirit, which reproves us for converting what the speakers think of as a spiritual moment and turning it into a carnival of material consumption. The tsk-tsking about spending awesome amounts of money at Christmas has been going on for so long-a century, anyway-that such cautionary admonitions are now simply part of the holiday noise. We expect a certain amount of finger-wagging about spending as we expect to hear “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” coming out of unseen loudspeakers. At the same time, you may be sure millions of American children will have become cranky and irritable because they’ve been given so many toys they can’t enjoy any of them. Well, by March they’ll have sorted out the ones they like and will have thrown aside the ones they don’t.

The true meaning of Christmas means thinking of others. They tell you that every year. Even non-Christians are sent this wholesome message. Thinking of others takes no prescribed form. To get the prerequisite warm feeling in the abdominal cavity, a moment of reflection on AIDS sufferers or making the intention to spend a day dishing out turkey to homeless derelicts will suffice. Thank God for the unfortunate. Some students of the subject say that we’re getting down to the hard-core homeless, meaning people who are unhousable because they take too many drugs, drink too much whiskey, or are crazy and won’t take their meds. Prosperity, you see, also has its down side. We have not yet come to the point where there is such a shortage of unfortunates that the Christmas altruism will call for a certain ingenuity, but it could happen. You New Testament scholars will recall the passage in the sacred text where Christ washes the beggar’s feet. Would the history of practical morality in the West be different if one of the Apostles had been forced to say to Jesus, “Begging your pardon, Lord, but business has been booming, so everybody’s got clean feet, fresh socks and new shoes”?

For a long time now, Christmas has been fading away-in public, at least-into an inoffensive occasion called the Holiday Season. Every sect, race and nationality can think up a feast day falling in or around Dec. 25 and join the Holiday Season festivities, which are sufficiently denuded of their original religious meaning so that none will feel out of place. The fact of the matter is the real meaning of Christmas might be lost if the holiday did not beckon non-Christians into the malls as well as the Christians. Christmas is too important to the gross domestic product to limit Christmas shopping to Christians.

Needless to say, millions of American Christians do trot off to their churches to mark the day in specifically religious ceremonies, except perhaps the U.U.’s (Universalist Unitarians) and other evolved churches whose doctrines are so unexceptional that those of any faith, or no faith, should be able to sit through the service without discomfort. This may be one Holiday Season when the Christian churches might wish to blend into the department-store Christmas trees and not draw attention to themselves.

None of the three major divisions of American Christianity-evangelical, mainstream and Roman Catholic-are looking like they have much of a message. The evangelicals have succeeded in projecting to the outside world a picture of a faith which is intolerant, bloody-minded, and antagonistic to science and learning. The mainstreamers, meaning the Episcopalians, the Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ and so forth, seem to have their knickers in a perpetual twist over gay marriage, sex and propriety. The only time you read about them, they’re wrangling over crotch issues. The mainstream is close to dwindling to a trickle, an avatar of ecclesiastic institutions past, of Christmases gone by. Lastly, there are the shaken and confused Roman Catholics, one of whose bishops chose the Holiday Season to let it be known that the Archdiocese of Boston is contemplating bankruptcy to escape the hundreds of lawsuits arising out of its protection of pederast priests. Extract the true meaning of Christmas out of that, if you please.

Christmas has picked up yet another meaning over the last couple of decades. It has become a leading economic indicator. If American consumers have their charge cards out, are running up debt and buying like crazy, the first two quarters of the next year will jiggle up. If it looks like jiggle-down, go to church, pray for war if you think it’ll help, or ask the Son of Man to crawl out of the crib, where He isn’t doing much, and please give the economy a little goose on His birthday.