How Christmas Makes Me Understand Modern American Conservatism

Much Like Conservatives, I Get Irrationally Angry And Scared When People Don’t Share My Traditions
My house at Christmas. (Taken December 5, 2020)

When I was younger, I had a weird annual ritual. I would keep a mental note of how many neighbors decorated their houses for Christmas, and kept that note ready to see if they did it next year. I remember feeling angry, and even sort of betrayed, when a neighbor did not. Across the street from me, my neighbors used to go all out for the holidays, framing their house in lights and decorating all the windows. One year, they only put a simple wreath on their front window. It made me angry and I pouted for most of the holiday season. I even remember complaining to my grandmother, who told me it was because a close relative had died. There’s a subculture of Italian-Americans that do not celebrate Christmas in a year when a close loved one dies. I do not belong to that subculture.

Even as an adult, it actually makes me angry to hear people say they don’t want to decorate for Christmas, or that they don’t care. Melania Trump yanked at my nerves when she said “who gives a fuck about Christmas decorations,” though she is already well down on my list for bigger reasons. When I read and heard people saying her views on Christmas decorations are the only things they agreed with her on, it felt like a kick in the nuts.

I am aware, and have been for all my adult life, that this feeling is completely irrational. It’s just decorations, and I have no right to judge anyone for not wanting to celebrate. Let me explain where it comes from, and how I think it relates to the type of emotional reaction that drives American Conservatism.

When I was a kid, nearly every house on my block decorated for Christmas. It was a mostly White-European Catholic neighborhood, so everyone had something up; whether it be lights and decorations covering the house and yard, or just some lights around a window and a tree. My block is mostly semi-detached or detached private one- or two-family homes, but closer to the corner, there are townhouses. I remember one year where one of the townhouses strung Christmas lights from the roof to the sidewalk fence in order to create a Christmas-tree type design on the house’s facade, with a giant star on the roof. When I walked out my front door and saw it up the block, a sense of joy came over me. Another year, when I was much older, I stepped up on my pool deck to smoke a cigarette and heard Christmas music. Several houses down, a neighbor had installed a giant inflatable Christmas scene featuring a tree, a snowman, a Santa Claus and a reindeer on the roof of his garage. It played music and the figures blinked to the beat. I don’t know if I ever smiled so brightly.

Over the years though, as the neighborhood changed, fewer and fewer houses decorated (though the numbers have increased again in the past decade). In 2002, my neighbor across the street died, suffering a heart attack walking out of a bank. After that, their house was never decorated again. I had wished for years I had taken photos of the house decorated to remember what I looked like. I still remember the last day it was ever decorated, New Years Eve, 2001. They took everything down New Year’s Day. As the years went by, I would wait to see if the same decorations went up as last year, and one after another, houses that were decorated the year before, were not this time. I became angry, bitter, and even scared. I feared that one day, my house may be the last one decorated, and perhaps, the rest of the block would complain or demand I don’t do it. The fact that others were not joining in on my traditions and beliefs made me feel as if they were in peril, even at risk of being taken from me. I feared being alone and isolated, or worse, persecuted.

Then I realized. This is what drives American Conservatism. More than anything else; tax cuts, freedom, liberty or whatever other buzzword or phrase conservatives in this country use to defend their worldview, it is all based in one thing; cultural grievances and fear. Grievance and anger that people are not following or taking part in time-honored American traditions that they’ve come to love and respect, and fear that as more and more shy away from them, they too will be forced to give them up.

The Republican Party offers them a chance to stop the tide of time, but with a trade off – the increasing income gap, corruption and endless wars. Enough American voters accepted that trade off, which forced the Democratic Party to follow suit in order to gain some of those voters back after massive landslide losses in the 1970s and 1980s. That paradigm still exists, and may even have gotten worse in the last decade. It was important to these voters to defend what they consider to be traditional values that defined the America they knew, and the changing culture of the mid 20th Century, and now in the 21st Century, was threatening them. A lot of this is racism, yes, but it is also about American exceptionalism and the need for some set of values and traditions that define America. It’s also about Christianity and the Protestant work ethic. The value set saw America as a counterbalance to the tyrannical and anti-individualistic Communist power led by Soviet Russia. In this version of America, the family dynamic was pre-ordinated; a working husband, a homemaker wife, dutiful children who will grow up to be workers or soldiers if they were boys, or obedient wives if they were girls. The races had their place; blacks were subjugated to servant roles, and perhaps teaching roles. Latinos were immigrants who cleaned tables or picked fruit. America was a force for good in the world, and defended it with military might. Patriotism was vital and everyone is expected to salute and honor the symbols of America; the flag, the anthem, the President. Men were men, boys were boys and women were women and girls were girls. People put in a hard day’s work if they wanted to eat, have shelter or visit the doctor, and you always respected authority, even if that authority may not be deserving of power.

The fact that others were not joining in on my traditions and beliefs made me feel as if they were in peril, even of being taken from me. I feared being alone and isolated, or worse, persecuted.

Then I realized. This is what drives American Conservatism.

This version of America still exists in many parts of the country, but starting in the 1960s, as culture changed and Civil Rights and Women’s Rights became issues that shifted society, these values increasingly became less and less relevant. To those who still wished to live by them, it felt as if they were coming under attack. These values, were, to them, at risk of not only becoming irrelevant, but eradicated. Just like I felt my neighbors and friends might go so far as to outright ban me from decorating for Christmas, they felt like liberals will one day tell them they can’t be homemakers, or go to church, or play football or salute the flag.

That is where the similarities end, however. Unlike conservatism, I have never acted on or explored my reaction beyond just noting them. I have never sought to punish or retaliate against neighbors who didn’t decorate, or friends who said they hated decorating. I never sought to force them to conform. I, instead, focused on my own joy. I added more lights, more decorations, more ideas. I made my Christmas village bigger. I put lights on my home office window (which faces nothing but the wall of the garage). I even went so far as to decorate in rooms we rarely even enter. There are decorations in a bathroom that is only ever used if the other one is occupied.

Conservatives, meanwhile, seek to not only discourage, but ban anything that goes against their values. Don’t kneel during the national anthem, don’t say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” (Really, I’m a Christmas radical and this doesn’t even bother me), don’t identify as a gender that wasn’t the one you were assigned at birth, or worse, no gender at all. In 2017, there was an interview with an Obama-Trump voter in Ohio who said he voted for Trump because he was angry his three kids left Ohio for jobs in other parts of the country (they were; a PR executive in Philadelphia, a software engineer in Colorado and a finance manager in New York). At the end of the interview, he expressed anger that there were “Mexicans” bussing tables at Cracker Barrel, while his kids could not find jobs in Ohio and return “home” to be close to family. What leads a man to be angry that his children have high paying jobs in other cities, rather than a job bussing tables at Cracker Barrel in Ohio?

I’ve gone so far as to decorate my home office window, which faces only a wall and can’t be seen by anyone else.

An irrational reaction to what he sees as the loss of his values. He and his ancestors put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into his rural town. The town was his home and his family should be there, as it had been for generations. It was insulting that his children should leave it, for a world that doesn’t conform to his values. If it weren’t for “elite coastal liberals” convincing them they needed to work high paying jobs and move to the cities, perhaps they’d stay home, bus tables at Cracker Barrels and the family would still be together. Conservatism, or the Trumpist version of conservatism, spoke to him. It promised to not only protect these values, but push them on others, and destroy the competing social structure that “lured” his children away.

There’s a lot that goes into my obsession for Christmas, and I’ll cover that in a piece that will be published on Christmas Eve, but it’s always been an important holiday to me, and decorations make me happy. In the same way conservatives sees those traditional values I outlined as invoking happy memories of a simpler, kinder life, perhaps also from their youth. Perhaps they felt safer, more welcomed and more understood, when those values were universally accepted and adhered to, in the same way I felt those things when more people decorated or shared my love of Christmas.

But as I grew older, I realized, that while I may one day be the only one left covering my house in Christmas cheer, it will never be taken from me. It can’t be. No one, except maybe a mean old lady looking for trouble on a homeowners association, will ever keep me from decorating for Christmas and doing the things that bring me joy this time of year. In fact, I’ve learned that in doing it, I’ve inspired more people to join in than I had anticipated. I have had friends who decided to put up lights because they saw mine. This year, my neighbor even said she wasn’t going to decorate because of all the sadness around the COVID-19 Pandemic, but seeing my lights inspired her to put hers up.

Conservatives, meanwhile, have doubled down on the idea that their values need to be enforced in order to remain relevant; that people cannot be allowed to stray from them. Whether it speaks to an insecurity in those values – or more likely a feeling of superiority – is up for you to adjudicate. Perhaps if they sold their values better, rather than just putting down or threatening those who don’t follow them, they might win some converts. I did.

But I guess you would have the same faith and belief in those values that I have in the magic of Christmas, in order to have the security to do that.

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