The United States is a big country. Christmas is a huge holiday. This blog is a tiny window.
Here is a look at the Christmas Tradition, as it plays out in the four cities that the LA Carpetbagger blog has called home: Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles, CA; Louisville, KY; and Albuquerque, NM.
Retail politics is what campaign professionals call the folksy grinder of State Fair meet-and-greets and county chicken dinners that all political candidates must master before they can be elected dog catcher, Congressman, or U.S. President, but the comparison between retailing and politicking doesn’t end there. That’s because the Holidays aren’t just the peak business season for the shopping mall – they’re also the high-water mark for of the Congressional business cycle.
Like that Ralph Lauren topcoat you’ve been eying at Nordstrom’s, big-ticket legislation is deeply discounted before Christmas when the reality of major federal programs expiring at the end of the year mixes with Members of Congress’s emotional need to be in their home states with their families. As a result, politicians suddenly become willing to swallow bitter pills that would have been unpalatable a few months before.
Just watch. Every year unpopular budget, tax, and regulatory packages move at the last second possible, when Congress stops caring about harassment from the press and locks arms to ram through everything that is both necessary and controversial.
For the staffers and lobbyists who stay behind in D.C., Christmas is a jolly season of horse-trading – but not for business as usual. December means Christmas parties that are often classified by the Ethics Committee as “widely attended events” and therefore are not subject to the strict gift and hospitality laws that make all other Congressional gatherings duller than the blunt end of a butter knife. Like a Wall Street derivative, these Holiday Party invitations carry an opaque value that is redeemable for payment. Unlike Wall Street though, remuneration usually comes in the form of access and influence, the two hard currencies of politics, and the two forms of payment that a good political operative expects to receive when he trades or transfers a coveted Christmas party invitation to another.
In December – for just one month a year – it’s like the old times in Washington.
Los Angeles, CA
It’s said that Christians inherited the Christmas tree from pagans on the fringe of Rome. The relationship between polytheism and the Early Church is well-documented in academic literature, but it can also be observed in Los Angeles, California, where the Judeo-Christian elements of the Holidays have dissolved away, leaving in their wake the loud and highly-commercial iconography of “Gifting Season”.
Los Angeles doesn’t suffer from a lack of spirit but its conception of Christmas reads much more like a pagan deification of the Winter Season than a celebration of the coming of Jesus Christ. At least that’s the message any Christian would infer from the citywide veneration of illuminated evergreens, arctic reindeer species, and fat bearded men in red coats that are perched on every street corner like Golden Bulls. Just try to find a crèche south of the 101. I dare you.
LA’s self-congratulatory sense of diversity has sacrificed all the winter holidays on its altar of inclusion. Hanukah iconography remains scarce and in most displays of Holiday Lights, the struggle to find any combination of blue and white (Hanukah) or green and red (Christmas) colors is comically difficult. The same goes for invitations for any holiday gathering.
Southern California is a world leader in a lot of things but when it comes to tradition, it’s a third-tier power at best and a terrible place for any holiday, any time of the year. The wild-eyed imagination of Los Angeles and the raw charisma of its people gives ordinary days extraordinary excitement, but the hangover comes on holidays, objects of tradition that the people who live here fled and only seem to celebrate out of obligation for reasons they forgot long ago.
The Holidays are stunna’ season in Louisville, where the Word of God inspires a sort of messianic vanity all over town. If there were a Fashion Week here, it would be Christmas, when the Southern traditions of fuss and elegance are married to the Christian High Holiday.
Christmas in Louisville is motivated by forces unknown in bigger cities, not the least of which is that the people celebrating here actually believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. Beyond that, there is a regional flavor of superficiality to experience, a sort of farm-to-table holiday accent that can only exist in a city where families have been neighbors (or rivals) for three or more generations, and where traditional means of showing wealth – cars, homes, etc. – are seen as tacky.
In this city of bashful excess entertaining well remains the distinguishing trait. For those wishing to keep up with Joneses – or slam dunk over their heads – throwing a great Christmas party in that DVF dress you bought in Chicago last May is a sterling opportunity.
Opposite the world famous Southern superficiality, there is also a special authenticity to Christmas in Kentucky. The South’s sense of God, Country, and Family is palpable everywhere and probably first in the nation; and as the city on Dixie’s northernmost frontier, Louisville also takes cues from the Midwest’s apple pie decency.
Here in Louisville, there is deep purpose that binds all relationships. It comes with our special respect for family and tradition, even when inconvenient, and is enriched by the volatile herbs of vanity and jealousy that motivate Southern Hospitality to exceptional heights.
New Mexico is full of mountains, full of vistas, and empty of people. There are times when its unforgiving landscape looks like the earth at creation and there are others – during the dust storms, heat waves, etc. – when it also feels like the apocalypse.
The harshness of the land has preserved its authenticity. The steamroll of bland middle class America took one look at this place and kept heading west, leaving New Mexico as it was before: the domain of the dark skinned, dark eyed descendants of colonial Hispanics and ancient Native American peoples, where enchiladas and tamales were born long before hamburgers colonized.
And in a way, everything that is wrong about shopping mall Christmases in the rest of America feels right here. They play the same Holly Jolly crap in every store. The mannequins stand in the windows and Santa Claus bounces children in his lap. Chili Peppers roast in the parking lot. Cashiers ask for credit cards in two languages. Packs of shoppers mix in multiple skin tones. There is a reassuring feeling, one that appeals to the better angels of both Christmas and America, that all the ideas, even the silly ones, that bind our holiday and our nation are larger than one language, race, or landscape. A Christmas spent in this raw, unforgiving place, gives a special glimmer of hope for the other 364 days in the year, wherever they may unfold.
And on that thought, let it be our wish that this Christmas is a special one for you, wherever you are too.