Inside the Capitol

Saturday, December 20, 2008

12-24 Will Christmas Traditions Change?

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- We'll be spending Christmas in Phoenix again this year. It's easier on the kids and grandkids. Besides our son-in-law always seems to be on call at Mayo Hospital on Christmas Day.
The entire family would rather be in Santa Fe's snow, farolitos, pine trees and icicles. Some day it may start happening again but until then, we will have to muse along with Irving Berlin about the white Christmas we are missing.
The Arizona Biltmore Hotel, in Phoenix, claims Berlin wrote "White Christmas" while sitting beside its magnificent pool. The verse of the song mentions orange and palm trees swaying but it also mentions being in L.A. where Berlin spent time writing movie scores.
The Biltmore says Berlin also was known to stay at that hotel and write songs. The only reason he didn't say Phoenix is that it doesn't rhyme with much of anything.
The Biltmore has been a landmark for nearly 80 years and has hosted many stars. Its pool is said to have been Marilyn Monroe's favorite. Many political events also are held there, including John McCain's election night party.
New Yorkers, of course, say Berlin wrote the song there despite the orange and palm tree references. They contend that since Berlin didn't read or write music, he composed on a piano, which would have been difficult by the pool.
Maybe Berlin wrote it both places. Since he wrote both words and music, he might have written the words by the Biltmore pool. Regardless, it has been the world's most popular song.
Berlin got the secular Christmas music tradition started on Tin Pan Alley with "White Christmas." Numerous others followed during the 1940s, mostly written by Jewish songwriters.
They weren't offended about Christmas. Many were immigrants, as was Berlin, and they were embracing everything American. And since America is majority Christian, they were willing to participate in the experience without partaking of the religious aspect.
But today the attitude seems to be different. We worry about offending others. happy holidays has replaced merry Christmas in stores and in public places.
The problem isn't that there is a law against Christmas greetings and Christmas displays. Maybe it is a fear that in our litigious society there will be court suits from non-Christians so its easier to save the hassle and back down.
There still are Christmas displays on public property but there will usually be a plastic reindeer or a Santa Claus thrown in. Three years ago, when New Mexico provided the tree for the U.S. Capitol, House Speaker Dennis Hastert decreed that it would be renamed the Capitol Christmas Tree instead of the Capitol Holiday Tree.
Actually, the observance of Christmas has had a mixed history in the United States. Early settlers on the East Coast strictly opposed Christmas celebrations because they encouraged public drunkenness, shooting and swearing.
And since the Bible doesn't mention Dec. 25, the date must have been derived from pagan customs. The attitude spread to mainstream churches. Throughout the 1800s, mainstream churches still were trying to hold the line on Christmas celebrations by not accepting the day as a holy one.
But gradually feelings began to change. Clement Clarke Moore's "Visit From St. Nicolas" at mid-century gave a family feeling to Christmas. Political cartoonist Thomas Nast's cartoons created an image of a jolly Santa who gave gifts to children.
By the early 1900s, the retail industry had caught on that Christmas could become a buying bonanza. It is now abundantly obvious where that has led.
Will Christmas always be celebrated in the manner it is now? Will tough economic times mean a long term de-emphasis on compulsive buying? It appears that is what happened this year. Retail merchants are feeling a major pinch. And Christian churches are urging their congregations to find ways to make Christmas a more spiritual day.
Our nation always has had a dynamic society. Change could be coming.
WED, 12-24-08

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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