I’m not sure when it happened, exactly.
It was sometime between the moment my wife announced that she was finished Christmas shopping and I didn’t recall her asking me to help her unload packages from the car and the night social media forced me to reconsider yet another favorite staple of holiday pop culture.
But just when I normally would want to haul out the holly and rediscover the magic that was Burl Ives, it occurred to me that the Grinch doesn’t need to steal Christmas. Technology is killing it.
I don’t mean the true meaning of Christmas, the religious reason for the season, which we all know from the monologue delivered by the great orator/dancer/blanket aficionado Linus Van Pelt near the end of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
I mean the more secular trappings, the sights and sounds, the hustle and bustle, the silver and gold, that make the holiday season one of our favorite love-hate relationships.
The disruption of the familiar by technology is a recurring theme in the 21st century. Every corner of our lives and every part of our culture has been altered by what computers and smartphones and social media have provided. (Chances are decent that instead of getting your hands all inky with this, you are plowing through it by making a motion with your index finger that you never did or thought to do before 2008.) So it makes perfect sense that Christmas, which combines the best and worst of our communal consumerism, would not be immune.
Allow me to take the shiny paper off this hypothesis and unpack what I mean:
I’m old enough to remember when Walmart was going to ruin the world. Now, not only don’t we need the big box retail stores, we don’t need to go Christmas shopping at all, thanks to the monolith that Amazon.com and online shopping have become. If you don’t believe me, meet me at the mall. I’ll be the other person there.
Hearing a Christmas song on the radio once was a special occasion. That changed when commercial radio stations decided to play all holiday music for almost two months. Technology somehow managed to surpass that overkill. If you happen to have satellite radio, there are another two stations devoted to songs of the season, without any commercials to give you a break between “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and that one about the shoes for the lady with the fatal illness.
Giving a gift to a small child once was a joy. You could get them a stuffed animal or a board game and wait for them to squeal with delight. Have you been around small children lately? Mostly what they want is a few minutes alone with an iPad and a credit card.
It’s not just the little ones. If you had teenagers in your life, you used to be able to head to the local music store or the video game place to buy them something. Now, all their music is digital and they’re too busy playing Fortnite with people in Sweden and Albania to tell you if there’s another game they want.
Do you like settling in with the family to watch a favorite holiday-themed movie or TV show? (Does anyone even want to anymore after weeks and weeks of Hallmark and Lifetime shows?) Thanks to movements that started on social media, we now know “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” is a tacit endorsement of racism, homophobia and bullying, the song "Baby It's Cold Outside" is a primer on date rape, and “Home Alone” celebrates parental negligence. (I think “Frosty the Snowman” is still OK, but it’s only a matter of time before someone notices that he smokes and doesn’t wear pants.)
Because of its outsized importance in American culture, we often reconsider Christmas. The aforementioned Charlie Brown special, which first aired in 1965, spoke to the concern that it had become too commercial. In recent years, we have debated the question of whether the season starts too soon. The question of whether to say the words "Merry Christmas" became a political issue. Technology is just giving us another reason for re-examining.
And Christmas, by its nature as the high-point of the consumer year, is clearly more prone to disruption than other holidays. Until someone figures out how to download candy or you can tweet someone a basket full of colored eggs, the traditions of Halloween and Easter seem more secure.
The same is true of Thanksgiving, which has grown in stature for me as I've aged. It has everything I love about Christmas – annual traditions, reasons to get together with family, overeating – without all the anxiety of shopping and gift-giving. And so far, the technological revolution hasn't laid a glove on it.
Technology is a double-edged sword, the way it gives us new problems as it takes away old ones. It has done a number on Christmas. But maybe by forcing us to rethink some of the more commercial aspects of the season, it will give us more time to appreciate the simpler parts, the parts that have nothing to do with gifts or lights or songs.
After all, it's like Linus said: That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.