Walking around the city at this time of year one is surrounded by preparations for this season of festivities. Window displays are full of seasonal decorations, holiday music plays over sound systems, and various once-a-year treats are now readily available. But there is something different.
Growing up in a predominantly Catholic area (although not part of a Christian family), Christmas was full of Christian mythology and imagery. Store windows were full of cutouts of the star over Bethlehem, angels, and Christmas trees. Holly and poinsettias were featured as table displays in restaurants. Santa was a central figure in department stores, all aisles leading to his ‘workshop’. Even in school we made candy cane reindeer and paper stockings and wrote letters to Santa. It wasn’t even until my high school years that religious carols were banned, but even then a few not-so-obvious ones were slipped through as long as we sung a Hanukkah song to balance it.
But here in New York there seems to be an effort to make Christmas irreligious. While I understand the political and capitalistic reasoning behind this, the actions taken strike me as if people are now ashamed of Christmas’ connection to Christianity. The windows are still filled with decorations, although now they tend towards the generic winter scenes; snowflakes, sledding, winter garment-clothed figures. The music has become more secular, still using the world Christmas occasionally, but with the emotion tending towards personal relationships and fantastical creatures, or simply instrumental. The traditional plants are still in use, but they are more recognized as the only plants that grow at this time of year (at least in the northeast), and no longer maintain specific ties to religion. One never sees a nativity used as decoration except in the churches and religious schools. Santa is no longer ubiquitous.
However, modification of these images and sounds of Christmas that one encounters also changes our experience of the season and so changes the symbolic conventions of those displays. Instead of Christmas trees in a store window, one sees silhouettes of children sledding, no longer reflecting this tie to the holiday that made it a shopping season. This however does not lessen the impression of wonder that accompanies many of these images. It has simply shifted it from one of religious awe to that of an anticipatory awe; instead of observing the birth of a religious figure, one awaits things such as snow or holidays from school. The agency of these images and sounds are used to construct a particular atmosphere of festivity that does not necessarily coincide with erstwhile associations of the season.