The Cult of Christmas

December 15, 2023 —
For the past year I’ve been working on a nonfiction book called Cult Following about various strange and disturbing cults. It’ll be out autumn 2024. I bring it up here because, like with all my book projects, I start looking at life through the lens of whatever research I’ve recently done. Which means that this year, I’m sometimes looking at Christmas through the lens of cults. Sounds weird, but it answered a question I’ve always had: Why do Christmas movies always depict the saving of the holiday or the changing of a person to accept the holiday?

Like Ernest has to save Christmas. But he only has to get scared stupid on Halloween.

And George Baily wasn’t allowed to end a disappointing life at its nadir. He was supernaturally forced to change his heart. Like the creator of the universe had to intervene and send a dopey wingless angel.

In the movies either Christmas is always in trouble of not happening or people aren’t allowed to experience negative emotions during the holiday. Just the sheer amount of Christmas movies with those two premises is suspicious to me. That’s how you do propaganda. And brainwashing. Driving the same message over and over and over again into people’s soft cerebellums.

But why? Why these two plots?

I found that cults are defined by about half a dozen rules. Two of them are relevant here. First, the cult must be predicated upon some urgent and imminent catastrophe. Armageddon. Nuclear war. The end of the world. The appearance of UFOs. That’s why cult leaders often announce near-term dates for these events. It lends exigency and reality to their teaching. Convert now or be doomed.

So Christmas needs to be saved. Because Santa is in jail or kidnapped by Jack Skellington or kids don’t believe anymore or whatever the million other things that threaten Christmas in the movies (it’s such a fragile thing, this delicate nest of thin lies that is Christmas). Christmas is about to end. Join the cult or else.

Halloween is never in trouble. Nor is Easter. Arbor Day. The Fourth of July. Thanksgiving. Only Christmas is a constant damsel in distress. Or drama queen, might be the better female-ish stereotype.

As to the other rule, in a cult, you’re told what to believe. How to feel. Any deviation from that directive is dangerous to the cult. Any open-mindedness. Any contrarianism. Any questioning. Cult leaders pull this off by various means—getting members to sever family ties, cutting members off geographically, taking all their money and possessions. You must conform or else.

And that’s what Christmas is always trying to get us to do. Conform. The Grinch just north of Whoville was forced to become a Who. Sam Elliot in Prancer had to pretend that widowhood and starvation and poverty were fine things to live with. Scrooge was doing okay with life. He was just doing him (which, I just realized is a phrase that doesn’t work in the past tense), but he had to be threatened with death if he didn’t align with the rest of the Christmas-loving world.

Keep the status quo. Feel the same way as everyone else. Do what’s always been done (and now you know why Christmas is maggoty with traditions).

You can’t just let the Kranks be the Kranks, because that threatens Christmas somehow.

In the end, Christmas might just have more of Jonestown in it than the jolly.

And, yes, I did write this entire piece so I could write that last sentence. It needed to exist somewhere.