There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the signs started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were forty cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along the cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing an photographing. All the people had camera: some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides —pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.

I read the passage above in Don DeLillo’s “White Noise” while Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” was playing on the radio. This was four days before Thanksgiving.

I used to really like Springsteen’s take on the holiday classic. I remember looking forward to hearing it. Of course I had to look forward to hearing it because even though I listened to WNEW almost continuously as a teenager, I was lucky if I heard “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” 3 times in one year. It was a treat. Not anymore — Christmas tunes show up sometime after Halloween and are flogged mercilessly through December 25th. This is everywhere: the radio (which is only on the for the birds; they like commercials — so they really like music radio), stores, elevators, even at gas station pumps.

My aversion to early Yuletide indicators has nothing to do with religion. I’m not a religious person. I’m more of an a-religious person. It’s just something I don’t have. I think religion has a lot to answer for, but it can take credit for a few things too. (That’s another discussion.)

The problem with early sightings of Santa Claus, tinsel, and wreaths is strictly secular: we can’t see the Barn anymore.

The “Barn” is a season of generosity, family, and peace. It’s the Christmas of  A Visit from St NicholasA Christmas Carol, The Homecoming, A Miracle on 34th Street,  The Gift of The Magi, and White Christmas.

In “A Christmas Carol” Dickens set out to create a picture of Christmas that would appeal to both religious and secular people. He was an advocate for the poor and sought to reach them via story. It’s safe to say, 170 years later, that he succeeded.

Right there, in that story, is a plea to not lose the Christmas Spirit. So is my concern misplaced? Are my complaints simply a symptom of my impending (some might say nascent) curmudgeon-hood?

Well, things have certainly gotten worse, not better. A couple of years ago stores starting opening on Thanksgiving day in an effort to capture our shopping dollars by moving the season up. This year Wal-Mart is moving “Cyber Monday” to Sunday. Even secular traditions last less than a decade when faced with the weathering effects of a retailer’s greed.

We’re so consumed with “Black Friday” that’s it become a (largely inaccurate) economic indicator. We don’t just talk about shopping and low prices, we talk about shoppers and total sales, and it influences stock market prices and the annual plans of some businesses. It’s similar to the relationship between commercials and the Super Bowl.

The noise has consumed the signal.  We can’t see the Barn.

While rumors of my curmudgeon-dom may or may not have been exaggerated, I’m not one to blame all ills on capitalism. The market can drive creativity instead of always derailing it. Dickens wanted to convey a message about generosity and helping the poor, but he was also at a point on his career where he needed a bestseller too. These needs combined to create an enduring cornerstone of Western culture.

To a certain degree the secular notion of Christmas is a victim of the forces that created it. Marketing the holiday to a broad audience requires altering the message to one that can be appreciated by people that are not practicing Christians. This becomes like a game of “telephone” and eventually we end up with “make yourself (and maybe others) happy with more stuff!” It’s not an inevitable outcome, but that’s what seems to have happened.

It’s not a stretch to say that this is driven by the retailer’s desire to get the holiday buck, and the pressure they are feeling due from online sales is making them more desperate each year. Rather than competing with quality products and a better shopping experience, they seem to think that getting to you first is how they win. So we have Christmas sales after Labor Day. We even have the world’s largest brick-and-mortar retailer frantically trying to apply this logic to Cyber Monday.

Where’s the Barn? Is it gone? I don’t think so.

When I was a kid the Barn was family. I didn’t know it at the time but it was.

I have a few fond memories of Christmas. Here’s one that resurfaced when my son was young that made me realize what it’s all about.

My grandparents brought my father’s family to the United States in 1929. They believed in starting the celebration on Heiligabend, what we call Christmas Eve.* My grandmother wanted to exchange gifts on Christmas Eve too. Sometimes we did, sometimes we did not.

One Christmas Eve, I think I was 5 or 6 years old (mainly because I don’t remember my sister being around yet and I still believed in Santa,) my grandparents visited us at home. Santa Claus had visited their house early and left me my very own rocking chair!

I don’t remember why I was so excited about a rocking chair. I remember a kid-sized rocking chair. I remember being excited. I remember that moment. I remember my surprise at my grandparents arriving.  I remember being thrilled at seeing them.

While the 5 or 6 year old Eric was probably thrilled by getting a gift just as much as at seeing his grandparents (they lived a few minutes away and I saw them often) adult Eric looks back on those family times and gets a different thrill.

There’s not much to be done to about the greedy marketers and retailers that are actively diluting Christmas to nothing more than a vehicles for “sales” that are more of a bad deal than anything else.

We can only try to keep Christmas ourselves. Find your Barn, and keep your eyes on it.

Photo credit: Kristen B

* They actually followed the full “Advent” package with the calendars etc, but in terms of the actual holiday, they considered it 2 days, like most of Germany still does. Yes: many stores actually close for 2 1/2 days (starting midday on the 24th) in Germany and the economy withstands it!