Stephen L. Carter Dispatches from the war on Christmas
It’s mid-December, meaning that it’s time once again for my annual dispatches from the Christmas wars.
Let’s begin in Michigan, where brews a nice case for libertarian property-rights enthusiasts. Two brothers, Gary and Matt Percy, decided to start a Christmas tree farm. They bought a patch of land that seemed right. That’s when the problem started.
To clear the space, Canton Township alleges, the brothers cut down 1,500 trees — some of them “landmark” trees — without official permission. The township is seeking $450,000 or more in fines unless the Percy brothers “rehabilitate” the cut land. A judge has issued a temporary restraining order against the farm. The brothers, aided by the Center for the American Future, have responded by filing a lawsuit of their own, claiming that the ordinances they are alleged to have violated in fact violate their constitutional rights. They also claim that the fine is excessive (hmmm, think I’ve heard that before).
The state legislature may ride to the rescue ... or, if you prefer, may turn out to be the villain in the story. At the end of November, the Michigan Senate has passed a bill greatly restricting the power of local government over the clearing of trees and vegetation on privately owned land. In the meanwhile, should the Percy brothers lose, there remains the tricky issue of what happens to the 1,000 future Christmas trees they have already planted. Maybe they get pulled up and destroyed.
But never mind. Let’s eat, drink, and buy presents! For those of you making the rounds of holiday parties among friends with oenophilist pretensions, staff members at Wine Enthusiast have been king enough to list the spirits they are gifting this season. If wines made from biodynamically grown grapes without the use of electricity happen to be your thing, they’ve got you covered.
Meanwhile, the folks at candystore.com have a state-by-state survey of the most popular Christmas candy. OK, the methodology is shaky: a poll of customers, with results then confirmed by “our friendly major candy manufacturers and distributors.” (No bias there!) Still, the results are intriguing. In 13 different states, something called “reindeer corn” finished in the top three. I try to keep a cautious eye on the zeitgeist, but I will confess that I am not much of a candy person, and until now I had never heard of reindeer corn. But the sweet turns out to be officially part of the 35 million pounds of candy corn that the U.S. consumes each year.
Speaking of which — reindeer, not corn — I am told that we are no longer supposed to like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Or maybe it was all a joke. (Not to Donald Trump Jr., though.) Meanwhile, while we waste time insulting each other on Twitter, thousands of live reindeer in Sweden may soon starve to death — not least because warming weather near the poles is upsetting their migration patterns.
Christmas itself may also be in trouble. Last month, Vox labeled the holiday a “casualty” of the trade war with China. (According to your politics, feel free to call it the president’s war with China, or China’s war with the president.) The Vox story tells us that the tariffs have raised the price of “nearly all holiday lights sold in the United States,” yet somehow fails to mention how much the price has gone up — or even how much lights typically cost. Probably the effect was very small, given that the tariffs in question went into effect in September and most Christmas decorations from China had shipped early to avoid them. Further tariffs were slated to go into effect on Jan. 1, but the nascent truce between the warring sides will evidently postpone them.
On a rosier note, the Hallmark Channel is releasing 37 new made-for-Christmas romantic comedies this year, up from 34 in 2017. In last year’s dispatches, I mentioned a writer who was busily hate-watching them all. I’ve found no equivalent this year, but the Wall Street Journal recently published a fascinating piece about the opposite — people who look forward to spending the holiday season binge-watching the movies. Apparently the superfans enjoy the predictability of the storylines:
Inclement weather tends to strand people in idyllic towns with names like Evergreen. There tends to be a scene where the characters bake Christmas cookies. The town’s Christmas festival tends to be a do-or-die event that stresses out the planners. In the end, the two leads fall in love while relishing in the spirit of Christmas.
Oh, and there’s also this: “It always snows, even when the stories are set in North Carolina or Tennessee.”
In other Hallmark news, Crown Media Family Networks, Hallmark Channel’s parent, has announced that at least two of next year’s movies will be Hanukkah-themed. It turns out that viewers have spent years begging Hallmark to release a more diverse slate of holiday films. They even have a hashtag, #HallmarkHanukkah. This is all to the good. There’s a tendency, especially among retailers, to imagine that a secularized Christmas is relatively inoffensive to those of other traditions, but this isn’t always true. Still, don’t expect Hallmark’s new movies to move away from the reliable formula. Some holiday traditions never change.
In other fantasy news, rumors are flying that the first teaser trailer for “Star Wars: Episode IX” will drop on Christmas Day. Even if the rumors are true, a trailer is unlikely to slake the thirst of desperate fans, who over the past three years have become spoiled by successive December releases for “Star Wars” movies. On the other hand, for those who like a Christmas fantasy, there’s always “Mary Poppins Returns” — a film whose opening provides the opportunity to put to rest for once and for all the story that the word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” was invented by the writers of the first film. The Oxford English Dictionary traces a form of the word to the 1930s, and its pre-Poppins etymology is complicated. And lest you think I’ve strayed from my holiday theme, the word — or rather, some clever puns on the word — play a role in the 2014 made-for-television animated film “How Murray Saved Christmas.” (Santa, for example, is said to suffer from “superficial fractures of his little baby toesis.”
Finally, we continue in 2018 to wage battle over “Merry Christmas” versus “Happy Holidays,” but the Christmas wars seem to be a lot quieter than they used to. I hope it’s not just because we’re too busy fighting over everything else. I prefer to think that we’re at last remembering that whatever we call the season, it ought to be a time of peace and joy and love. Which, come to think of it, would be pretty supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
And may the Force be with you.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. His latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.” Email him at email@example.com.