The Grey Lady at Christmas
I read the New York Times every day for about 25 years. At this time of the year, I used to look forward to their Christmas coverage. Since some might not realize or admit that the Paper of Record has substantially changed in its coverage of religious topics, I thought a look at the Grey Lady’s Christmas coverage would offer more insight into the media’s secularism.
Until perhaps fifteen years ago, the Times’ coverage of Christmas was almost traditional. There would be profiles of church activities; music schedules; features on topics like selling Christmas trees in the City; a wide range of food and decorating advice; and plenty of gift ideas. In the mid-to-late 1990s, this began to change.
Take, for example, the weekly Food section. In previous years it covered Christmas in a variety of ways, over several weeks, starting with a gift guide in November. Features during Advent included recipes and ideas for festive party-giving and features on different ethnic traditional ways of celebrating the Feast. All of this led up to the Wednesday before Christmas, which would highlight famed authors or chefs nostalgically recalling holidays past. (Similar nostalgia could be found in the Op-Ed page Christmas week, as well.) Given that food traditions are such a large part of how people celebrate the Nativity, it seemed to this regular reader and amateur chef that the coverage was just about right: No schmalz, just information useful to millions of Times readers who celebrate the holiday.
In the late 1990s, things started changing dramatically. The Food section began to include many more features about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, to the increasing exclusion of Christmas. (Nothing against Hanukkah; I’m just noting that the relative distribution of coverage was notably altered.) For the last several years, even on the Wednesday immediately prior to Christmas, mention of Christmas has been minimalized to the point of indifference. During Christmas week, the section now commonly focuses on Kwanzaa, as noted, along with cocktail ideas for New Year’s Eve the following week. As far as the Times is concerned, the Christmas tradition, rich with history, folklore, and memories is of little or no interest.
For many years, the paper also featured a front-page story about traditional Christmas preparations, using Martha Stewart’s books and television appearances on the subject as a starting point for a humorous look at cooking and decorating angst. Meanwhile, in the Metro or National sections, starting in the mid-1990’s, the paper began to feature at least one lengthy article about American “skeptics,” atheist groups, or whatever the people at the Ethical Culture Society were up to. This trend of prominently featuring the activities of non-or anti-Christians during the Christmas season has now morphed into annual coverage of yet another non-Christian celebration, namely the imaginary “Seinfeld” creation, Festivus.
Since “Seinfeld” may be the ultimate New York-centric TV series, one can understand a bit of good humor about the topic. But this has become an annual tradition – kind of like those touching memoirs in the Food or Op-Ed Sections and the Martha Stewart stories, all of which have vanished into the mists of Christmas Past. Recent coverage has included quite a bit of theorizing about why Festivus is getting to be so popular. There is no actual evidence that it is popular, but it gives the reporters something to write about while they are ignoring Christmas, which according to most polls is America’s most popular national holiday.
For example, Times reporter Allen Sarkin wrote, “The rise of Festivus…may mean that Americans are fed up with the commercialism of the December holidays and are yearning for something simpler…” (12/19/04). There’s more: “Infused as Festivus is with so much potential meaning, it is not far-fetched to imagine it as a permanent part of the American holiday firmament,” said Anthony F. Aveni, a professor of astronomy and anthropology at Colgate. “After all” he continued, “Kwanzaa was invented by an academic in California in the 1960’s… ”
These changes have come about gradually, but the shift from positive portrayal of the holiday to scorn and dismissal is undeniable. This should come as no surprise. In her online announcement, the new Executive Editor, Jill Abramson wrote this past June, “In my house growing up, The Times substituted for religion. If The Times said it, it was the absolute truth.” As a lifelong Times reader, I was taken aback by her stunning lack of respect for organized religion. I learned later that week that Ms. Abramson’s quote was pulled from the next day’s print story, and also removed from the website, hence the lack of comment. The removal of the comment suggests the paper’s editorial aversion to religion is something they wish to hide. If that is the case, they have been doing a lousy job of it for decades.
It’s long been apparent that the Times is on the secular side of the secular/traditional divide, but I believe Abramson’s quote discloses something more: An adversarial stance towards people of faith and their customs, grounded by a certain faith in the veracity of her newspaper. The question of idolatry aside, the Grey Lady’s aversion to Christmas explains, in part, why I am an ex-subscriber.
By Vincent Giandurco of Fairfield, Connecticut, a graduate of Catholic University active in New York and Connecticut politics.