Sixteenth Day of Christmas: A kitschy little Christmas

The holidays are rife with kitsch, so much so that it’s sometimes hard to tell where the holidays begin and the inflatable reindeer ends. I recognize that kitsch is not a pretty or festive word. It’s not something you’d want engraved on a headstone or spoken at an important event with society types milling about. (Such events do happen, right? I assume they do and I merely haven’t been invited to them because the people organizing the fête know there’s a good chance I’d show up wearing a plastic bunny ring I pulled off a Von’s cupcake. Yup, I’m definitely full of the kitsch spirit!)

New Times celebrated the spirit of kitsch in our 2010 Holiday Guide with an exploration of all things fake (trees, fires, etc.), inflatable (reindeer, Santas, and, well, other things), and tacky. Rather than over-share–which would be tacky, right?–I’ve opted to share just three things from this issue: the cover featuring the most fabulous turkey headdress I’ve ever seen, an introduction explaining kitsch (which I will post the text to as well because otherwise the text is not searchable, and an account of a New Year’s Eve done very well, or perhaps very wrong (by Nick Powell).

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Intro text (by yours truly):

What do an inflatable Santa, a hand- knit sweater with prancing reindeer, and a photo of a smiling family garbed in matching denim and perched in a huddle on their front doorstep have in common? They’re mainstays of the kitsch carnival that comes to town in early November, rifles through your fridge, polishes off the last of the turkey, belches loudly, and skips town after the last of the New Year’s champagne has been drunk.

What’s kitsch, you ask? In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera describes kitsch as “a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it does not exist.” This aesthetic ideal is embodied by Communist May Day celebrations that mandate uniformity and collective cheer amongst participants. In his pages-long expostulation on the tiny, offensive word, Kundera transforms it into an enemy; an “image of home, all peace, quiet, and harmony, and ruled by a loving mother and wise father;” and, at last, “an integral part of the human condition.”

This is not to suggest inflatable Santas are an integral aspect of the human condition, or evil; we’ll save those arguments for other writers in other years.

But how to distinguish kitsch from non-kitsch: This is the question. Most frequently, the word—which originated in German art markets in the 1860s and 1870s—is associated with the sentimental, vulgar, pretentious, or crass. Which hasn’t stopped any number of magazines, websites, and shops from claiming the word the better to market their wares.Which leads to yet another kitsch conundrum.

Can kitsch be ironic? Self-aware? And what do Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza, and New Year’s have to do with any of this?

In much the same manner that kitsch is, by definition, not terribly fashionable, the holidays have collectively established a reputation for themselves as somehow crude. Hovering around a television set—backs to the carcass, mere minutes recovered from the feast—the family establishes itself as a unit. The family glories in its uniformity, the immensity of its appetites, its propensity for good cheer, its red-cheeked figures masquerading as Elvis Presley and Little Bo Peep. There’s an undeniably grotesque element to the holidays, an undercurrent of kitsch that even the classiest of celebrants cannot deny.

But the magic of the holidays is such that we revel in it. We don the hand-knit sweater. And accessorize with a pair of plastic snowman earrings. We load our trees—real and faux—with baubles. Feeling secure in the knowledge that what we are doing is right—culturally, socially, and morally. It is for the good of the family, if not the neighborhood, nation, and entire world, that we celebrate.

And we reconcile ourselves to kitsch’s negative connotations because it also carries the implicit promise of home and comfort. Nothing is safer than kitsch. It can never really go out of style because it was never really in style.

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“Welcome to 2011!: Maybe now’s a good time to clean up your act” by former New Times staff writer Nick Powell who ditched us for Oregon where it apparently snows, which sounds awesome:

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