All addictions draw on what is best in a person. If they did not, they would simply be boring character flaws. In recent weeks Donald Trump has acquired a 19ft-high Christmas tree and a gingerbread house that weighs 300lb. That is not so different from what an ordinary American in his position would do. When he was running for president, Trump promised, as conservatives often do, to make Christmas more central to the country’s culture, and urged using the expression ‘Merry Christmas’ in place of ‘Happy Holidays’. It is about the only thing he has ever been sentimental about. ‘The word Christmas…’ he sighed, sounding stricken and wholly sincere. ‘I love Christmas. I love Christmas. You go to stores now, you don’t see the word Christmas.’ Similarly, Bill Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots, is known for his icy taciturnity, even his surliness, at postgame press conferences. And yet when a journalist, cracking wise, asked him a few years ago if he had a favorite Christmas carol, Belichick was as sentimental as Trump. ‘Actually, I enjoy all of them,’ he said. ‘I really do. Pretty much whichever one comes on, it puts a smile on my face.’ If Americans are overdoing Christmas, it is not because they hold it in contempt but because they love it to death.
The country gets more Christmassy even as it gets less Christian. That is probably not an accident. Most of America’s Christmas traditions — with trees, stockings, fires, carols — were imported with the German immigration of the 19th century. Germans remain the largest ethnic group in the United States. After the German language and most of its folkways were driven out of American life during the first world war, Christmas became the main avenue through which German-American culture lived on. Its pleasures, as Americans understand them, are hard to distinguish from those of today’s faddish Teutonic concept, hygge: cosiness, family and making the best of bad weather. Christmas now seems like the opposite of the American way of life, as hygge seems a dangerous kind of anti-Americanism. For as long as the season lasts, Christmas supplies what Americans don’t have enough of in their lives. It is a counterculture.