*Photo Credit: AP

A mean looking fellow is standing on a crowded street corner with a bucket full of cheap plastic poles with flashing LEDs inside, I believe referred to as “laser swords.” In another bucket next to it are light-up snowflakes, which were clearly just “laser swords” with something loosely resembling a snowflake affixed to the end.

“How much for a snowflake,” I ask.

“Everything’s $10,” the middle-aged man bitterly replies in a tone reflecting the mood of someone who would much rather be anywhere else, preferably the bar.

I walk on.

I’m at the annual Light Up Night in downtown Pittsburgh, where a series of trees are lit up and a handful of plywood shops peddling overpriced trinkets are opened. Mostly, though, it’s thousands of people wandering aimlessly in a dense crowd trying to find the bathroom as young children’s crying produces a cacophony rivaling in volume only the live, painfully shrill rendition of Jingle Bells being blasted out of speakers.

Call me a cantankerous grinch, but I struggled to find anything remotely redeeming about the whole affair.

Maybe it was the crowds. Thousands of people aimlessly shuffling around, pulling their bored looking children around does not make for a very good time. I’ve found that very few things are interesting enough to warrant 10 minutes of pushing between people to travel 50 feet.

Maybe it was the rank commercialization and secularization of a religious holiday. Half the crowd is wearing a cheap Santa hat with “Xfinity by Comcast” emblazoned on the front as they wait in line to skate on The MassMutual Ice Rink after blowing $30 on a crappy bracelet from the Peoples Gas Holiday Market. Want to treat your family to some traditional roasted chestnuts and create some happy holiday memories for your child? That’ll be $8, please.

Maybe it’s the distinct lack of class, elegance, or nuance. At one point, a friend remarked about the number of truly unpleasant looking people there, and I immediately began noticing the same. This is not to say that people were necessarily physically ugly, but that they had put no effort into their appearance whatsoever. What is it about crowds that makes so many middle-aged men dress like they just rolled out of bed? Just because your flannel pajama pants have little reindeer on them does not mean it’s appropriate to wear them at a holiday festival.

Maybe it’s the lack of nuance. With the exception of the admittedly charming tree at the MassMutual Ice Rink™, the entire affair had all the charm and subtlety of a deranged man screaming “IT’S THE HOLIDAYS! IT’S THE HOLIDAYS! SEE IT?” in your face for several hours. It was as though the organizers took every holiday cliche and worked out how to present it in the most garish way possible.

Or maybe it was the sense one gets that the entire thing is just a manufactured experience lacking authenticity or any real effort. Slowly marching through the line for the Santas of every culture exhibit, I was treated to creepy sculptures of Santa-like characters from other cultures.

This lovely lady is — according to whoever was responsible for putting this together — the Italian conception of Santa. Notice her impossibly long arms, her eerily skeletal appearance, the fact that she is not in fact holding the cane, and the expression on her face that one might expect to find on an inflatable doll at a certain kind of disreputable establishment. Most charming, though, is that her hair appears to, in fact, be a repurposed mop sprinkled with glitter and haphazardly tossed on her head. Ah, that gets me in the spirit!

Above all, it felt forced. It was as though some committee composed entirely of neurotic, Christmas-obsessed mothers had done nothing but watch Christmas movies on Lifetime for a week and had developed some rigid perception of what a holiday celebration is supposed to look like, and then got paid off by a litany of corporate sponsors to put it together.

It is, I think, representative of what happens in a culture that tends to reduce tradition to a simple matter of going through the motions. Santa hats: check. Garish light displays: check. “Holiday” music: check.

But it’s mid-November, and the actual holiday itself is more than a month away. Am I supposed to be filled with excitement about Christmas when it’s mid-November? Am I expected to be focused on that for the next month and a half? Frankly, that sounds exhausting. In truth, though, I don’t think that I’m expected to do that. “The holidays” is an amorphous thing dragged out over a two month span and injected with large doses of artificial nonsense. The season is still loosely structured around Christmas, but it’s been robbed of any real cultural significance. It’s just a thing with some customs built around it that some people enjoy, some people dislike, and some are just indifferent to.

I found myself wondering what it was all for. Why do people come to this? Yes, the lights are pretty and the fireworks are fun to watch for a few minutes; but on the whole, the experience has a very shallow affect. Absent any deeper meaning, one begins to wonder what they’re celebrating. It’s amusing enough for many children who are more easily impressed by some fireworks and will happily celebrate the impending opportunity to get presents. For adults, though, it feels profoundly shallow.

In fact, I was struck by the lack of any apparent joy on people’s faces. Many wore expressions of bored curiosity, as though they were gazing upon something from the outside and could not quite grasp what it was all for. For all the LED lights, santa hats, and attempts at creating excitement, it’s hard not to feel as though it’s only obscuring a lack of something. Smoke, mirrors, and going through the motions is how many people celebrate “the holidays” today.

Through it all, though, there was one redeeming thing amidst the holiday faux-revelry. On the corner was an older man with a somewhat homeless appearance playing Christmas (I use that word carefully) music on an old saxophone. He didn’t play it particularly well, but it was authentic. He didn’t don a red hat, he wasn’t playing jingle bells, he wasn’t peddling anything, and he wasn’t bastardizing a holiday. In the face of a mass of people going through the motions, here was an individual.

Arnaud Armstrong is a Political Science major and a minor in History. Growing up in Allentown, Arnaud witnessed the consequences of progressive policies and found himself drawn to conservative alternatives to the status quo in America’s poor communities. After graduation, Arnaud hopes to apply his experience as a writer and an activist in a career in the conservative movement. Arnaud has been featured on Spotlight and has also been on other shows of ours as well.