I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness. My family left the religion shortly before I turned 18. That’s a fun fact I bust out once a year to explain why Christmas feels unnatural to me.
I’m not saying that to invoke pity or to piss you off. It’s simply the way I am. Christmas just isn’t my jam. As per the rules of our faith, my family didn’t celebrate any of what the Witnesses called the “pagan” holidays until I was a legal adult, so I don’t have a raft of down-home sentimental winter holiday remembrances to draw on. I never knew the wonderment, the anticipation or the pie-eyed greed of a Great American Christmas until I was old enough to know just how much it costs.
But I did have Disneyland.
My parents, who now celebrate Christmas with my sister and me, would take us to Disneyland every year during the holidays. They could do this because, back in the ’80s and early ’90s, Disneyland’s Christmas was somewhat muted in tone. Back then, they observed the holiday with a 60-foot-tall tree and by hanging garland on Main Street USA, plus a holiday parade and candlelight processional that were easy enough to miss. Once you got past the big tree, there was little evidence of Christmas at Disneyland at all.
But as we kids used to say as we smoked behind the Kingdom Hall, you can’t keep a good pagan holiday down. Today, Christmas at Disneyland is a major big deal. The decorations have spread past Main Street, to New Orleans Square, to Frontierland and to the adjacent Disney California Adventure Park. Holiday music is piped in over hidden speakers. And three of my favorite rides—the Jungle Cruise, It’s a Small World and, most regrettably, the Haunted Mansion—receive obnoxious holiday overlays that begin before Halloween and continue through the first of January. There’s a season of joy going on, goddammit, and Disney is gonna make sure you know it.
Anyway, I’ll go out on a limb here and say that all those childhood Disneyland trips instilled in me a love of tourist-friendly built environments, one which Las Vegas continues to satiate year after year just by being itself. I can’t get enough of the phony spaces most locals generally avoid. I visit the Forum Shops and Miracle Mile to turn my brain off—to get that mid-1980s Disneyland/Epcot Center feeling. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a trompe l’oeil ceiling, and I appreciate that these places are always what they are, no matter the time of year.
That’s all of Las Vegas, really. Even on December 25, it’s possible to drink at the Wynn and pretend that it’s July. This town has its annual holiday traditions—the Holiday Cactus Lighting at Ethel M, the Christmas display in the Bellagio Conservatory, the ice rink at the Cosmopolitan—but they’re all relatively self-contained. They don’t try to get in your face. If you’re not in the mood to look at holiday stuff, you can simply avoid them.
In fact, I’ll venture to say that Las Vegas is more sensitive to the needs of a Christmas-conflicted soul than Disneyland ever was. Go out on the Strip and look around: The holiday décor is subtle enough as to barely exist. No one bothers to hang Christmas lights on the Flamingo or to stick green-and-red lights under the Bellagio fountains, because there’s no point in throwing lights and tinsel on a pagan symbol that’s already bright enough as to be visible from space.
Las Vegas wants everybody who comes here to be happy, even if it means scaling back our natural, patriotic urge to celebrate the living crap out of the holidays. Although I know that there are no-duh practical reasons that we barely decorate the Strip at Christmastime, I choose to believe it’s because Las Vegas is really Disneyland as it was: It tries to be all things to all people, even if those people follow some weird-assed religion. As long as their credit holds, we’re good.
I know this is too good to last. It’s probably only a matter of time before they slap lights on top of lights and cover the Strip in fake snow, as they now do at Town Square … and at Disneyland every night of the holiday season. (Don’t eat the falling snow at Disneyland; it’s actually soap bubbles.) But I’d like to relish these last few moments of Vegas treating Christmas as Disneyland once did: as something you get as a bonus when you pay a wintertime visit. I like Christmas OK, but I’d like to keep it in the background, as I always have. Vegas still enables me to do that.
I celebrate Christmas now, by the way. I buy the gifts; I tolerate the songs; I put up the dead tree. But frankly, I’d rather spend December 25 on Space Mountain, or getting drunk at Caesars Palace. That’s not the lapsed Jehovah’s Witness in me doing the talking. It’s the longtime Las Vegan, who’s spoiled by a place that ignores both the clock and calendar. Christmas-wise, this truly is the happiest place on Earth.