The Corner

An Offbeat Christmas Recommendation, and an Excursus on Kitsch


A friend just e-mailed me about literary Christmases, and I recalled one that I found rather touching: In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by Ian Fleming, important plot developments take place against the backdrop of Christmas. The movie version — which was not widely liked at the time of its 1969 release, but has since come to be considered one of the best James Bond movies (in my own opinion, it’s in the top two or three) — makes less use of the Christmas aspect in the plot, but compensates with one of the most striking Christmas songs ever: “Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?” sung by Danish vocalist Nina van Pallandt and a children’s chorus. (Listen to it here.)


The first word that will spring to the mind of most people, on first hearing this song, will be “kitsch.” But remember Kundera’s definition: “Kitsch is the absolute denial of s**t, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.” And therefore, who among us can genuinely live without it? Kitsch is a terrible offense if — as in the East European totalitarianisms Kundera knew — it tries to suffocate all other forms of art. But as a type of art, a particular way of dealing with life, it has its place. So the question is not, Is it kitsch? It’s like the question that is sometimes asked in censorship or obscenity cases: Is it art? Anything about which this question can honestly be asked is, in fact, art, leaving the open question, Is it good/valuable/ennobling/useful/etc. art? Similarly, if you’re asking whether something is kitsch, you can be almost certain that it is kitsch. I concede that this song is kitsch, but insist that it’s one of the best kitsch works, a lovely song, and honi soit qui mal y pense.

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