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Reclaiming the Holidays

Nicholas Powers Dec 19, 2011

Black Friday, in a Wal-Mart store in Porter Ranch, Calif., Elizabeth Macias, 32, pepper-sprayed at least 20 other shoppers — including children — so she could snag half-price Xbox 360 video games. Merry Christmas, Wal-Mart shoppers.

On the morning of the same day, a 36-year-old unnamed Target employee in Palm Beach, Fla., was so exhausted from work that she accidentally drove her car into a canal. Target was one of hundreds of big box stores that opened their doors at midnight on Black Friday, with workers expected to clock in as early as 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving night. Happy holidays, Target employees.

Every holiday season America convulses in a spasm of consumer madness. Millions of people dash through malls, pushing and shoving to buy gifts on credit cards smoking with debt (the average amount of credit card debt is $6,513 per person, and this year the number of Black Friday shoppers who used their credit cards spiked from 16 to 27 percent). Fox News goes into hysterics about secularism. And after the buying, cooking, hosting and eating are over; we collapse, wiped out by the work as miles away bulldozers bury the leftover packaging, wrapping paper and unwanted gifts into landfills. This is Christmas.

Why do we this? What are we buying? On the surface, the holiday season— that magical time replete with the warmth of family and gifts — seems like it harkens back to a simpler time. And each time we purchase presents we’re trying to recreate that very image — we’re buying the experience of innocence.

The major holiday narratives — from The Christmas Carol and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! to the ritual of lying to kids about Santa Claus — revolve around reclaiming innocence or preserving it. Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch are moved by the selflessness of others to give away their stolen wealth. In both stories, the crucial scene is when they witness the very people they were trying to discourage and thwart celebrating pure communion with each other.

Yet before we mistake these scenes as radical moments of transformation, look again. In The Christmas Carol, lowly Bob Cratchit practices a form of class masochism by loyally working for Scrooge for years for a pittance. Cratchit only receives a Christmas turkey and a raise due to Scrooge’s guilt, not because he stood up to his boss or went on strike. Not exactly progressive values. In How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, the Who’s of Whoville are paragons of detachment. After the Grinch steals their presents they still circle the tree and sing. But what is missed is that they already bought their presents! Gift exchange could be completed in the absence of material goods because they always just signified an intangible ideal; yet they still had to buy the stuff to initiate the cycle of gifting. The Who’s of Whoville are not exactly above crass consumerism.

But the real point is that The Christmas Carol and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! use the scene of the removed gaze. Both Scrooge and the Grinch suffer from a corrosive cynicism that erodes their relationships with others. Removed from view, they spy on others (either in a dream or from a cave) and are blinded by the blazing light of love, despite their best efforts to quash any semblance of happiness.

And this unconditional giving is what we practice with our children. We provide them with gifts but tell them Santa brought it and watch from a removed gaze, experiencing giving without return. In that moment, we buy innocence back from our children.

But in the adult world, Christmas shopping takes a self-serving turn. In the stampeding shoppers we see the desire for innocence filtered through class anxiety — buying mid- to high-end commodities at reduced prices offers consumers both a jump in their social status and an increased dose of innocence, since the trappings of failure are never systemic but vigorously personalized.

And that is the joy of Christmas morning; you can buy innocence for less than nothing. But what if you didn’t hear cheery songs about Christ or see commercials advertising holiday sales? What if the holiday season was quiet? What would you do? It is hard to imagine because Christianity, along with the consumer ritual, have become so entwined with how we celebrate the holiday season. It is helpful to remember that Christmas wasn’t always about children and materialist consumption. Nor was it always about Christ. For thousands of years, the Winter Solstice was a time of rowdy, drunken, lascivious merriment — and it took centuries of empire to erode these roots.

THE HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS

During Christmas, Jesus is everywhere. Churches blaze with nativity scenes. If he existed, he most likely was born in the summer into the divided Judaic world of 1st century B.C. where anti-Hellenic Pharisees, wealthy Sadducees and the rebel Zealots vied for power. As an adult, he preached about forgiveness and an apocalypse that never came. Later, he kicked over the moneychangers’ tables in the temple and was killed for causing trouble. The oral tradition of retelling his story continued for decades after his death and slowly became scripture.

The tiny circle of Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah retroactively created his virgin birth. His nativity appears only in two of the four Gospels, first in Matthew (80-90) then Luke (75-100). Early Christianity was still under the sway of Judaism, as shown by the casting of Jesus as the new Moses in the Gospel of Matthew. As the religion grew, converted gentiles like Luke the Evangelist rewrote Jesus for a Hellenic world, and the Apostle Paul built a church on this myth. This image of a new world Messiah emerged and entered a crumbling Roman empire.

Preaching from the city squares, early apostles drew the poor and middle-class in with their promises of deliverance and salvation. And they faced the sword for it. As devout monotheists in an empire built on polytheism, they were often scapegoats. In July 64 a great fire raged through Rome. Emperor Nero blamed the Christians, and Roman historian Tacitus wrote how they were, “torn by dogs or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination.”

Over the centuries, Christianity went from an underground religion to a dominant force in the halls of power. In 312 Emperor Constantine gave credit to Christ for his victory in battle, and under him the church flourished. And it was Pope Julius I in 350 who set the date of Dec. 25 as the birthday of Jesus, which conveniently fell a couple days after the pagan Roman festival  of Saturnalia. People could keep to their old ways as long as they covered it with a new, Christian face.

Nearly 2,000 years later, we are stuck with an annual global holiday dedicated to a radical rabbi who wasn’t born on that day and preached asceticism and apocalypse.

THE PAGAN ROOTS OF CHRISTMAS

Beneath the snow-laced trees of Northwest Germany, swords clanged as men cut each other into red ribbons of meat. It was 772 and Emperor Charlemagne was on the war path. As he won battle after battle against pagan Saxons, crosses and churches sprung up in his wake. Christianity was the state religion and wherever empire went, it followed.

For champions of Christianity like Charlemange, Christmas served as a vehicle for bringing pagans into the fold. In the Germanic provinces, Winter Solstice was a ritual that celebrated life in the dead of winter. Yule logs were burned in hearths. Pine trees were decorated because of their evergreen quality. Animals were killed so as not to waste feed in the winter. Beer was drank. Merry-making broke out. Afterwards, tribes struggled to survive the freezing months of famine until spring.

Each element of Winter Solstice was transformed into a staple of Christmas. The pine tree became the Christmas tree. The slaughtered pig was transformed into the Christmas ham. From the beer-chugging and bawdy singing came caroling. But for centuries the pagan wildness survived. In the High Middle Ages, it was a time of debauched revelry. In 1377, King Richard of England killed 28 oxen and 300 sheep for a giant feast. Rowdy bands of carolers prowled the streets. Sex and gambling spilled outside into full view.

In the 16th century the Protestant Reformation cleaved Christianity and soon Puritans condemned Christmas as a Catholic trap for wayward souls. The Catholic Church tried to steer the festivities toward somber ritual but it didn’t work. Pro-Christmas riots exploded and for a week the English city of Canterbury was lit red by fire and fighting. In Colonial America the war over Christmas continued. Puritans fined anyone caught celebrating it five shillings, while elsewhere in New York and Pennsylvania German immigrants celebrated it enthusiastically.

After the American Revolution, English-tinged holidays like Christmas fell out of vogue. As if to show contempt for all things English, Congress even met and conducted business on Christmas Day. It wasn’t until tensions between America and Britain eased that the holiday began its ascent in America. In 1822 the poet Clement Moore wrote A Visit from St. Nicholas, more commonly known as ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, which popularized gift exchange. Harriet Beecher Stowe, famous for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, wrote A Christmas in New England in 1850, in which a character complains about the holiday’s crass commercialism. But it was Santa Claus — jolly red-cheeked and slinging gifts from his reindeer-led sleigh — that brought Christmas to an unprecedented level of popularity in the early 20th century.

Christmas became a federal holiday in 1870, but 141 years later it is again the site of cultural war. It’s a yuletide ritual for Fox News to monitor the “War on Christmas” or as they see it, the secularization of America’s Judeo-Christian identity. Conservative groups like the Catholic League and the American Family Association threaten boycotts against Wall-Mart and Target, respectively, unless they put front and center that this is about Christ — not Allah, or Moses, or Santa Claus — but Christ.

CHRISTMAS AND THE CAPITALIST CONVEYOR BELT

The global economy is a like a vast conveyor belt — and the great speedup comes at Christmas time. At the front of it, raw materials are drilled, mined, ripped and thrown on a belt that rolls into factories where Santa’s elves go to work. Most of them happen to be Chinese; they make pink Christmas trees, blinking lights and toys, toys, toys.

And nearly everything has bloody fingerprints on it. When we see Christmas commercials featuring jubilant songs and happy families unwrapping gifts, we are witnessing the whitewashing of the reality of production. This myth primes the pump of holiday spending, which accounts for a quarter of personal spending in the United States.

So Karl Marx was right. Behind the commodity fetish is a production hell. And then there’s the trash. At the end of the capitalist conveyor belt is a mountain range of garbage that grows and grows. Each year, Americans create 200 million tons of garbage.

Take, for instance, the conundrum of the Christmas tree. Want to be more environmentally conscious and buy a fake tree? In 2010, 13 million artificial trees were sold in the United States. Even if you keep that fake tree for the rest of your life, it will take thousands of years to decompose, and the polyvinyl chloride (aka PVC’s) used to make the tree release carcinogens into the atmosphere from the production line to the trash heap. What about a live tree? It takes 20 years to offset the carbon emissions of growing and transporting the tree, and of the 50 million trees purchased each holiday season, 30 million end up in landfills.

And what of the plastic wrapping materials involved in packaging all of the gifts that go under the tree? Some of it finds its way to the Pacific Ocean creating a 100 million ton island of plastic, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. As it slowly degrades, the plastic transforms into smaller particles of polymer, which are gulped down by fish that we catch and eat, filling our bodies with cancer seeds that sprout death.

Back on dry land, the holiday season also means that the pace of garbage production picks up by 25 percent — adding an extra million tons to the non-holiday average. The amount of greenhouse gasses also shoots up, due to an increase in travel. Christmas is a time when the death of the planet speeds up.

But this holiday season, there is a glimmer of hope. In spite of the commercials and consumerism and the myth of innocence, people are angrily camping out at Occupy sites and demanding work. They’re taking over foreclosed homes and questioning the sanctity of capitalism. What if, in addition to re-imagining our society as a whole, we created a new vision of the holidays, too? We could peel off the centuries of capitalism and Christianity that have perverted the original meaning of the Winter Solstice. We could drink, eat and wear antlers and make love in the forest. And we could remember that the sun is returning, a day at time, to its former glory — and so can we.