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Christmas is America doing what it does

Perhaps if we celebrated this moment of our seasons in its actual meaning, rather than through an orgy of consumerism and false good cheer, the pain of the holidays would be lessened

MacLean Gander has taught English and journalism at Landmark College in Putney for more than 30 years, but the views expressed are entirely his own. For a number of years, he has worked as an investigative reporter and occasional columnist for The Commons; he also serves on the board of directors of Vermont Independent Media, publisher of this newspaper.

Guilford

This is such a happy time of year for some people and such a hard time for so many others — suicide and overdoses go up in this season. Christmas itself has become an orgy of consumerism, with nothing to do with any of its ancient roots — just America doing what it does.

If you have kids and don’t have money, it’s tough, and while these charity programs that provide presents to children who otherwise would not have them are laudable, they would not have to exist in a just society. “Pity would be no more/If we did not make somebody Poor,” wrote William Blake.

It is a time of friendship and family, conviviality and good cheer. But a lot of people in this nation are essentially alone, and the season accentuates how lonely being alone can be for a lot of folks.

Most people really don’t know how to be alone without being lonely, and loneliness runs a straight path to despair. If one is alone, it is very hard not to feel especially bad when everyone around you seems so happy.

It is this attempt at cheerfulness layered with lavish spending, parties, and the false communities we temporarily create which seems especially ironic in a savage kind of way.

Happy holidays! Merry Christmas!

Yeah, right. Tell me what’s happy right now in the world.

* * *

Christmas is a particularly classist holiday in the U.S., and all our consumer images remind a lot of people of what they do not have — a nice, warm house with Christmas lights and presents under the tree.

That is why so many people spend money that they really do not have to create a sort of mirage of the happiness they see in advertisements, and that is why the Christmas season is so essential to our country’s consumer economy.

It is also why so many people who don’t have much money work overtime this time of year, making candles in Kentucky before the tornado strikes, churning out products in the shipping warehouses of Amazon, taking on extra shifts for UPS and Fedex.

Of course, it is also a time when charitable giving from those who have to those who do not reaches its peak — every nonprofit organization makes much of its money right now. For people who make enough money to have tax deductions for charity, getting in the donations before Jan. 1 is important.

That’s one way not to feel guilty, and a lot of folks give to charities in lieu of gifts, or at least that is what I do.

But there is nothing good to feel about the need for charity, which is like a Band-Aid on a suppurating wound.

* * *

I don’t mean to sound like the Grinch. I believe that people should find joy wherever they can find it, and I am happy for the happy families for whom this is a time of joy.

But it is a terribly difficult time for a lot of people, one that is made more terrible by the wounding contrast between their own lives and the joyful lives that other people have.

Christmas is a Christian holiday, and Christianity is a syncretized religion that gathered from earlier traditions and exists mainly because of the political power the church developed during the Roman empire, when it became the state religion.

The history of Christianity as an institution is primarily a history of warfare and genocide, from the Crusades to its vicious imposition on indigenous peoples as they were conquered.

The actual holiday as we practice it is less than 200 years old and owes mainly to sociocultural factors — our American version mainly originates from the model established by the upper class in the Victorian period of the British Empire.

* * *

Underlying it, of course, is something far more solemn and holy: the turning of the cycle of the sun back toward the light. Death and renewal. It is a sacred moment in the Earth’s orbit, and it should be marked.

On Dec. 21, the year’s cycle will end, and the light will begin its slow return. It is a moment when death and life have their hands joined, worthy of deep ritual and contemplation.

Perhaps if we celebrated this moment of our seasons in its actual meaning, rather than through an orgy of consumerism and false good cheer, the pain of the holidays would be lessened for those who experience it as despair rather than joy.

It won’t happen, of course. The power of our consumer culture and the cultural transmission we all share in and are prey to won’t be overcome until our society breaks apart, which it will eventually, as societies always do.

* * *

Two years ago, to avoid Christmas, my wife and I went to Salem in Massachusetts to see where the young women were hanged by the Christian doctrine that judged them as witches. We were alone there together, and we wandered the historic sites. There was no cause for celebration.

This year, I have decided simply to opt out. I am resigning from Christmas.

I have many things to celebrate in the life I have lived, and many things to mourn. This year I plan simply to contemplate, to celebrate, and mourn, and I will seek to open my heart to the return of the light and the coming year.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #644 (Wednesday, December 22, 2021). This story appeared on page B1.

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