It’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times. That paraphrase from that other Dickens novel pretty much sums up Christmastime.
Christmas is full of contradictions, contrasts, conflict: some of the most dismal weather of the year vs. the demand to be jolly. The darkest month, the holiday lights. Death of the year but also the tilt at solstice toward rebirth. Secular vs. religious.
At its deepest level Christmas is inherently revolutionary. We think of our holidays as expressing our culture, but this one exposes its contradictions, its troubles.
Christmas is one those surprising oases, like national parks or medicare, in complete denial of the rest of our culture. It’s amazing, indispensable; and also stressful and frustrating. It can break your heart.
You may not be religious—you could be an atheist–and yet the Christ story is clear, the basic plotline repeated in all the familiar seasonal stories—”It’s a Wonderful Life,” Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol-”-:the better instinct of the human heart vs. the prevailing order of greed and emotional numbness. It always comes out the same way: in this season “God bless us every one” wins over “bah humbug” every time. Business as usual gets overthrown. Is there any other way to read those stories?
We love this story, its imagery and rituals deeply embedded in our culture. But what breaks your heart is that Christmas is a revolution which every year gets crushed. Scrooge vows to keep his newfound seasonal spirit all the rest of the year, not to go back to his money- grubbing ways. But not us, not many of our leaders, not the corporatocracy or the 1%. Not even the 99%, judging from the lack of coherent political pressure we put on our leaders.
Living with this failed revolution, in our society, in ourselves, is what makes it a difficult season. The war within us between two very different ways of living, two different spirits.
This year this fundamental strain is playing out in this paper with the debate over whether those who receive free turkey dinners should write proper thank-you notes before they get to eat. Christmas spirit demands that you truly believe and experience your fellow man to be fellow, your equal, and if he’s down and out, it’s not in any way his fault, any more than it was Christ’s fault to be down and out in Roman Palestine or Bob Cratchit’s in 19th century England.
In the revolutionary spirit of the season the question should not be whether those in need are enttitled to a turkey dinner (or to help from the Needy Fund or any of the several charities with their hands out this time of year appealing to our better nature). The deeper question is whether those of us at the giving end are entitled to be in that fortunate position.
The fundamental divide is between a self-congratulatory “I got mine,jack” and “there but for the grace of God go I,” which implies that if we have a better life than this one or that one, it’s not some quality we generated in a social vacuum, but within circumstances such as family background, education, opportunity.
I like to think that’s how Good King Wenceslas felt about it as he trudged through the snow on his mission to bring food, drink, and fuel to the peasant.
The Christmas revolution p lays out within each of us: with which attitude toward the misery around us do we walk around? From one point of view this country is doing just fine, with the wealthy getting a larger and larger share of the pie , as is only just, given the clear inequalities in talent and ambition, and devil take the hindmost.
From the other perspective, mass poverty, unemployment, declining prospects for millions can only be a result of a skewed and flawed economic system in need of much more systematic correction than afforded by seasonal charitable giving.
May the revolutionary spirit of the season bless us, every one.
[A re-run from Christmas of 2013}