The undeniably progressive politics of Christmas

At this Christmas time, I’m reprinting a column from the past because it seems even more pertinent now than five years ago when it first appeared:

The Politics of Christmas

Christmas has the reputation of being apolitical, above the fray. But in fact it wears its politics on its (fur trimmed red) sleeve.

Dickens’ beloved “A Christmas Carol” pretty well lays it out. Scrooge loses his m iserly ways and in the p rocess learns that those he took to be his inferiors really aren’t. Those less successful at capitalism, the good-natured nephew or Bob Cratchit—you can sort of see that neither is likely to make it big in the business world—have attractive attributes that make them very successful as father, husband, fellow human.

In other words, “Peace on earth, good will toward men” (by which in the old days was meant women too, we are assured, and perhaps even children)–not grudgingly but because we all deserve it.

That’s Christmas spirit. We encountered a very different sort of spirit recently in candidate Romney’s Scrooge- like attitude toward the half of the population who depend on entitlements. He wasn’t saying exactly that the 47% should be allowed to die of hunger, but clearly by expecting some help from government a person earns the man’s contempt. Romney’s lack of good will toward men may have cost him the election.

As we know from letters to our own paper, wealthy Republicans are not the only ones who feel this way. A lot of us like to think that if we achieved some success, some comfort in life we get to take credit. Sure we are all in some sense equal, as the joke goes, but some of us are more equal than others.

The earliest New Englanders, the puritans, believed that a reliable way of telling if you were likely to find a place in heaven was whether God has blessed you with financial success here below.

Christmas would seem to correct all such smug self-congratulations.

In fact Christmas is totally political and only on one side. All the stories—“A Christmas Carol,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Prancer,” the bible story itself– are the same story. It would seem there’s only one meaning to Christmas spirit, that we are all in some important sense equally deserving.

Christmas has a very clear opinion about the proper role of government in this time of fiscal cliff, tax rates, threatened entitlements. Romney may see it as an indictment of a “welfare state” that half of us are contemptible consumers of entitlements. Christmas says that if such a large percentage of us are hungry, homeless, frightened or otherwise miserable in this season; if half of us fall short and too often the Scrooges or Mr. Potters make out like bandits, it is an indictment of the field of struggle, something wrong with the “game”. We need our government to do all it can to correct capitalism’s often unreliable judgment and compensation of human worth. Which means only that it does have to be our government.

Christmas only tells it one way. Christmas is zealously progressive, on the side of people vs. the bosses, on the side of the homeless, the dispossessed. On the side of more equal distribution of wealth. It takes a dim view of what the successful pursuit of capitalist aims often does to the human spirit. Christmas is reformative, even revolutionary, in spirit.

Is there any other way of telling (or reading) the Christmas story?


I’ve made this case for the progressive politics of Christmas in one form or another for many years and the fact is, I’ve never I’ve never had a dissenting email. No one has ever written to the paper or to me personally offering a counter-reading of Christmas spirit, insisting o n Mr. Potter’s or the pre-enlightenment Scrooge’s side of the story. Perhaps there’s hope in that.

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