Celebration of Christmas has subversive, radical subtext
Opinion Column: The Champagne Socialist
I was scrolling though my Tumblr the other day, yet I can’t remember which day exactly because I’m on Tumblr nearly every day, to be honest. Right after Halloween, I was noticing all these memes making fun of the holiday rhythms of U.S. popular culture. It seems like we reach a holiday high at Halloween, and then we fall back into a lull of sorts until the Christmas season, only punctuated by engorging ourselves on Thanksgiving.
Now, let me be clear. Thanksgiving has its place, sure. All the holidays do. It’s a good thing to stop our busy, stressful lives under the tyranny of capitalism and to just have fun for fun’s sake. Holidays are a collective “screw it.” Eat that whole quart of mashed potatoes, dress like a version of a vampire from that one movie, dye your eyebrows green. But to me, Christmas is a much more serious and contemplative holiday than all of the other holidays in our mainstream, Christian-dominated U.S. culture. Speaking as a young socialist, Christmas is surely the most politically subversive of all of our holidays.
The story of Christmas is all about God emptying Himself. The divestment of Himself of His own power to become a crying, helpless, vulnerable newborn baby, born in a manger to two refugees fleeing from Herod’s murderous tyranny, surrounded only by hay and animals. Here was born the "Son of God." Christmas makes a mockery of all of the other Sons and Daughters of (Insert Deity Here) that existed in fact and legend at the time. There was Horus, Mithras, Dionysus, Krishna and many others. Most relevant of all was Caesar Augustus, emperor of Rome, the ruler of one of the world’s most powerful empires who was believed to be semi-divine. Yet Christians get a baby.
Christmas totally subverts the logic of what we tend to imagine power to look like. We imagine that might makes right, that something as simple as a person’s bluster and billions could make America great again. We imagine God in this way as well. We imagine that God is some old man in the sky, a being amongst other beings, just more powerful, who flings punishments and favors from above. Christmas denies this. It says that if you want to know anything about God, you first look for it in the face of a newborn, crying out for love, vulnerable, totally helpless and innocent.
Detractors from my argument may indeed look at kitschy songs, clay-animation movies of Rudolph the Reindeer, or jolly Old St. Nick and imagine just where exactly I get off. The marriage of the sacred and the profane is millennia-old in the Christian tradition. Indeed, Christmas was originally a mixture of pagan revelry and Christian piety. As Rutgers professor T.J. Jackson Lears noted in a New Republic essay on the holiday, early U.S. colonists fervently celebrated Christmas, although white elites would be a bit shaken at the sight of slaves and poor whites actually enjoying themselves for the day.
The Russian scholar Mikhail Bakhtin once analyzed the pageantry and ritual of Carnival in medieval Europe, seeing that the prodigality of such cultural events contained a politically subversive kernel. This is the “screw it” that I described earlier that is the common thread running through any other holiday. Buy that video game, and shout those carols from the rooftops. Censorious Calvinists may disagree, but screw it and just treat yourself!
The jaded consumers that accompany every Dec. 25 aren’t new: They’re the most recent seekers of enchantment in a world supposedly drowned in commercialized disenchantment. The search for “the meaning of Christmas” may continue so long as people continually fail to see divinity in matter itself. The dualism they subconsciously hold is heretical. If God holds all things in being, why feel so cynical every time you get a gift?
American Christmas is a massive, bawdy, entirely kitschy and carnivalesque marriage of the sacred and the profane. And I love it. For those scoffing at the profane side of Christmas, I urge you not to feel disenchanted. For those who decry Christmas as capitalism gone wrong, I maintain that Christmas is the calendar’s most politically radical holiday. Come the midnight marking Thanksgiving’s end, I’ll have the Sufjan Stevens Christmas album on blast for the rest of December.
José Sanchez is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in history with a minor in political science. His column, “The Champagne Socialist,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.