I like Christmas – as someone who grew up secular-Christian within a dominantly white and protestant society, it’s always been the dominant holiday of the year. And it’s a good holiday for largely the same reasons its predecessor, Saturnalia, was a good pagan holiday – it revolves around food, drink, the exchange of gifts, meaningful rituals, time with family and friends, and time removed from the normal calendar which enables a kind of reflection absent during the rest of the year. Christmas isn’t just “Christmas” – it’s “Christmas Time”.
Now, I could go on at length about Christianity, and what’s wrong with it – but I don’t think it’s actually that important to understanding Christmas. Society has not been dominantly Christian in ideology since the protestant work ethic displaced charity as the dominant social force of religion, leaving room for capitalism to empty the Christian faith of any non-pagen meaning it might have had. What’s important about Christmas is not the religious undertones which we might think to be its origin, but the real social facts about the celebrations which actually take place. Even the “religious” celebrations, like midnight mass, have as their meaningful content people actually getting together, doing something together as a community. Of course, there is no need to be religious to participate in meaningful social events during the holidays – you could go to the lighting of a Christmas tree, or host your own holiday party.
I’ve never really understood why certain religious groups refuse to participate in Christmas – since Christmas is not a Christian holiday. Actually that isn’t fair – I do understand now: it has to do with deciding to not identify with dominant trends in society. Refusing to participate in Christmas is like refusing to use electricity, or refusing to vote, or refusing to pay one’s taxes. And that’s cool – there are lots of reasons to boycott mainstream society. But I think it’s actually disingenuous, or at best ignorant, to claim that one is doing it because one is “not Christian”.
Or, maybe it depends what we mean by “Christian”. If we understand Christianity to include lapsed Catholics and Protestants, or even better, to include the ideology of capitalism which emerges out of protestantism, then in a sense we are all Christians – even the Jews. But that’s not right either, there is a certain way of being on the inside and outside of protestant catholicism at the same time – maybe that’s where the Jewish relation to Christianity lies. Anyway – people can do what they want – if you want to ignore Christmas, if you refuse to feel the magic in the air around this time, that’s your business. Of course, I acknowledge that the reason I’m able to feel that has to do with my protestant upbringing – but that doesn’t mean anyone couldn’t feel it. Secular-Capitalist-post-protestantism is an religion open to anyone – that’s actually what characterizes it as a religion of the colonizer. Which gives another obvious reason why people might want to refuse to participate. But, I digress.
So – I like Christmas. I think it’s a decent celebration of what’s valuable about mainstream society, and it provides an opportunity to reflect on our individual places within that. But that’s also the problem with Christmas – it doesn’t tend towards reflection about the direction of our social values in general. And this is why this Christmas, I don’t want you to get me anything. I’ve benefited hugely from modern capitalist white-secular-protestant, post and neo-colonial society, and one place you can see that is to look at the Christmas gifts I’ve received every year of my life. And, I appreciate them – they’ve really enriched my time here. But, now, I can no longer simply accept my own position of privilege as neutral – I’ve found that I have to, in part, reject it – or at least reject its status as unquestionably valuable, true and justified. I find myself no longer able to believe in the social values of modern capitalism, or in the deeply hypocritical institutions which govern it. The reforms these institutions require are not superficial or tinkering, but radical – which means to the root- re-evaluations of how they function, their real (as oppose to represented) histories, and their impacts on people and the planet.
So, instead of buying presents that support capitalist relations of production, please consider directing capital towards flows which disintegrate, or at least mitigate, the destructive forces of the modern world system. I think the best thing you can do right now is make donations to wikileaks. I’m not going to provide a link to wikileaks, because any link I provide will go dead as soon as they are attacked again, but just go to google and search “wikileaks”, and you can make a bank transfer or credit card payment to support their work. I actually think wikileaks stands a good chance of causing a lot of discourse that sustains deep hypocrisy in current “democracies” to fail, and that’s a lot more meaningful than building one school somewhere. That said, there are good charities that really improve people’s lives without being paternalistic or superficial – like Partners in Health. PIH sets up organizations in areas it goes into which are handed over to the local population so they can continue to function in the long term, and so they become wholly integrated into local communities. There are also important political causes which use your money to do real work on crucial campaigns, like the Rainforest Action Network’s camaign against mountaintop removal, and the Indigenous Environmental Network’s campaigns against the tar-sands and other colonial resource projects.
If you have to buy gifts, I think you should think seriously about where that gift comes from. If you buy an Apple product (and remember – I sit here typing on an apple product), think about the Foxconn workers who’ve engaged in a campaign of voluntary suicide to protest unjust working conditions and wages. If you buy an appliance, or some clothing, think about where it was made – and think about who benefits and what institutional relations benefit from these purchases – I actually think it’s more important to work towards understanding those forces than it is to personally boycott them. Become a well-read, well researched consumer who understands the dynamics of capitalism, not so that you can personally extricate yourself from responsibility, but so that you can play a role – and most of those roles will be as educators – in bringing the destructive forces in this system down.
I actually think all this talk about gifts obscures what’s centrally relevant about Christmas – celebration, and spending time with family and friends. Spend your money on food and liquor for yourself and the ones you love – not on objects that look great under the tree but get lost in our oceans of stuff by early January. I think you’ll be happier for it.