Archive for November 30th, 2008

The Anti-Christmas

There is a weird sort of anomaly in the US system of holidays.  Thanksgiving, a day where families are to come together and express thanks about the good in their lives, begins the season leading up to Christmas day.  On that day Christians celebrate the birth of their messiah, Jesus Christ, while non-Christians share in the joy by celebrating the values that underlie the teachings of Jesus — love for others, principles like the meek will be strong, love your enemy as yourself, give unto others, do not desire wealth but focus on the spirit, be in this world not of it, etc.  For many of us who do not consider ourselves Christian the teachings of Jesus are nonetheless powerful and worthy of honor.  I have no problem wishing people “merry Christmas” and focusing on the ideals of love, good will, and joy, even as Christians focus on the birth of their spiritual founder.

Yet on the very day after the Christmas season begins Americans celebrate Anti-Christmas.  That is the Friday after Thanksgiving which this year was appropriately referred to as “Black Friday” (perhaps that isn’t a new label, but I can’t recall hearing it before this year).  On that day Americans give in to lustful greed and crass materialism, descending on stores and shopping malls in the wee hours of the morning to try to get the best deal possible.   Not everyone who shops early is motivated by lustful greed to be sure; many are simply trying to get a good deal.  Still, the day has come to symbolize people being pushed and tussled as they fight for a few remaining Wii games or the latest craze.

Symbolic of this was the death of a 34 year old Walmart employee in New York state who had the unfortunate job of opening the doors to the store at 5:00 AM.   Over 2000 people had gathered, beginning at 9:00 PM the night before, in order to try to get the best deals.  When he started to open the door a stempede ensued, trampling the man and sending others, including a woman eight months pregnant, to the hospital.   The doors themselves were damaged.  The crowd, however, presumably got some good deals on toys and electronics.

While most of the country was fixated on the on going crisis in India, where terrorists took over some top class hotels, I couldn’t get the Walmart death out of my mind.  What does this say about our culture?  Every year there are stories like this, and even though one could argue that this was one isolated incident, the pushing, shoving and frantic consumerism it represents gets reported from all over.

I refuse to go shopping on the Friday after Thanksgiving, but people who were at the local Walmart here report that while traffic was bumper to bumper entering the parking lot near 5:00 AM, it was pretty orderly and people were generally not pushy or unfriendly.  I heard of people grabbing items (e.g., one case where after a woman got an employee to open the door for a laptop computer, someone reached in and grabbed it before she could — but that was OK, there was another one) and the like, and I suspect that’s what it was like most places.    So I’m not saying the greed and crass materialism is universal on Anti-Christmas any more than true love, good will and generosity are universal on December 25th.  Rather the two holidays symbolize two aspects of our culture: the crass, greedy, selfish materialist side, and the loving, generous, joyful spiritual side.

The Anti-Christmas of “black Friday” represents that part of the Christmas season which makes it a season of high stress, as people feel compelled to go to various Christmas parties, have lists of gifts to buy, and worry about getting out Christmas cards and decorating their house to impress others.  It is that part of the Christmas season which leads to high post-Christmas suicide rates, as the fake excitement, color, and mystique of the holidays give way to the grudgery of the ordinary every day set of problems.  The closeness of family and friends gives way to the alienation of the individual in a materialist rat race.   The Anti-Christmas is a reverse mirror image the good will of Christmas; rather than the meek shall inherit the earth, the aggressive will get the best deals.  Rather than generosity to the poor and giving to those who are needy, it’s about profits and the bottom line.   We learn early that while the spirit of Christmas is nice, the presents are what matters.

This juxtaposition between Christmas and Anti-Christmas is symbolic of a kind of cultural schizophrenia, where we veer from wanting the virtuous but cannot resist the base.   Much like how we embrace the evil and destruction of warfare in the name of freedom and human rights, we end up at cross purposes with ourselves as a culture, promoting values rhetorically that we quietly undermine with our actions.   If these were starkly different we’d be able to see and manage the contradiction better.  But Anti-Christmas is tied with Christmas in an intricate and hard to untangle manner.   The same is true with our wars (always fought with an honorable cause, hiding the horror they unleash), our economics (promoting a supposed ‘free market’ that creates a massive gap between the rich and the poor), our faithful folk (believing strongly in a religion of love and tolerance while condemning and sometimes hating those whose morals, religious beliefs or lifestyles are different) and our secular folk (condemning and mocking religion without realizing that atheism and secular approaches to reality rely just as much on a leap of faith concerning things about this world we do not know).

Moreover, since the real world is not black and white but shades of grey, the issues get blurry.  War may be evil, the rhetoric of freedom may often be overstated, but sometimes war may be necessary, sometimes violence is required to defend.    The person in line on Black Friday to get a special 5:00 AM deal may be trying to buy her sick daughter a game she can only afford if she sacrifices her own goods, and is able to get the best deal possible.  Symbolically the extremes and contradictions are clear; practically they merge together with complexity and ambiguity.

Perhaps the only way to deal with all of this is a kind of balancing act.  We in the west like our dualisms, but there is no reason to think that things like “Christmas” and “Anti-Christmas” are really stark opposites.  In fact, it could be that attributes of human personality can express themselves in ways that look dualistic, but are actually far more complex.    Would a non-materialist purely spiritual Christmas, whether worshipping the birth of Jesus or for non-Christians the ideals of love, good will and generousity really work?  Would that really be superior?  Probably not.   Even concepts like “good” and “evil” represent a kind of artificial dualism. Selfishness, anger, and envy are not always misplaced emotions; sometimes they may be necessary in particular contexts.  I recall when I read First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung, who survived the Cambodian genocide as a child, I was intrigued by how at times hate and anger helped her survive.  In those circumstances, they were necessary.  Just as self-love is necessary before one can truly love others, selfishness is necessary before one can truly be generous.

So Anti-Christmas may be a misnomer.  The ideals of Christmas are beautiful, but in the abstract they have no meaning.  They are possible only in so far as they reflect an ability to control our human nature and act ethically, not denying our material, selfish, and competitive side, but reigning it in with a sense of purpose and perspective.    There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the post-Thanksgiving sales, only in letting the desire for a bargain cause one to see others as mere obstacles in the way of that great deal, pushing, shoving, and even trampling other humans.  Keep perspective — the ideals of the season balance the desire for material comfort.   We don’t need to strive for perfection, only a workable balance.   Now, let’s enjoy the holiday season!