I was recently at a tree lighting ceremony in Rancho Cucamonga’s excellent Victoria Gardens. Now, as a kid in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I can’t shake my love of malls. However, as an anti-capitalist, I am often conflicted when at one. I tend toward the smaller, privately-owned shops or local art display storefronts. I learned of the Victoria Gardens tree lighting at my recently discovered new favorite shop, Dreamland Arts + Community Center. The shop has slots for Inland Empire local artists to sell and display their work, and my family and we did all of our holiday shopping there. After spending about an hour in Dreamland letting the kids play the free games and draw with a truly lovely artist in attendance, we stepped out for the tree lighting ceremony. Pressing ourselves into a huge crowd gathered around a small stage surrounded by shops, we kept as close an eye as possible for the ceremony to begin.
My son is at that weird age where he’s too heavy to go on shoulders, but too short to stand on his own. At different times, I asked him to go to the front, but he was pushed back out by some adult. Aside from the obvious problem of an adult pushing a 7-year-old out of the way to get a better view, I was genuinely shocked that at a Christmas event, no one made room for him to be able to see the performance and Santa Claus. So, we did our best to hoist him until our arms gave out. This was disheartening, but it wasn’t the life-altering disillusionment that came next (my son, with his heart of gold, said he didn’t mind not seeing the performance or Santa, that he just wanted to see the tree light up).
Before the arrival of Santa and the tree lighting, a trio of singers were belting out Christmas classics on stage; beside them was a woman dressed as a Christmas Tree (why?) and a Frosty the Snowman character. Additionally, two stilt-walkers danced about to the music. So, nine people were dancing, singing, and looking a little ridiculous for the sake of Christmas spirit. At the conclusion of every song, there was a break for applause. Before I continue, I will say that this was a crowd of HUNDREDS of people packed in between Claire’s and a pop-up See’s shop in the center of Victoria Gardens. In this group of hundreds of people all gathered to enjoy the official welcome to the holiday season, the applause for the performers was appalling. I think I was maybe one of maybe 25 people in the gathered crowd who clapped for the performers at the conclusion to their songs. This is my point of disillusionment.
If you’ve seen my previous blogs, you know that I love the holiday season. I am not a Christian, I do not believe in Jesus, and I have no particular interest in the supposed religious “reason for the season” crap hastily applied to a pagan holiday to convert heathens hundreds of years ago. But, I REALLY love Christmas. I am a Christmas movie fanatic, I own 15 Christmas shirts, 5 pairs of Christmas socks, and 2 pairs of Christmas leggings. I decorate every room in my house, including the bathrooms! I genuinely believe that I met the real Santa when I was a kid (check out this blog post if you want to know more about that). I know why Christmas is now this secular culmination of American traditions, which I will go into. However, my core belief is very Hallmark movie channel or Charles Dickens: Kindness is the reason for the season. Yes, this hearkens back to pagan ideology that Yule is a time of rebirth and changing of the ways. I am certain that Dickens also knew of these associations, despite being a Christian. Scrooge changes his ways of unkindness to save his immortal soul from eternal despair weighted heavily down by his greed. And this is what I believe to be the foundation of our modern, secular holiday.
The idea behind “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” does not draw upon images of Black Friday holiday sales or getting wasted at the office Christmas party. Nobody looks back at the open bar hangovers they had in countless December get-togethers and thinks “that was the most magical Christmas I’ve ever had.” If they do, man, I really hope they read on. The notion of Christmas being a wonderful time comes from love. It comes from laughter with family/friends/found family, not the great deal they got on a 85" TV they got that year. Every Christmas romance, comedy or rom-com leans back to the restorative power of Christmas spirit and the happiness it generates. If we can agree on nothing else, we can all agree that it is the narrative that is the most appealing about the holiday season, with or without the “Christmas” name. The light in darkness of Hanukkah or Diwali, the unity of Kwanzaa, or the renewal of Yule and Christmas all focus on interpersonal connection and the importance of these linkages. That is what makes it a wonderful time: connection, and the kindness to ourselves and others to set aside difference and bond. This is my understanding of Christmas.
Futilely attempting to hold my son above my head because no one would let him in wasn’t as sad as less than 10% of the assembled crowd not even cheering. Anyone putting out vast amounts of emotional durability to perform in front of a crowd deserves to be applauded. However, it is merely an insult to not do this whenever someone performs for any reason. It is genuinely injurious to me to not applaud Christmas performers. I have struggled with this feeling for a couple of weeks (don’t ask me why they did a Christmas tree lighting in early November, I have no idea). It sincerely assaulted my long-held belief that Christmastime is understood to be one of connection and kindness. I’ve been really thinking on why so many would gather to watch the tree lighting, only to stand unaffectedly observing the festivities. The holiday season is, by its very nature, intensely anti-capitalist, but, somehow, it has become a commodity.
In Das Kapital, Karl Marx states: “A commodity is…an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another.” The want of Christmastime (and the larger umbrella of the holiday season) is to be kind and to receive kindness. Our wish to show kindness found an easy route in gift-giving, a sort of spin-off of noblesse oblige. Following A Christmas Carol, charity and Christmastime became linked, however, the tradition of gift-giving is fairly universal among the celebrated holidays in December. This is a tradition with roots as far back as Scandinavian pagans, when Odin would deliver runes at Yuletide. It’s a simple concept: you wish to do good for another, you look to your closest circle, and show affection for them with a gift. In this sense, the commodity is the physical representation of the human want of happiness — both given and received. The physical commodity is known here as “The Gift,” but can be expanded to include as many gifts as it is deemed necessary to secure that satisfaction of happiness.
Still, as most things, this capitalist dystopia which we all seem irrevocably mired in, has mutated and bastardized The Gift. When once we bought gifts out of love, those who benefitted from our desire to give and receive kindness made that goal more difficult to obtain. Using the schema of Mary, the ultimate vision of a woman as both mother and virgin, Santa Claus is the unobtainable object that all must aspire to. As an endlessly generous and never self-important figure, kindness cannot be attained without the same level of commitment. This works wonders for the capitalist machinations, since you must now provide happiness to every single person you’ve ever met to be able to match wits with Santa. It is not enough to buy a present for your child or a valued friend, you are now tasked with the production of gifts for all. And so, the Job of Christmas has begun.
In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno wrote that “Even during their leisure time, consumers must orient themselves according to the unity of production.” The expected production during the holidays, outside of paid or unpaid labor, is cloaked in the human desire to attain generosity and the promised peace on Earth good will toward all that Dickens defined as possible. The orientation of this production is simplified into The Gift. However, with the ever-expanding global culture and interconnectedness of the internet, your social sphere goes from a couple dozen people to nearly hundreds. If the prevailing idea is that happiness cannot be attained without Santa-like generosity, then you are personally responsible for The Gift to be bestowed upon these people. However, we all know that this is not an achievable goal.
The frustration created by this commodification of The Gift, and its inaccessibility, leads toward generalization or detachment. I know this to be true because how many years have I put myself in debt or fretted over the perfect gift for my loved ones? Most of my adult years, I’d say. I wish to be perceived as kind. I make it a personal goal to be as generous as possible during the holidays(“personal goals” are another capitalist trick of eliciting free labor from an already overworked populace). I am tired and broke by the end, so despite my toiling, I have not achieved a Hallmark-style happiness and sense of spiritual rest that is intended to be the original outcome of Christmas. So, much like Adorno & Horkheimer’s mass produced culture model, a microcosm of that culture is overlaid to the holiday. Instead of achieving the desired goal, because it is unachievable, we lean into “tradition.” However, there are standardized traditions.
Every year, like millions of San Diegans before and after me, I watched the tree lighting at Balboa Park. This was what I defined as “a tradition.” I heard of others giving Christmas pajamas on Christmas Eve, so I started doing that with my kids. It is our tradition, as it is for countless others. A standardized tradition, like art, has fallen from the emotional intention and become only a part of the machination associated with Christmas. So, I can’t give a gift to every person in the world, I watch Hallmark movies (the worst kind of delicious mass market dribble), and drink hot chocolate, and go to tree lightings. The intended accumulation of these events is to either overwork myself so by the time I reach Boxing Day I get the emotional purge of exhaustion, OR it is to cast a sort of capitalist spell which will ultimately culminate to happiness. Hilariously enough, happiness and kindness are not goals, they are readily accessible at all times — shhh don’t tell anyone, says capitalism.
In this exhausting performance of Christmas production where people shop, eat, see people they don’t like, watch Rudolph and Frosty and dress like a talking Christmas tree (hey, no judgment if you love it), people hope to achieve happiness and a feeling of peace. Unfortunately, the capitalist machine has no end, and there is no release so you say: “next year will be better.” With this story of constant defeat at the simple goal of kindness, it becomes tiring to try and be kind. Adding propagandized separative politics, and kindness must only be reserved for those who are part of us, not them. You have no idea who “they” are, so go off a summary judgment only.
Let’s do a thought experiment: the guiding principle is that kindness cannot be given to someone who is rude. A white seemingly woman person pushing her 7-year-old to the front of the line, for instance, is rude. You don’t know this woman, just that she seems to feel her child deserves special treatment over the theoretical “you,” a grown man who had waited at the front of the stage for much longer than she had. The singers hadn’t mentioned the birth of Jesus, and you are deeply religious, so they are rude and disrespectful of your beliefs. Santa is brown, not white, and that is an affront to your preconceived notions of what a spiritual being should look like. Suddenly, of the hundreds surrounding you, none are deserving of the kindness you already have on short supply because you are exhausted. No applause, not letting a kid go in front to see Santa, nothing.
I’m not creating this thought experiment to call anyone out, nor condemn. I just like to understand character motivations. In this society, we must determine who is worthy of our short-supply kindness in a snap judgment, and that’s just the truth of it. So, I imagine a place where someone pressed into the Job of Christmas, to produce the miracle of The Gift, might have reason to treat me or my son without kindness; a place where one might not wish to clap during a performance or cheer for Santa. It is a sad place where there is no kindness, a place where kindness is only an idea on a far away pedestal. It is this capitalist dystopia in which we live. Can I be mad at these people for being so careless? Not exactly. But, if this is all there is left of Christmas, it is already dead. I choose to hope that is not so, and I want to give you a gift, and it is this: none of this crap equates to happiness OR kindness. They are both completely free and have nothing to do with commodities. If I can inspire even a moment of free thought toward kindness, I hope to. That is the true spirit of Christmas.
suggested musical accompaniment: “The Magic of Christmas Time” by Van Buren