Letters at 3AM: Why Christmas Sucks
'Tis the season when all that you've been running from catches up with you, and stays to dinner. For cops, shrinks, medics, and social workers, it's their busiest time -- a season, statistically, for suicides, beatings, breakdowns, murders, self- and/or mutual-mutilations, the onset or final end of illnesses, depressions, hospitalizations, accidents, and collapses of every description -- enacted to the inescapable soundtrack of trivial versions of indifferent tunes made uglier by their maddening repetition. Music meant to be holy is played in department stores to soothe you into spending money. For it is a time of money more than anything, or rather a time when no money is quite enough and when being broke, especially if you have a family, feels even worse than usual. It is the heart and soul of our GNP -- America garners a major chunk of its gross in December. When you think of what is supposedly being celebrated, it makes you wonder what we're trying to buy. Once upon a time, so they say, a child was born in a manger. There was something glowing about him, something cleansing about simply being in his presence, even when he was an infant. He would grow up to teach that it is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (adding, because he was merciful, "for men this is not possible, but for God all things are possible"). In one of the smaller ironies that have gathered about this child, we've come to celebrate his birth by a continually escalating effort to sell, sell, sell, trying to get as rich as possible, as though daring God to squeeze us through that needle. (Are the season's violent statistics God's way of telling us how He feels about the dare? Yet the Bible begins with Him daring us -- "Don't eat of that tree!" -- so if we dare Him in return it's only fair. It's certainly only human.) It is difficult to catalogue such massive hypocrisies without disgust, yet that shining child (who surely had reason) never indulged in disgust. Whether or not he was born without sin is arguable, but the record is clear that he was born without disgust. And to be free of disgust is still the clearest sign of being holy. Who can believe anyone who says they've had "a good Christmas" -- especially if they have children? Would your kids have been as happy if they'd been given no gifts? What does such happiness teach? What and who is being bought and sold? A parent's peace, a child's seduction, a cease-fire in the battle between guilt and obligation, between need and demand? There is terror in the air. The terror of failing to please. With so much at stake between parents and children, not to mention between husbands and wives, that is a terror indeed. There are lies in the air. People pretending to like what they do not, pretending to be delighted when they're barely even satisfied, and all to the tune of that gawdawful music, or watching It's a Wonderful Life. There is nothing more dangerous than unconscious ritual -- nothing more dangerous than to enact one ritual on the surface while beneath seethes a very different ritual, a very different purpose, pulling upon your surface behavior, bending and twisting you until your behavior echoes or mirrors what you are keeping secret from yourself. We know at Christmas that the baby being born is fated to be tortured and killed. No matter what rhetoric or belief we ascribe to that torture and murder, its ineradicable symbol stares down at us from the altar of every Christian church and gleams at us from chains worn around ever so many necks. Our gifts celebrate that birth consciously while unconsciously trying to ward off its fate. Yet by ritually setting the process in motion, as it were, with our gifts, what are we doing but accelerating the moment of torture toward which that birth is destined? For to invoke the child's birth -- with statuettes around the tree, no less -- is to invite that child to its fate. A horrible invitation, no matter what one believes. The horror of that fate tests even the faithful; how much more, then, does it shake those who are not faithful but merely obedient to tradition? And how much does this shadow of horror play into the torture, or at least the turmoil, of unfulfilled love in families? And how much does this contribute to the season's gruesome statistics? These questions go a distance toward explaining why we honor the birth of a Teacher in ways that, in fact, reject the essence of his teaching. We don't want his fate. So we celebrate him by behaving in a way that not only rejects but wards off the teaching that led to such a fate. That is the unconscious ritual of our commercial Christmas: a message to the Teacher that his teaching is not welcome -- that we have other business at hand (the GNP, if you please), and could he please be reborn some other year? Thus we imagine his birth in imagery that fixes him safely and uselessly in the past. When a people unconsciously makes a mass ritual of denying what they profess to believe, and of sharing that denial, and of calling this shared denial "giving" -- well, on a personal level that's bound to produce hysteria, whether that hysteria takes the form of going into debt, family violence, or "holiday" traffic accidents. (These phenomena may be especially harsh this year. It's difficult to celebrate a child born in a manger amid all this talk of denying services to mothers as poor as Mary and children as rootless and homeless as Jesus.) It's no wonder that our New Year's Eve revels follow so quickly after our Christmas excesses, for New Year's Eve is the real ritual: the release from the season's contradictions and hypocrisy, when the shining child is forgotten again and breathing comes easier. I think of how snow sometimes falls windlessly, wafting down slowly, gleaming as it falls, with no sound. It is the quietest and calmest of times. People speak softly in such a snow, if they speak at all, and walk through the floating flakes as though in a dream or in another world. Gentleness becomes suddenly shared, and full of possibility. People smile, and don't know they're smiling, or their faces shine with an expression they have never seen in any mirror. You could walk to the ends of the earth in such a snow. You could follow any teaching. Turn the other cheek. Go the second mile. Give your robe in addition to your cloak. Love one another. There is no rain or sunshine that produces the same mood, the same sense that all has been (and always will be) forgiven. It is as though a prayer is being said for you, upon you, settling on your hair and on your face, and you leave tracks in that prayer, and you have the uncanny sense that the cold is actually warm, and that nothing matters, nothing is real but such a walk in such a snow. You know that no other gift is necessary. You remember what you have engaged in such furious activity to forget. And it doesn't hurt somehow. And it doesn't matter, while it snows that way, that few things are as brief as such a snow. Afterwards, for a little while, you (like that Teacher) are incapable of disgust. The vulgarity of the season seems sadly comic, and a little pitiful, and no more than that. The suicides and the murders, the illnesses and the arguments, the terror of failing to please and the exhaustion of having tried so hard to please -- for a little while, they seem a kind of helpless dance that people have to go through, it doesn't matter why; it seems behavior that has nothing to do with who they really are, for they really are walkers in such quiet snows, and everything else they do is a kind of grimace, a convulsion, for God knows what and God knows why, and all would walk beside you in that snow if they could. It's the forgetting that's so difficult -- forgetting those moments and behaving as you, as I, "normally" do. It's like dying, forgetting what we know in that snow. How did the poet Kenneth Patchen put it? "There are so many little dyings, it doesn't matter which of them is death." And he wrote, "It's terribly late for the pierced feet on the water, and we must not die now." But before the forgetting, while walking in such a snow, you feel a little of how that Teacher must have felt walking anywhere. And then you see that it would be worth anything to walk that way for years on end, even toward a cross. And then the torture, the fate of that birth, becomes explicable. Even acceptable. As that Teacher accepted it. "Forgive them, for they know not what they do." We know and we don't. And the part of us that knows struggles with the part of us that doesn't. If we are very fortunate, the part of us that knows and the part of us that doesn't forgive each other one day, and we forgive one another, as the Teacher forgave and as that snow forgives, gently, without doctrine, our tracks filled with something crystalline, something melting, something unbearably lovely.