A Christmas Message to Friends and Family

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It feels like history is being made right now. People all over this country are putting together the puzzle pieces of oppression. People are realizing they have replaced meaning with tinsel-covered bullshit.
When we choose one door—that of the shopping mall—the world is clean, sparkling, and smiling. When we choose the other—marching in the streets with others who demand systematic change—it is cold, we meet riot police, those who chose the first door shout at you. Consumerism and militarism are the dual faces of our reality, and the former is much more friendly, on the surface anyhow. In the mall we can police ourselves, we are trusted to outnumber the owners 100 to one, with a peripheral mall security guard. We are proud to be fulfilling our promise, working hard and expressing that satisfaction by consuming, or pretending to be proud and racking up thousands of dollars of debt. At least people are friendly to you. Until you steal something. When you can’t afford anything but are bombarded with daily coded messages that consumption is identity, power, and worth you lose your identity, become powerless, you feel worthless. Listen to Kanye West.
On the other hand, when we reject these codes and find community elsewhere, when we gather outside to express contrary opinions and celebrate the magic we have in spite of commercial culture—we refuse to prostrate ourselves in contribution to a system that consumes us while telling us we are not consuming enough—the cops outnumber us. They stalk us in two-by-two motorcades and with white vans outfitted with a dozen stormtroopers hanging on with zip ties, tear gas, and a bunch of other black paraphernalia that blends in with the uniforms, helmets, and face masks. The face of our government to you is now faceless. It blocks the freeway with two dozen of its bodies in case the 40 protestors decide to shut down an eight-lane bridge over the Willamette River. Why would anyone want to do this? Have the rituals of American Christmas become so viscerally repugnant to enough people at the same time that the American system reveals itself as the sturdy prop of capitalism? If this is the zeitgeist then why does the media—even NPR for god’s sake—consistently dedicate more time to shopping trends, the new holidays dedicated to shopping, the economics of the iPhone6, etc. than to ongoing protests around the country. Oregon Public Broadcasting announced the Ferguson protest last Monday in the traffic report. There has been a backup reported on the wrong side of history.
I’m not eager to conflate the murder of an unarmed teenager—any of them…—and the suffering of his community—any of them…—with my own perspectives about American society and personal alienation by its wastefulness, but I can’t help it. It feels like history is being made. The umbrella of liberation is wide. I can forgive a man who steals a box of cheap cigars because he needs but I cannot forgive another who ends a life because he fears. That puts me in a category of people: PEOPLE WHO BELIEVE IN FUCKING CHRISTMAS. This position fell out of a favor, I would like to argue, when Christmas movies stopped being Dickensian and started to be about the preservation of personal property—Home Alone, for example. I watched What Would Jesus Buy? this afternoon, which proves to be a decidedly new take on the Christmas move. Fun fact, if you google “rev billy what would jesus buy” the first results are options to buy the film, followed by the film free on youtube. The former option, of course, is for folks who love irony.
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Christmas is always a massive disappointment, on the same scale that it is wasteful, hypocritical and generally not Christian. But you just have to watch Jingle All the Way starring Sinbad and Arnold Schwarzenegger to understand that. You could just watch a trailer really. Or I could just tell you that grown men fight over a toy—that’s the whole movie. It was the last Phil Hartman movie released in his lifetime, which I’m sure adds to its aura of holiness, its place in the New Testament that begins with the gospels of Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life, though some may argue it an apocryphal appendage. This was of course happening in the real world, the adults fighting for toys. I saw it on the Today Show before going to school one day: Tickle Me Elmo. Just ask Robert Waller who was lucky enough to work for Wal Mart on December 16, 1996 and be handed a box of those toys, lucky enough to be noticed by a crowd of three hundred and to feel their utter wrath as they ripped his box, his clothes and even the crotch of his pants, “suffer[ing] a pulled hamstring, injuries to his back, jaw and knee, a broken rib and a concussion.” What Bryant Gumble failed to mention, what Katie Couric did not read from her teleprompter, was that they loved this story, they told it before it was true, to make it true. But why? What for? Could even the gospel of The Muppets be so tainted? Was nothing sacred? The ‘90s gave us a perverse new kind of shopping which doubles as easily reproducible spectacle, “news story.” The ‘90s gave us the ironic Christmas movie on a massive scale, with 1988’s Scrooged paving the way with Die Hard having something to do with it. 1983’s A Christmas Story is of course another example of the genre with its This American Life dry narration and quirky perspective on American yule. The now classic began to gain a following in the early ‘90s and, starting Christmas eve 1997, airs consecutively 12 times for the aptly dubbed marathon “24 Hours of A Christmas Carol.”
 
In Jingle All the Way the true meaning of Christmas is revealed—as it is in all of these latter day Christmas movies—which is—always—the topping on the bullshit cake. What does Macaulay Culkin creatively inflicting pain on a duo of burglar caricatures once a year have to do with the Nativity? Well I guess Kevin McAlister hides in a church Nativity Scene—as Joseph, I want to say?—to avoid being seen by the Wet Bandits, but what really does that have to do with the Nativity other than literally being in a Nativity Scene? The Spirit of Christmas is otherwise invoked after the carnage runs its course. Watching The Muppets Christmas Carol was a decidedly better tradition than Home Alone, but less of a cultural phenomenon. Rather: Home Alone was a cultural phenomenon; Michael Caine as Scrooge and Kermit T. Frog as Bob Cratchit was, however unfortunately, not. I had the Home Alone board game and as the ‘90s became a parody of themselves—Home Alone 3 was released in 1997 with a different protagonist—we stopped watching The Muppets Christmas Carol entirely. We would rewatch Home Alone again years later, as a kind of joke, laughing at our communal solstice ritual: we replaced religion with movies, and this movie was stupid, irresponsible and a kind of propaganda for itself, and not in the literal way it was an ad for Home Alone 2: Lost in the City, or the way the VHS begins with a Pepsi commercial, the way the Pepsi product placement is so obvious, text book, like in Wayne’s World, that taught us a year later how to recognize this bullshit. It’s absurd, replacing the virgin birth with Macaulay Culkin, Pepsi and pagan solstice iconography. We replaced religion with stupid movies, with advertisement for soda, which is its own special kind of American story. I always liked Coke, it seemed more classic—Coca Cola Classic—this choice mattered more to me than Jesus Christ. That doesn’t mean anything really: I never thought about Jesus Christ and I thought about soda constantly. There was less cognitive dissonance becoming politically aware in the Bush Administration than learning about Christianity through Christmas.
 
I preferred Christmas the two years when I worked at a movie theater and wasn’t forced to commit to the infantile charade. Instead I just had to work, ten times as hard because all of post-Christian America goes to the independent movie theater to see the Oscar favorites that didn’t star Americans. And suddenly a theater—that would normally provide a half dozen asocial cinephiles two hours of sounds and images to ponder—must now satisfy by the hundred those who have replaced mass with movies as the new Christmas ritual. I would direct the public and their grandmas to their seats. I would prepare a bag of popcorn and place it in the hands of the believer like a wafer on a tongue, followed by the soda, saying “nine dollars for the popcorn and the soda,” but meaning Body of Christ…Blood of Christ.
 
It was all bullshit. An art house theater stuffed full of pretenders. The movies have been here all year. International. Diverse. Progressive. Avant-garde. Where were you? You can’t see a foreign movie once a year on Christmas—and it’s the fucking King’s Speech which should not even count—and maybe a Woody Allen movie around Easter, and claim to be an intellectual. We all know you’re at the mall every weekend with Matt Damon, but we’ll forgive you, welcome you on this holy day and sell you your ticket, you’re welcome anytime with that New Yorker you use for deodorant. Christmas is so empty that it sucks the meaning out of what matters to me year round. It’s a month-long build up to a nebulous beauty that disappeared decades ago when some asshole told you there wasn’t a Santa Claus. So fuck that, fuck the Christmas myth, most of the Christian one—saving the anti-commercial meat of it—and fuck the commercial black heart of Christmas that has grown so cancerous that it’s now sucked up Thanksgiving into it expanding death. I just read about “Christmas Creep” on wikipedia, a phrase as old as me.
 
If you work in the service industry the spirit of holidays is reversed—when people are off work you are on, working harder, which is good if you work for tips and better if you want to go to a bar on your night off or a restaurant and not be overwhelmed by people with real jobs going out en masse. It’s confusing when you end up with a Friday night off and you go to a movie. Where the hell did all of these people come from? Is it Friday? Yes, it is Friday. Why am I not being paid to deal with these crowds? Is Christmas over yet? It’s worse when you live in the small town you grew up in, there are so many people at the bar. People from high school learn that you live in town again, and you learn that they have a real job. They live in Oakland. What are you doing here? might literally be asked. I love this town, is not your response, especially not now. You look forward to asserting your own values upon the life you live once again, a respite from buying things, a guilt-free evening to yourself, reading a damn book, writing a fucking essay.
 
Eventually in January the memory of it fades away as the trees leave the leaving room and briefly lay at the curb, that Christmas this felt omnipotent, like it would never end, its ultimate ironies of charity and greed, both on heavy steroids as though egging each other on, fueled by a nation of people who work too much or too little to conceive of their truth, or to believe that any of it even matters.
 
Less people went shopping on Friday. Protests continue across the country. And I insist that even if folks don’t actively understand The Hunger Game‘s critique on American society, deep down there they’re getting it. As long as mainstream culture remains terrible, Jennifer Lawrence has the potential to become a radical, and then Katniss will be on our side. This has been an advertisement for Mocking Jay, pt. 2, in theaters nationwide November 2015.
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