Christmas and the Joy of Living in the Season of Death
The winter darkness closes in, the temperature drops, and the terrible tyranny of decorations, carols, and nauseating coffee-blends descends upon the stricken countryside.
I have five entire radio stations where I live. Two switch over to being different broadcasts of the same local college football game most Saturdays. One is only half-listenable in the first place because of its college-town insistence on mixing amongst good music the hate crime atrocities of pop crap that its fans will have the decency to be embarrassed about in ten years. Another one plays alternative music almost entirely from 1990 to 2000, so it encompasses approximately ninety percent of all good music ever recorded (the music of my youth is the best, this is objectively true and not subject to your puerile argument).
The other station just switched to an all Christmas music format in an attempt to prod my energy towards the slow process of building an atomic bomb in my garage.
Television is the same, especially the non-networks that tend to play endless parades of procedurals for you to nod off to in the evening. No, they say, it’s December so you don’t deserve to watch an episode of Criminal Minds for the fourth time, you need a rotation of holiday specials starring actors who haven’t worked since the show in which they appeared eighth in the credits got canceled nine years ago.
And don’t even think of finding solace in BBC reruns or Nova on public television, they’re ramping up to full pledge drive mode. For only $500 you can get your very own compact disc of Celtic Woman singing Christmas music. The only advantage this has over the traitorous radio is that when I mute it I’m still looking at attractive women, but when I mute the radio, I’m left alone with the voices in my head.
Christmas is this weird sort of holiday, all invented traditions grafted on to other ones, creating this surreal hodge podge of a complete lack of meaning other than “because this is what we do.” Shut up Santa, you stole that line from the Nazis.
Look, all holidays are invented, and all traditions fundamentally derive back to the arbitrary pressure of doing what we’ve always done before. But Christmas in America takes it an extra step. All the glitz of it is a self-conscious wrapping of gilding around a hollow core. We know the traditions are bullshit, and consciously construct a culture of blame around anyone who calls it out. If you hate Thanksgiving, shrug, you don’t like football and turkey? Your loss. Hate Halloween? Costumes aren’t for everyone, don’t worry. But disliking Christmas? Why do you hate America, asshole?
But let’s be clear. I love Christmas, and always have. But I hate everything about Christmas. I hate the structure, I hate the decorations, I hate the holiday specials, I hate the music, I hate the music that ironically hates on said music. But most of all I hate the notion that somehow you hate the spirit of Christmas because you hate well, everything involved in Christmas.
Gifts have nothing to do with wrapping paper and dropping $500 on merchandise. They have nothing really to do with buying someone something they wouldn’t get for themselves, though that’s an improvement. Gifts are words. They are not so much about giving someone something they want, as saying something they need to hear.
And that has little to do with joy, at least not in the way that it is celebrated in our culture. We’ve got this Hallmark conception of joy, of the notion that we’re supposed to be happy because this is the season for it. But it’s not the season for it. Not winter. That’s death’s season. The fact that we celebrate joy then has deep roots in dark times that are lost now in an age of space heaters and thinking that sacrifice and inconvenience are synonyms. But there’s a deeper satisfaction than happiness, something that comes out of more ancient traditions, those concerned more with survival and sacrifice. And that’s why the old versions of winter holidays seem to have such a focus on community and family, because those are our weapons against the cold darkness.
It’s why suicides spike the day after Christmas, as the loved ones flood away and the coldness of winter creeps back in. We’re unprepared for it in these latter days, because we’ve made ourselves into children of summer.
Winter is about the darkness and the cold, the cruelty of the world closing in to crush those who are alone. Holidays in this darkness, the ancient holidays at least, are not holidays of joy, but with sadness for those who didn’t make it. Holidays in those months are stabs at the heart of winter, ferocious declarations that we live despite the world not because of it. We give gifts at these times, because it was the hardest time to give gifts, because sacrificing ourselves to give someone something while on the edges of survival is the core of what makes us human instead of animal.
And that’s why we celebrate, that’s where our joy used to come from, not joy because the post-Thanksgiving advertising switch was flipped, but joy to burn out the cold and drive out the darkness. Joy at living in the season of death.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.
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