It’s that time of the year again, when my inner voices have an unending argument that may even sound a little like some families’ Christmas-dinner conversation writ large: You don’t understand how I feel! The whole world isn’t about you! Why do I have to play by your rules?
The word for today, dear readers, is hegemony. Its literal meaning is dominance, but in the ideological realm it has a particular coloration: an idea so powerful, pervasive, and insistently asserted that every other idea is consigned to irrelevance or at best, insurgency.
Every year, when the Thanksgiving images of turkeys and fallen leaves begin to give way to red and green effusions, tinsel, Santa and his elves, and all the glittering symbology of commercial happiness that marks the Xmas season, my spirits start to slide. By now, I’ve gone over this ground so many times, I have to admit that I know exactly what kind of headache I have, but unfortunately a diagnosis doesn’t always equal a cure.
I’ve made progress, though. When I first blogged about it—seven years ago!—I was still tormenting myself with annual screenings of It’s A Wonderful Life. I’m glad to report that I kicked that masochistic habit several years ago. But the stock images in my mental Xmas file have remained unchanged (if you want to read about the Xmastime my grandmother chased me to the police station, click the link in the first sentence of this paragraph). When I wrote seven years ago, my blues had an intense flavor of longing. The first slide in my memory-show evoked the archetypal experience: walking through the moonlit streets of my childhood, catching glimpses of crowded holiday tables bathed in colored light, glowing with conviviality. By now, of course, I’ve been a guest in some of those families, and I know you can’t judge a book by its picture-window cover. Happy families live up to their holiday cards, and unhappy families, well, every unhappy family’s Christmas is desperate in its own way.
But my feelings of alienation aren’t derived from a survey of individual experience. Hegemony is the product of multiple reinforcing messages, loud, insistent, pervasive. When it comes to my Xmas blues, the big picture is simple. A switch gets flipped, and as the commercial sea-change begins to gather force—all the stores are suddenly crowded with aggressively acquisitive shoppers whose buying is glazed by the season with a sacramental patina—the feeling of Otherness echoes ever more loudly in my head.
It isn’t as if my childhood wasn’t crammed with year-round opportunities to feel how different we were from our neighbors, and to perceive the extent to which that difference was unwelcome (sometimes) or merely incomprehensible (often). But the sheer volume, ubiquitousness, and insistence of Christmas made it the Mount Everest in our landscape of alienation.
Every time a store clerk wishes me a merry Christmas or asks (in utter innocence, I understand)— “Have you got big plans for Christmas?”—I have a little debate with myself. Smile and nod absently? Return the greeting? Say I don’t celebrate Christmas, but I hope theirs is great? Deliver a mini-lecture on cultural sensitivity? It’s the debate that dogs me: the constant reminder of not partaking in what amounts to a national consensus, rather than the search for the best response. I feel lonely, and different, and tired of feeling that way.
The last few years, insult has been added to injury by the far right’s “War on Christmas” campaign, which I also wrote about back in 2005. It’s still going strong: the mere fact that people like myself suggest downscaling the Xmas hegemony is perceived as an insult to Christians. (For a quite remarkable version of this, asserting that Christmas isn’t about Jesus and anyway, that Christianity is not a religion, see last week’s tour-de-force of hegemonic sophistry from Fox’s Bill O’Reilly.)
It is by no means the same for all Jews. Some grew up abroad or in majority-Jewish communities, and that insulated them from the intensity of allergic symptoms sometimes suffered by people like me, who grew up in one of two Jewish households on a working-class suburban street in the shadow of a Catholic school.
In New York City, historically, so many Jewish children and teachers are in public schools that they’ve been closed for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur as well as Christmas and Easter. When I posted to Facebook about my Xmas blues, a friend sent me a link to a clip from “Saturday Night Live,” portraying the very true, extremely spacious, and often delicious experience of Christmas Day for New York City Jews.
Others sent holiday-themed stories, expressed their own sense of holiday alienation, or offered consoling advice about celebrating the solstice, mindful of all the ways pre-Christian traditions have been woven into Xmas. Some sent parables about Christmas being for everyone, depicting Jews who cheerfully threw themselves into the spirit of the holiday, which I can’t quite see as something other than a whiteface minstrel show, despite the stated intentions of universalizing a message of peace and giving.
So I get that this is my problem (although I may share it with a few million other Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and many others lightly trampled by the Xmas hegemony). In terms of my values and my work, I absolutely respect the right of devotees to pursue any spiritual path, and I’ve taken part in a zillion interfaith events in which that right is embodied and expressed in multiple forms of devotion to the mystery with many names.
But when a friend suggested that I really wanted was to relax into a kind of alignment with the season instead of always pushing against the grain, my mind rebelled. I compared the suggestion to being assimilated by the Borg on “Star Trek.” (Is this where I say, ” No offense intended”?) So what do I want? I thought I’d better find out.
When I engaged with the felt sense of this alienation, here’s the answer that emerged: I want to feel less lonely at this time of year, and I think that entails the opposite of hegemony. I want the world to extend itself to me and others like me with a kind of radical acceptance that embraces my experience, my difference, rather than stigmatizing it. Do I think I’m likely to get that this December? Perhaps from a few friends, but otherwise, probably not. Is there more work I can do to release the tension from within, accepting things as they are? I’m certain there is, and I’m tackling it.
Is there room in the Zeitgeist for my Xmas kvetch? I’m trying to ignore the shadow of dread that dogs these words as I type. It tells me not to risk further alienation by attracting the wrath of the War on Christmas crowd.
Dear Santa: I’m not trying to antagonize your minions. All I want for Xmas is an antidote for my hegemonic headache. And if you’re sick of hearing my kvetch after all these years, try to imagine how sick I am of hearing “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night,” of knowing all the words to “Away in A Manger,” and knowing that I learned them in a secular public school. I’ll tell you what I tell myself: just few more weeks, bubbeleh, and the symptoms will pass.
If you search on YouTube for Christmas blues, a plethora of videos turn up. I’m picking this very old Esther Phillips/Johnny Otis number, “Far Away Christmas Blues.” Try not to weep on the Xmas cookies.