by Lee Gilmore
As the consumerist spectacle of the “holidays” winds up to a frenetic finale this week, reporters might find themselves struggling to find yet another angle on these annual events. It's a repetitive exercise, not unlike being subjected to yet another bad version of the already questionable “Little Drummer Boy.”
The Christmas season tends to find Americans facing two directions, either turning to an idealized and imagined past, as the Christmas narrative arrives wrapped in nostalgic tinsel. Or lured toward a mythical future, as we heed the call to consume ourselves silly, gulled by a rosy but unrealistic optimism that some day we'll actually be able to afford all the junk we accumulate.
Like one of my fellow TransMissions bloggers, I'm bored by all the paint-by-numbers War-on-Christmas stories. Every year there is some predictable skirmish: City fathers place Christmas symbols in civic space; secularists, atheists and minority religionists complain, feeling oppressed by the inescapable ubiquity of Christmas; some Christians cry in turn that their religious freedom has been somehow violated. You got your atheism in my nativity scene! You got your nativity scene in my atheism!
To wit, in Santa Monica last week Christians decried the placement of atheist messages in spaces traditionally allotted to annual nativity displays, after atheists groups won big in a city lottery intended to dole out spaces in an unbiased manner. That all of these displays—Christian and atheist alike—are fenced in behind chain-link doesn't exactly evoke warm and fuzzy feelings scented with pine and gingerbread, let alone feelings of joy and reverence in celebrating a savior's birth. Such starkly literal framing underscores the message that public religious speech is dangerous territory. (I would be remiss if I failed to mention the passing of Christopher Hitchens late last week—surely among the atheism's patron saints. May his legacy continue to challenge us.)
Further, like another fellow blogger, I'm also troubled by the extent to which we see Christians in these stories casting themselves as the underdogs, which is odd considering the ubiquity of Christmas trappings, let alone the sheer numerical dominance that American Christians can claim. It's not unlike Rick Perry's recent ad spot in which he declares, “I'm not ashamed to be a Christian,” and promises to “end Obama's war on religion.” With nearly 7 million YouTube views (and counting), compared to a few tens or hundreds of thousands on his others, clearly his sentiment touches a nerve.
Yet there are other stories in the mix that draw our attention to more potentially interesting symbolic encounters in civic space. The relentless law enforcement push-back against the Occupy movement is shifting the battle into different territories, both conceptual and physical. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Occupy impulse popped up in the annual SantaCon debauch, which gathered in Los Angeles this weekend and elsewhere across the globe in recent weeks. Originating with San Francisco's Cacophony Society in the mid-1990s as a situationist prank, SantaCon has lately devolved into little more than a massive public drunk, “sponsored” this year by Party City.
But a small coterie of SantaCon participants in San Francisco attempted to return to the more socially conscious roots of the event and declared that it was time to “Occupy the North Pole.” Dressed in Santa gear, a few dozen protesters left bags of coal in front of major banks in the city's financial district, while singing: “Arrest ye merry bankermen, all profiting this day, you crashed our whole economy, yet nothing did you pay.”
With Time magazine declaring “The Protester” as the person of year, and with Rev. Billy's call for “Revolujah” as the prophetic message of the moment, reporters would do well to examine the so-called War on Christmas in broader political lights. They might also begin to look over the horizon to the ways that dissent, religious polarization and politics will converge and conflict in what promises to be an especially rollicking election year.
Lee Gilmore teaches in the American Studies and Religious Studies programs at San José State University. Her recent book, Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man (University of California Press), explores the cultural and religious significance of the Burning Man festival and why many participants describe it as a spiritual and transformational event.