Holiday Malaise: Compulsory Christmas And Christian Privilege

Holiday Malaise: Compulsory Christmas And Christian Privilege

I’ll start with a confession.  I’m a Christmas fiend, in some ways.  As far as I’m concerned, Christmas music is acceptable from Halloween to New Year’s Day.  I love to throw tree-trimming parties.  I’m all about mulled wine and world peace.  I have been known to watch A Muppet Christmas Carol on repeat while working on my final papers in December.  Colored lights, glitter, excessive eating, excessive alcohol consumption, giving gifts, and receiving gifts are all on my list of top 20 best things in life, easily.

But I’m also an Atheist, and some Christmas trappings get me down.  I’m not just talking about listening to “Coventry Carol.”   I’m talking about things that some would consider “little”—like the fact that the airport in Washington, D.C., the one place in this country where religion should have the least influence, is decked out in massive glittering Christmas decorations, playing Andy Williams in the bathrooms.  I’m talking about the gleaming white Santas and grinning Scandinavian elves plastered everywhere advertisements may be found.  I’m talking about Christmas wreaths in the town square.

As a grad student and avid Tumblr user, I spend a lot of time discussing the notion of “compulsory heterosexuality”—a name for the fact that we live in a society that, even when it “allows” homosexual, queer, and genderqueer identities to exist, still rewards people who imagine gender roles as strict and society as dependent on a system of heterosexual, monogamous nuclear families for its survival.  The reverse of this, of course, is that our society punishes those who think and/or act outside of this system.  The theory of compulsory heterosexuality has gained an importance that can’t be overstated in thinking about gender, queerness, and relationships, so I certainly don’t mean to make light of it by borrowing its terminology when I say: we need to talk about compulsory Christmas.

Before I explain, another disclaimer.  Much of the notion of compulsory heterosexuality is based on the idea of privilege: that heterosexual, cisgender people experience an ease of operation in society that those who don’t fit that description simply don’t have access to.  Privilege is attached to a lot of traits that are genetic or social luck of the draw: whiteness, maleness, able-bodiedness, and class, for example.  I’m going to talk about Christian privilege.  The objection, for the religious and social justice fans alike, is immediately clear: “but religion is a choice!”  Well, yes and no.  Certainly identity as a Christian is more mutable than, say, identity as a white person.  It’s easier to move in and out of, and not immediately visible the way factors like race and ability are.  Nevertheless, location and social circumstances of birth, race, class, and gender all play into how easily one can move in and out of this identity.  Christianity or non-Christianity is one of the valences of privilege in America.

In this time of turmoil, where we see the intolerance spewed by unhinged, Muslim-hating Trumpites infecting our country and inhibiting its mobility like the gout on Ben Franklin’s toes, Christian privilege cannot be ignored.  I mean that literally—it’s everywhere apparent, and those of us who would like to forget about it just don’t have the option.  It’s not just “in God we trust” on our money and politicians being sworn in on the Bible.  It’s not just Presidential candidates claiming that Christianity defines America’s core values.  It’s not just the use of Christianity as a flimsy excuse for the kind of rabid, virulent small-mindedness that leads a surprisingly large contingent of Americans to resist helping desperate refugees.  It’s also this goddamned compulsory Christmas.

I don’t know a single person who’s ever tasted a chestnut, but we know all about chestnuts roasting on an open fire.  All my educated friends are aware that the real Saint Nicholas was Turkish, with dark brown skin and a wan saintly aspect, yet everywhere I turn I see Santa Claus depicted as a pasty white European, or, at the outside, a sassy bearded Russian.  In fact, as John Green’s Paper Towns has amply demonstrated, the concept of a black Santa has been reduced to a punchline in our society.  Bob Geldof’s classic “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” laments, “there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas.”  Well, of course not in most parts.  It’s Africa.  But don’t worry, Mr. Geldof: they sure do know it’s Christmas because it’s not like we would let them forget.

Why does this bother me so much?  Am I just bitter?  Well, yes, perhaps a little.  Because Christmas the way we market it is only available to a certain kind of person.  Most obviously, a Muslim, Sikh, Jew, Atheist, Agnostic, or other non-Christian person can’t take three steps without encountering something that reminds them that they are decidedly on the margins of this “Christian Nation.”  But there’s more to it.  The glamour and specific type of generosity portrayed in our favorite Christmas song are the features of a Christmas only available to people of a certain economic standing (why do you think Charlie Brown is so depressed?).  Christmas is a thing done by men in our pop culture: whether it be Santa, Rudolph, the Grinch, or the man slipping a rufie into his date’s drink in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (no, seriously, look at the lyrics), our cherished Christmas stories rarely feature women.  The only significant female figure associated with the holiday is famous for her virginity, which, email me if you need to know why that’s a problem.  And I’ve seen countless testimonies by disabled writers that stories of Christmas charity, especially the story of Tiny Tim, are the bane of their existence for depicted the disabled as passive victims.  I’ve already spoken about the whitewashing of the holiday, but need I remind you that most nativity scenes also depict the Holy Family as white?

There’s a lot to like about Christmas.  It’s a national holiday, it often brings families together, there’s light and music everywhere.  There’s potential in the holiday; as the Ghost of Christmas Present reminds us in the Muppet Christmas Carol, “it is the season of the heart,/ a special time of caring,/ the ways of love made clear/ oh, it is the season of the spirit/ the message, if you hear it,/ is make it last all year.”  It would be nice if that were the message everyone took away from the holiday season, whether actually celebrating the birth of Jesus or not.  But as it is, there’s nobody in this country who needs to be reminded what season it is.  There’s nobody who needs to be told to “keep the Christ in Christmas,” since the very ubiquity of Christmas shows just how enmeshed the image of Jesus is in our society.  I hate to do it, but I’m going to end by quoting the words of Scrooge: “keep Christmas in your own way, and I’ll keep it in mine.”  Maybe next year, for the sake of the disenfranchised and for the sake of the democracy we’re supposed to be, we should all consider keeping Christmas private.


Evangeline Van Houten

Daughter of a high school English teacher and an English professor, Evangeline is a survivor of Academia and an aspiring elegant person. She lives in St. Louis with her family and a lot of books.