Last night, the grey streets of the city in which I live was flooded by unruly masses of drunken (and sometimes vile-y so) revelers adorned in cheap red velvet. When first I encountered this strange and vomit-soaked ritual, almost a decade ago, I recall looking up from the dirty dancefloor of a sombre goth-club to find myself claustrophobically surrounded by bacchanalian revelers ruining my morose contemplation of the misery of the holiday.
I was both horrified and relieved.
I’ve always rather disliked christmas. As a matter of fact, “sallow and empty” are the first two words which come to mind when I reflect upon any holiday I’ve ever encountered in america. There are reasons for this, certainly–the iconoclastic nature of the conquering peoples of this country (hateful of art, adornment, polytonal music, darkness, trees, color) doesn’t just resonate from the past, it still remains and persists, scouring from celebration and festival any hints of a non-commodified past.
Holidays here are just fucking boring.
Worse, there are ideological wars waged by pale bloated idiots about what christmas is supposed to mean and whether there’s a god or santa or whatever in the first place, so all that gets left us is the economic-material crush of people macing each other in warehouse-stores.
Carnival, the ancient european-pagan festival of winter, looks little like any of the drab and depressing celebrations of christmas in modern america. It looks nothing like the quiet, domestic absurdity or the thronging shopping frenzy, yet, according to Stephen Nissenbaum’s
The Battle for Christmas (a fine book, read five years ago when nauseous at the coming of yet another meaningless few days of empty streets), Carnival survived in america up to the 1820’s. The world-turned-upside down, a time when low-class groups of men went house to house demanding brandy and cakes from the rich, a time when priests married donkeys and peasants acted like nobles. It took a concerted effort, according to Nissenbaum, to create what we’ve now got left.
The new american aristocracy, protestant and untitled, was appalled that the low-class christmastide upheaval followed them to the promised land. And exacerbating the class tensions: this new american aristocracy was untethered to the noblesse oblige which helped ease the pressure in europe–the nobles accepted the upside-down-ness of Carnival, because it helped sustain the peace throughout the rest of the year.
Essential to this effort was the creation of a docile, domestic Santa Claus. Nissenbaum attributes much to one crucial (and horrible) poem, The Night Before Christmas. Published and re-published in various newspapers in New England, a myth became created, an image of a quiet, bourgeois family sleeping soundly, awaiting the arrival of the crimson-garbed gift bearer. Nissenbaum also asserts that this shift co-responded to the modern idea of childhood, and thus two modern myths were created together.
Oi, but now we’ve got the Santarchists. Drunk people roving in groups disguised as the symbol of innocent childhood and one of few acquiescences to european pagan myth that protestant america has allowed.
In a few american cities, there are now also Krampus celebrations, a sudden resurgence of the heathen daemon who steals children during the winter. In germany and austria, Krampuslaufs have continued (despite the Protestants, Nazis, and Communists all attempting to stamp them out), and they’ve come here.
The old returns.
Perhaps hol(y)idays in america may become interesting again.