White Christmas and Black December




THIS YEAR, thank God, there really is a War on Christmas — but it’s not the attack on Christianity long feared by the religious right. Instead, there’s a battle raging between the #BlackLivesMatter movement and Christmas business-as-usual. And this holiday season, the movement is taking the fight for justice deep into traditional Christmas territory. In repeatedly resisting our seasonal routines, the movement is prompting us to ask: How is Christmas different this year? And how should it be different?

After Michael Brown’s killer escaped indictment, Black Friday protesters disrupted the biggest holiday shopping day of the year, declaring it #BlackoutBlackFriday and staging die-ins at malls in Ferguson and around the country. Shoppers had to step over the hundreds of bodies lying motionless on the floor. At the end of the weekend, national weekend sales figures were down 11 percent. The #NotOneDime boycott continued through Cyber Monday, and many boycotters pledged to support minority-owned businesses throughout the whole month of #BlackDecember.

Then, on the night when the world was told that Eric Garner’s killer wouldn’t be brought to trial, thousands of New Yorkers made their way to the tree-lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center, shouting “No justice, no tree!” or simply “Fuck the tree!” And during the Millions March organized by black youth activists in New York City, tens of thousands of protesters against police brutality converged on a Midtown already overrun with drunken Santacon Santas. Though a few Santas joined the protest, most of their responses ranged from apathetic to hostile. For them, the meaning of Christmas was clear, and it was clearly different from the message the movement was sending. As one reveler explained, “We’re not going to the protest. We’re all about the holiday season.”

But for many of us — increasing numbers of us — this holiday season actually is all about protest: widespread, consistent, insistent protest, spectacular enough to interrupt our regularly scheduled holiday programming, and loud enough to drown out our traditional seasonal soundtrack. New Christmas lyrics keep running through my head: On the twelfth day of Christmas my country gave to me: twelve-year-olds shot in playgrounds, eleven I can’t breathes … Or, in the words of our new Ferguson carol, Lauryn Hill’s version of “My Favorite Things”: “Black human packages tied and subsistence, Having to justify your very existence.” My Christmas prayer is the one that was taught us by Jesus and by D’Angelo’s Black Messiah: Deliver us from evil.

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The question of how and what and whether to celebrate in the midst of violence and upheaval is a problem I’ve been wrestling with for a while. Christmas is an emotional anchor for me, and not just because of my faith. Christmas is the holiday where my light-craving seasonal affective disorder meets my hoarding tendencies, my more-is-more aesthetic, my addiction to shopping, and my compulsive baking. I usually spend December in a glorious potlatch of gingerbread, garlands, Lessons and Carols, Mariah and Nat King Cole, overstuffed stockings, ill-considered splurges on presents for my excessively large family, and tiny villages made of chocolate cake dusted with powdered sugar snow.

This year’s dramatic deaths and injustices make domestic holiday rituals feel different — both more necessary and more tenuous. But it would be a mistake for any of us to think of this year’s holiday as an aberration. The present trauma is already written into the origins of Christmas in the terrible story of the Massacre of the Innocents. The massacre took place when King Herod was trying to kill the infant Jesus, whom he perceived as a political threat. To be on the safe side, he killed all the baby boys in Bethlehem. For hundreds of years, this state-sponsored mass murder of youth was an important seasonal subject of religious art, commemoration, and prayer. Tara Moore’s new history Christmas: The Sacred to Santa contains an unbearable 1488 image of mothers trying to shield their babies with their bodies in a room already carpeted with corpses.

massacre of the innocents

Massacre of the Innocents, Matteo di Giovanni

Our modern culture has silently excised the massacre from the tale of the Nativity — its memory has been effaced by our emphasis on peace and goodwill. But it might be time to bring it back. As Sarah Arthur writes in her new seasonal devotional anthology Light upon Light,

written into the biblical birth narrative, into the celebration of a child born and flourishing and growing to manhood, is the story of the Holy Innocents, the infants … slaughtered in and around Bethlehem during Herod’s quest to eliminate a threat. Art and culture that ignores this, particularly at Christmastime, is not honest.

In our art, our culture, our politics, and everywhere else, we need to be honest about the way Christmas is also about the loss of young lives considered worthless by the state. The Massacre of the Innocents reminds us that the #BlackLivesMatter movement is not truly a challenge to Christmas: it’s a return to its roots.

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This season feels like a disruption, and it is meant to, and it should. We should not feel right about unthinking celebration, consumerism, and cozy domesticity at a time of national mourning, boycotts, and bodies in the streets. Especially in this season of excessive consumption, we need to remember how dependent US wealth and leisure have always been on structures of stolen labor and stolen lives.

That’s why the struggle this year harkens back not only to Christmas’s scriptural roots but also to more recent historical connections between holiday festivity and racist repression. Frederick Douglass argued that the week off that slaveholders allowed enslaved people at Christmastime was the strategic temporary release that made slavery sustainable:

These holidays serve as conductors, or safety-valves, to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity. But for these, the slave would be forced up to the wildest desperation; and woe betide the slaveholder, the day he ventures to remove or hinder the operation of those conductors! I warn him that, in such an event, a spirit will go forth in their midst, more to be dreaded than the most appalling earthquake.

The holidays are part and parcel of the gross fraud, wrong, and inhumanity of slavery.

In opting out of the culturally mandated Black Friday spending and Santacon-style debauchery, today’s protesters are channeling their rebellious spirit into a resistance to the system that could someday #ShutItDown.

Elsewhere, Christmas has already served as the rupture in ordinary time that has made revolt possible. As Tara Moore writes, “The apartheid conditions of the slave economy in the British West Indies faced heightened tension during Christmas-time.” It’s not an accident that most uprisings by enslaved people in the West Indies took place in December: “planters could not suppress the expected holiday for fear of their lives. One planter, a Colonel Martin, tried to cancel his slaves’ Christmas holiday, and his disgruntled workforce killed him.”

During the Civil Rights Movement, Christmas was a weapon wielded both by white supremacists and by members of the movement for racial justice. The Montgomery Bus Boycott started in December 1955, and Martin Luther King Jr. urged black people to boycott Christmas shopping as well as the bus. Taylor Branch tells how it went down:

King took to the pulpit to say that he knew everyone was worrying about how to do their Christmas shopping. He proposed that they all rally to the boycott and to the original meaning of Christmas at the same time by refusing to shop at all. They should take the money they were planning to spend on presents and divide it into thirds — putting one part into their savings account, giving another part to charity and the third to the MIA [the Montgomery Improvement Association, which was sponsoring the boycott]. […] By restoring the true spirit of Christmas, they could give each other a lasting gift that no amount of money could buy.

The boycott hit white-owned businesses where it hurt. But white supremacists could employ the symbolism of Christmas too: the home of the courageous Birmingham civil rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth was bombed on Christmas Day in 1956.

Celebration, resistance, resilience, terror: this is the complex legacy that America inherits at Christmastime. Anyone who tells you differently, as the saying goes, is probably selling something.

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The Montgomery Bus Boycott was organized just a year after the release of White Christmas, which is celebrating its sixtieth anniversary this year. As I do every Christmas, I will watch it with mixed feelings. It’s not the best American holiday movie, but it might be the fullest: it’s about war and its aftermath, it’s about sisters and reunions, it’s about choreography and counting your blessings, it’s about dreaming of a White Christmas, and it’s about how Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney would rather see a minstrel show than any other show they know. It’s about the white nostalgia that covers a multitude of sins with snow and tinsel, and it’s another instance of the way racial struggle has always been at the heart of American Christmas, from Christmas minstrel shows to the abolitionist verse of “O Holy Night.”

I love the joyful parts of Christmas, and I believe that in a troubled world we need joy more than ever. But I also love Christmas because of the yearning and sadness and restlessness that have always haunted it, and because of the wild prophetic cries that precede it in the Christian Advent lectionary: prophets calling for fiery justice, begging that God will tear open the sky and save us, and heralding the arrival of the Messiah as the end of the world as we know it. Because all this is Christmas too: in the aftermath of war, the possibility of love. In the midst of Occupy and the Great Recession, the suicidal hope of It’s a Wonderful Life. And, terribly, after the massacre of innocents at Sandy Hook, a fierce renewed commitment to organize and to mourn.

This year I’m trying to take Martin Luther King Jr.’s advice. I’m boycotting big business for non-essentials and I’m giving more money to causes that matter. I bought my goddaughter stocking stuffers at the Latino-owned bakery and bodega in my neighborhood instead of going on Amazon, and I’m donating extra money to the freedom struggle. I’m marching and I’m dying in. It’s not nearly enough, but these are rituals that seem to honor this sacred time.

And I’m marveling at the stories of new birth that are all around us. On Christmas, I’m going to see Ava DuVernay’s providentially timed Selma with my family: it’s the Christmas story we need the most this year. And above all, with a heart full of longing and wonder, I’m welcoming the new movement for racial justice as a divine incarnation — as God miraculously come to earth in human flesh. As D’Angelo said in a statement about Black Messiah:

For me, the title is about all of us. It’s about the world. It’s about an idea we can aspire to. We should all aspire to be a Black Messiah.

It’s about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen. It’s not about praising one charismatic leader but celebrating thousands of them. […] “Black Messiah” is not one man. It’s a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader.

This, this is the marvel of the season. From Ferguson to the Philippines, from Oakland to Palestine, from Hong Kong to Staten Island, these hundreds of thousands. Walmart employees, students, athletes, actors, librarians, grandparents, #Asians4BlackLives, #WhiteCoats4BlackLives, atheists, imams, rabbis, preachers, Holocaust survivors, educators, members of Congress and Congressional staffers, defense attorneys, union members, people without work who made this movement their work. The pilgrims who ran from Atlanta to Ferguson, and all those who journeyed for justice from Ferguson to Jefferson City. The teenagers who slept outside while they waited and waited for justice. The children who painted signs, the witnesses who told the truth, the youth who grabbed the megaphones and the crowds who answered their call. The prisoners holding their hands up in their cells. The grieving families of the massacred who stepped straight from the funeral onto the battlefield.

O Come, Desire of Nations, bind
In one the hearts of humankind.

This Christmas, the Movement is my Messiah: it is hope incarnate, the promise of deliverance, the earthshaking miracle of God with us.

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Briallen Hopper is a Lecturer in English at Yale.


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