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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.


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Comment Preferences

  •  I feel for you, sorta, I guess, but kindly recall (3+ / 0-)

    that our society also abounds in displays of menorahs and other Judaic symbols, notices and exploitation of assorted Jewish holidays and the like. Even here, amidst all the boatloads of xtian diaries and such around Easter and Xmas, there are plentiful Yon Kippur diaries and some weekly Torah reading or whatever it is.

    There is a hegemony, all right, and it is by Religion, not any particular one, but all of them combined.

    What's really gross is that there is never anything new, the story never changes; it is always: "Lo, and in the east there was a star..." or "God said to Abraham, kill me a son..." It seems that no religious person can remember from year to year, or even week to week, that they already read that, just last year, and that the libraries are full of other books.

    That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

    by enhydra lutris on Sun Dec 02, 2012 at 12:02:51 PM PST

    •  I wonder where you live (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      rebel ga

      I often find myself in parts of the country where there are no symbols of religions other than Christianity—especially the more rural west and midwest, south, and regions like Appalachia. Not only don't they abound, but you won't see a menorah or a mosque in a long day of open-eyed searching. I think it's easy, but not accurate, to generalize from local or regional experience.

      I'm in no way a believer in the idea that there is one book. But whether it's the bible or the Koran, Shakespeare or Marx, there's no denying that repeated readings and discussions yield new meanings. I don't think it's a question of memory, but of whether one desires to go deeper into a particular territory, or explore new lands. It takes all kinds. Some of those who are attracted to repeatedly study texts they love read lots of other books too. I can't generalize about religious people anymore than about atheists—at least, not with the hope of accuracy.

    •  token mostly, seems to me (0+ / 0-)

      maybe non Jews notice because it sticks out for them amonst the more expected Christmas decor

      I'm in a NE city...it's often just a gesture. Nice gesture, appreciated, but just a gesture.

      Surely more recognised than Mulim or Hindu holidays in US of course..

      Christmas is a National holiday yet it is a religious holiday...so much for separation of church and state. I'd not want to force those celebrating to work, but admit resentment at a boring day off with stores closed....being forced to take off work but to take one of my own holidays off I have to use vacation time. I go there then i snap back and remind self "majority rules'"

      The War on Xmas stuff, on the other hand, I deeply resent. Whenever the majority (straight people or white people too) complain about how BELEAGUERED they are how BURDENED they are by token stretches to be inclusive...it just burns me.

      I'm very late to understanding the term "white privlege" but I do now. I get it. I've lived it and now, i see it everywhere.

      I also see my Straigth privledge.

      There is also in our country MALE privlige. And CHrisitian privlege.

      THose in majority's (myself White, Straight) have trouble feeling there privledge but it's there.

      Complainers about the War on Xmas cannot see their privledge.
      tiresome
      This is in no way  comparing the negative aspects of being a minority, or certain ones, in our country, to being NOT Christian (but some other religion). It is comparing the common blindness those with majority status' of various kinds have.

  •  Hear, hear! I loathe X-mas. Are you anywhere near (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    arlenegoldbard, Neon Mama

    I don't feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves. -John Wayne (-9.00,-8.86)

    by Jonathan Hoag on Sun Dec 02, 2012 at 12:49:17 PM PST

    •  I am! (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Neon Mama, rebel ga, Jonathan Hoag

      Right across the Bay in Richmond. I should go this year! Thanks, Jonathan.

      •  So; Arlene, would you be interested in, (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        arlenegoldbard

        Adopting A Bubbe And/Or A Zayde? Action For Post-Soviet Jewry

        Many people suffer from Christmas Seasonal Disorder.

        I myself love Christmas. I love all the colored lights and even if it's just one prettily wrapped gift.

        I love to give to others all year long. Whatever I can of course.

        My Mother was Irish and my Father Jewish. I am the youngest and by the time I was growing up most of my Father's family was gone. So with me, we celebrated Christmas.

        I'd heard of stories about my Grandfather giving Hanukkah gelt to my older Sisters. And then at Christmas they would demand a Christmas gift from him too (he lived with my Mother and Father). But that's all I knew except you get 8 gifts one for each day.

        btw, movies like It's A Wonderful Life are called "tear-jerkers". They were made to make people cry. So you might want to stay away from them since you are so sensitive to them.

        Really, I've seen It's A Wonderful Life every year for the past sixty years. If you've seen it a couple of times (as great a movie as it is), you've seen it all.

        ♥Happy Hanukkah♥

        Brought To You By That Crazed Sociologist/Media Fanatic rebel ga Be The Change You Want To See In The World! Gandhi

        by rebel ga on Sun Dec 02, 2012 at 05:07:06 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  You are very welcome. Maybe you'll meet me and Mom (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        arlenegoldbard

        I don't feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves. -John Wayne (-9.00,-8.86)

        by Jonathan Hoag on Mon Dec 03, 2012 at 12:35:01 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  We are all being bullied by merchandisers (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    arlenegoldbard, mayim

    of greed.  Seems I'm about a decade older than you, and I knew positively by age 14 that my childhood Christmas was going, going, gone.  

    It was being supplanted by everybody's buying it, buying it.  Perhaps it was because we'd been closer to the small thoughtful and usually homemade gift exchanges -- closer to traditions like described in Little House books.   Big gifts came on OUR birthdays -- not his.

    This was BTE --- before television era.  I do recall preachers whining about commercialism long before then.

    I decided to just not to participate.  My best friend used to say everyday was Christmas for me -- because I did nice little things poor folks needed --- year round.  I usually don't make plans --- because other folks's best laid plans usually mess up.   Then I'm available to do whatever little good deed I can do -- instead of forced holiday hilarity events.

    I too hated it once I realized (grade 5) that the Xmas pageant was stupid for the grandson of holocaust survivor next to me practicing our recital of bible story of going to be counted for census to pay taxes -- and having a baby in a barn.     But ---- I'd already rebelled at the EDIT of flag pledge --- and have never said "under god"  -- since it was a false oath and mixed church/state and  would wound "indivisible"   by establishment of one male deity as the only faith or lack of it  approved for patriots.  Did we learn naught from holocaust.  

    Driving taxi I once told two young ladies on welfare -- worried about what to get their new infants for Xmas --- I said how about giving a "Jesus Christmas."  As I invented it to them ---- start by not teaching them that it's all about stuff.  

    I recommend December  emphasis change to focus on International Declaration of Human Rights --- in public schools especially.    That would be more likely to move us toward real peace on earth thru goodwill toward mankind.

    Supporting minimum wage, unions, fair work conditions, equal pay, reproductive health freedom --- especially by beating some of our MIC swords into plowshares -- is way more Christian than idiots using emotional blackmail to limit our right to not spend ourselves into penury.  

    Please do not feel lonely  --- there are more of us than the snake oil sellers would have you believe.

    PS -- My California daughter has been to that comedy event and recommended it highly.   Which makes me laugh every time, when my local relatives who play the movie "Christmas Story" all day, get to the scene in the Chinese restaurant on Christmas day.    

    I wear grinch sox and tell people it is NOT supposed to be at work or in school --- and certainly not about more stuff.  So the Grinch is my hero --- teaching the little Who folk that stuff is not the answer.  

    De fund + de bunk = de EXIT--->>>>>

    by Neon Mama on Sun Dec 02, 2012 at 02:04:12 PM PST

  •  Expecting Americans, as a society, to not (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    arlenegoldbard

    Celebrate Christmas is about a realistic as asking them to give up Football and the World Series in the Fall.

    I personally, as  Christian, abhor the interference of the Christian church in government, in health care, in education and in turning a lovely celebration of Christ's birth into and orgy of self indulgence and maudlin insincerity and the worship of a fat guy in a red suit.

    But compiling about it ain't going to change anything.  And there are far more important matters this society needs to address.

    Peace and Good Will to all men, is a universal salutation.

  •  The American Christmas celebrations depress me (0+ / 0-)

    I think many people are like you... people of all faiths and none ...

    I have for many years found this season  oppressive..
    and I try to be a Christian

    and as a person trying to be a Christian, I found it downright anti-Christlike for Christmas to be a federal holiday, and other religious holidays and certain important secular days not to be federal holidays.
    I find it very anti-Christlike for people to get upset that the expression 'Season Greetings' is used instead of Merry Christmas ... if at your church service on Christmas Eve/Day, your priest or minister says "Season Greetings" then you can be upset.  If the clerk at Target says it, say Thank You ... that is the Christ-like response.  
    And if someone gets upset over "Happy Holidays" that person is both anti-Christian and stupid .. holiday is "holy day" ... and this season is full of holy days for people of many faiths and cultures ....and to wish them all a blessed or happy time is a loving and kind thing to do.

    So instead of Christians trying to spread good will and peace, they use the holiday as cudgel to make others feel like outsiders or worse.  

    I now refuse to use the expression Merry Christmas .. I say to people "Whatever you are celebrating, may you have a wonderful and blessed time!"   I hope with all my  heart that that is inclusive enough  ..

    I am very aware of that the early church appropriated a pagan holiday and many pagan customs to celebrate what we call Christmas... I understand why.. there are all these wonderful celebration of light, at least in the Norther Hemisphere .. we are celebrating that the days will now be longer .. that there will be more light .. so of course, the early Church that taught that Christ was the Light of the World would pick that time to celebrate his birth ..
    and that is why I want to see the pagan celebrations, the Jewish, the Hindi, the Native Americans ones acknowledged.. I want to celebrate all these holy days of light!  

    BTW, it was not the churches that wanted Christmas to be a holiday... it was the merchants ... who wanted to exploit the ethnic customs of gift giving at this time.  
    So the Church that 'sacramentalized' a wonderful pagan holiday has now had the tables turned and seen that holiday commercialized and consumerized to something devoid of any holiness at all ...

    so to all of you, who like me, find this season oppressive, may you find some joy in the lengthening days, may you capture a special sunbeam or moonbeam and take joy in it .. find something to love and celebrate, and whatever you are celebrating, from the bottom of my heart, I wish you a very happy and blessed time!

    Give your heart a real workout! Love your enemies!

    by moonbatlulu on Thu Dec 06, 2012 at 04:30:25 PM PST

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