This isn’t about Burning Man.
I tend to get depressed around the holidays. Last year, I sent the following message to the Media Mecca email list, in the hope that if someone else was getting depressed around the holidays, it would help. It was well received.
So now I’m putting it here, to strike back at a season that demands we smile when our hearts might be breaking. I hope it’s helpful.
“Happy holidays,” you say? “Merry Christmas?” “Have a great New Year?”
You couldn’t be more wrong.
You couldn’t be more wrong if you used creationism as an excuse to deny global warming. You couldn’t be more wrong if you said the Bush tax cuts would help acai berries cure cancer. You couldn’t be more wrong if you said the War in Iraq is filled with hot single girls just waiting for your call.
Lies. All of them. Lies.
This month’s holidays are not festive, whatever the propaganda machine at the Mall of America tells you. Don’t listen to CBS! Do not believe the internet.
Believe your eyes. Believe your soul. This is the darkest time of the year.
Literally and figuratively, the darkest time of the year.
I am going to speak up, now, on behalf of those of for whom “holiday” is synonymous with “blues.”
I am called to speak, now, on behalf of all those who hear culture demanding “be jolly!” and respond “fuck you!”
I will testify to the will and fortitude displayed by those who have lost someone, or lost themselves, and must stumble their way through the darkest time of year forced to endure candy canes and tacky ornaments.
I will bear witness to the horror of a festival that has 2,000 years of the greatest music of Western culture to choose from and somehow picks “Frosty the Snowman” to be its seasonal anthem.
Christmas and New Years are acts of aggression, the chemical warfare of culture. Do not give in!
I am going to tell you a story. The true story of Christmas.
This story was told to me maybe seven years ago, when I was a reporter whose beat included a small village in upstate New York. One day an old woman who lived alone in a big house told me that the minister of a small Baptist congregation in a historic church would be giving a “blue Christmas” sermon right before Christmas.
I’d never heard of it.
She told me no one had, but that she needed it. How could Christmas make her think of anything but her late husband, who took her breath with him to the grave? How could she stand a holiday that demanded she be joyful when what she felt most of all was the enduring stamp of life’s tragedy? So she went to the blue Christmas sermon, a sermon specifically for people like her, a sermon for people who have lost loved ones, or suffered loss … a sermon for people who are pushed deeper into the dark the brighter the candy colored decorative lights get.
This, I told her, I had to see. I’m not a Christian, I don’t go to Church, but there was more honesty in the lines on her face than there is in a million “ho ho ho’s.” I was going to hear the Baptist preacher in the historic building talk about the Christmas blues.
And he did.
Because here’s what we don’t remember about this holiday, about the darkest time of the year: there was no room at the inn.
Oh sure, we say it … or hear it said … but we don’t really mean it. There was no room at the inn.
Think of the last time you had no place to go, and no place to stay. Think of a time when you honestly didn’t know where you were going to sleep that night. Imagine you are in a strange city, and you have no place to stay … and you are nine months pregnant.
There was no room at the inn.
How did it feel for Mary and Joseph, a poor couple who had been ordered by a tyrannical government to travel and be counted? Who were told to upend their lives so that they could be given a number by an imperial bureaucrat?
How does it feel to be ordered from your home? To uprootted in the last month of pregnancy … in a time when giving birth was an odds-on death sentence … and sent across the empire to a strange place? To be sent to a strange place, where you have no friends?
When was the last time you didn’t have a friend in the world, and there was no room for you at the inn?
Mary’s life was in danger … the child’s life was in danger … their lives were on the cusp of tragedy in a place they did not know, and there was no place for them to sleep. Every face was a stranger’s. They had nowhere to go, and no one to care for them. They were alone, and in danger, during the darkest time of the year.
Can you relate? You’ve been there. I know you’ve been there.
They were sent to sleep with the animals. This is NOT a happy story. This is NOT cheerfulness and light. This is a poor couple, in danger of losing mother and child, and there’s no place for them to sleep and they’ve been sent to wallow among the shit and refuse of the animals … where she’s about to give birth.
THIS is how Christmas started.
And then what happened? Was there a feast? A gift exchange? No.
Then an angel appeared. But not to them.
An angel appeared to the shepherds … who were the lowest of the low. The poorest of the poor. If anyone was doing as badly as Joseph and Mary that night, it was the shepherds … who also lay among the animals and were constantly afraid of fangs and claws.
You’ve been a shepherd, at least once. We all have. You have been a shepherd, in desperate need of an angel.
An angel appeared to them and said (I’m paraphrasing here): “there is hope.”
The angel said: even here, there is hope, and you, who are the lowest of the low, are the only ones to know. Go now. (There is an urgency to this call). Go now! Go to Bethlehem, where among the tragedy of man’s cruelty and indifference, new hope is born. Salvation, and forgiveness, and new life are emerging out of the very barn where a poor family was driven by tyranny and caprice! Go see this life! On the darkest night, go, stand up, see new life emerging from blood among refuse! And in so going, bring hope with you … bring solace and comfort to this new family, who have no friends, who have no bed, who have been brought low. Go now!
And they went.
The salvation of man (so the story goes) came out of a dark and grungy manger, from a poor a friendless family in desperate need, and was announced only to the poor and lowly.
Christmas is about them.
Christmas is about a family that has already lost so much and now could lose everything. It’s about the shepherds, who are forced to sleep outside with one eye open.
Christmas is about that darkness, about that desperation, about that poverty and cruelty and injustice … and only after that can you talk about the hope that is born even in the darkest time of life.
But people try to make it about lights and presents and tinsel and “happy holidays!” – things that offer no comfort to someone alone, in a place where there is no room at the inn.
They couldn’t be more wrong.
“Merry Christmas?” HELL NO!
You who are suffering, you who have lost, you who fear greater losses to come … you who have been cast out, you who have been ignored, you who have been oppressed and abandoned … this is YOUR holiday. God’s own family was tired and afraid, right where you are now. Your sadness, and your loss, and your depression are more honest expressions of this dark time than all of the lights and carols of the American shopping mall, or the saccharine hosannas of network TV. The universe speaks to YOU, not them.
And when you cut through the bullshit … when real human emotion cuts through the holiday bullshit like a sword through wrapping paper … we are left with just one message.
There is hope.
The rest of it … couldn’t be more wrong.
Life is dark, life is cruel, and we are cruel to each other. We are in darkness … but there is hope.
To my mind, that’s the only season’s greeting worth the breath it takes to give.
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com