I disagree with your festive holiday wishes!

Photo by Javichu el jefe (creative commons license)

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. 

— Caveat


“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

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

24 Comments on “I disagree with your festive holiday wishes!

  • JV says:

    Joy and gratefulness is also honest, and it’s what I always feel around this time of year. Joy at being alive and grateful for everything else. Gotta disagree with you on this one, but to each his own.

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  • KR says:

    Sorry, I have to disagree with your sentiments. Wallowing in miserable feelings never helped anyone.

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  • Kyrka says:

    I recently read a bit of the Christmas story with a 21st century twist – Joseph and Mary in America. They would most certainly be immigrants, and worse than no room at the in… think about it… forced to give birth among livestock.
    I wonder in this day and age, would such a messiah even be noticed? There are so very many dirty poor people to chose from in our country now.

    Wishing you all the best and worst live has to offer this year.

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  • Alida says:

    Thank you for writing and sharing this. I really needed to hear it and feel less alone in getting through this dark season. Keeping hope!

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  • Sue says:

    Thank you for being honest. In 25 years of Christmas church sermons, no one dared say what you have said here. Amidst loss, deep regret and self-recrimination, the knowledge that hope exists does offer some measure of comfort. I think the lights of Christmas time that twinkle everywhere are the greatest reminder…even when Im sad I know the sun is coming back, and I think that’s where this celebration really got its start.

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  • DonnaMatrix says:

    BAH! Humbug!

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  • spect says:

    sorry you’re feeling it.

    during the holiday’s, depression and frustration can be a common occurrence for some. easily heightened during a period where most people are perceived to be festive and happy, and can further a felt sense of personal isolation for those who are not, adding to social distancing and frustration. i honestly dont believe identifying the negative aspects of a ritual or society is the answer, i think that could be more about an externalized sense of whats being felt inside.

    not that i disagree with the message or its sentiment either, but large holidays are socially wide in their adoption and meaning. your personal beliefs and feelings are very valid, they are just not all that commonly shared by a greater public. that doenst have to be reflective in meaning for either, but i happen to like how you consider those who struggle and are less fortunate during this time. i thank you for the reminder of what the nature of giving is to me, and the beauty of human nature, despite being occasionally buried under a rather superficial joyous sentiment and commercial hype.

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  • Talloolah Bliss says:

    Great share.

    In particular I appreciate the adjective of saccharine as that’s what so much of the corporate politically correct holiday sentiments seem to ooze. I don’t read your thoughts as bah, humbug; rather, as a jolting invitation to get real here folks.

    Sure, for some people, Christmas is about happy gatherings of friends and family around tables and trees of abundance. I hear about them. And what is real for the larger majority doesn’t preclude my ability to even be happy for them that belch the sticky sweetness of their candy cane infused Callebaut hot chocolate. Really.

    Everyone wants to define this time of year as some kind of culmination of magnanimity apparently lying in wait the rest of the year for this one special season to express from our culture. Um. Really?

    I mean, there’s so much maladapted about the entire facade of Christmas. For starters, it was never a christian festival in the first place, but stole from the pagans … and going on from there to the obvious flaws in the joyful facade you point out in your article arising from the true details of the christian christmas story itself.

    Go on, enjoy yourselves as best you can. Not just for one day this December, but all year long. Just don’t do it at the cost of beliefs that are unworkable … and for heaven’s sake, don’t think you should do it because Walmarica says so.

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  • avatar says:


    The celebration is NOT a christian or religious festival in the first place. IT is, has always been and will always be a solstice festival.

    The only reason we now call it christmas was because Constantine could not stop the celebration, and simply usurped the date.

    There never was a birth in a stable, no inn that poor illiterate travellers with fanciful stories about how she didn’t have an affair, or that she wasn’t raped but still somehow got pregnant were turned away from.

    Even the celebration fo the Mithraic cult usurped the celebration of what was the return of the sun in the northern hemisphere.

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  • Deb says:

    I too have had some very sad and poor Christmas times. A dirty old motel comes to mind. But those Christmas times make me proud and happy that I have found a better life! With the help of the boy who was born that day! So I rejoice in his life on the day he was born. I also remember to give back to those that are not having such a good time!

    I hope you get through the holidays and better things come your way. Remember He wouldn’t want you to be sad about His birthday. Just the opposite!

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  • Aaron says:

    Thanks Caveat.

    I too detest the saccharine falseness of this time of year. As a student of permaculture, it freaks me out see wonton waste and gluttony as expressions of our most honored holiday. We need sustainability and conservation NOT materialism and globalization in the form of useless Chinese-made holiday crap built by defenseless, impoverished workers.

    As a non-theist, the Christian part of the holidays reminds me not that our founding fathers believed in this popular single god story but that they (persecuted christians) eventually helped create our constitution, a document that defends the religious (and non-religious) beliefs of all of our citizens.

    Thank you for connecting the holidays to the 99%. Xmas is about the Occupy movement at it’s core, you would have me believe. OK, I’m going to Occupy Xmas for the disenfranchised of this world. Together, with no money, we will organize events to protect your liberty while you shop. While you shop for petroleum dependent gifts that will be remembered forever, not by the receiver (all they want is your love/attention) but by consecutive human generations as they wash ashore beside our long dead oceans.

    Let me know when it’s over.

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  • LanLanLanLan says:

    Thank you for sharing. I really appreciated it.

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  • SMF says:

    Some of these comments represent the exact problem. It’s the attitude toward others that “if you’re not feeling merry and grateful during Christmastime, there’s something wrong with you (and it’s your fault).” Depression is not “wallowing in miserable feelings,” and that wasn’t the sentiment of the post. If you missed it, it was “For some people, things are pretty messed up. But, there is hope.” Some of us really need to hear that during this period.

    If you have been blessed with the circumstances and/or neurophysiology that allow you to be cheerful and grateful, do just that. But don’t rub it in others’ faces who can’t feel that way. One of absolute things to understand is that not everyone has the same mental experience and abilities that you do. Some cannot “just be happy,” as absurd as that might sound to you. For the depressed, their world closes in and despair pervades. At least have compassion during this time and try to show some empathy.

    Thank you, Caveat, for saying what some don’t want to hear– the whole of it.

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  • Motis says:

    Thanks, I really liked reading this.

    I’m an atheist, but I don’t think that’s terribly relevant to what you wrote. . . I just wanted to point it out so some of the other commenters might understand that it’s not relevant. We’re talking about a STORY here, not claiming that it really happened.

    I’ve been out on the street, wondering where I’m going to sleep, and recently, too. Right now, I’m a goatherd. I’ve never liked this time of year much, because I had such an awful childhood, and so many Christmas seasons that were just full of disappointment and shame and envy. It’s an ugly time of year for me, and every year I wish I had some good people to share it with to ease my shock and pain. Reading what you wrote helped me to remember this year that I do have the Burner community, even when I’m alone, and that makes all the difference. . . because when you’re part of a tribe, you’re never really truly alone unless you want to be.

    Man, I sure hope the Sun comes back. Be well, be good, and be yourself.

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  • KML says:

    Thanks for writing this.

    Our culture has little patience when we can’t just walk off our problems. Some life experiences require a lot of processing, acceptance rather than action, and/or are hinged on atypical neurochemistry, (thank you, SMF). I have huge issues on my plate and a bipolar brain. When well-meaning people say “I just want you to be happy,” something inside me wilts. Platitudes may sound great in greeting cards, but we’re not happiness machines by definition.

    This year I am at peace with my desire for solitude. Nothing makes me feel more alone than forced performances if I’m not feeling it, whether it’s December or June. I exit gatherings feeling worse than if I’d respected my needs. Oddly enough, I’m feeling a flicker of inner calm, because I honor myself completely when I allow the pain. It is real, it is mine, and it will never heal in any way if I continually bury it under others’ expectations.

    I’m genuinely happy for those who feel merry, and I’ll join them when I can. Until then, I’ll be hunkered down and hopeful.

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  • Rose says:

    Agree with avatar. Xmas was around a very long time before the story of Jesus. It was overlayed on the solstice to make it seem that the pagans were celebrating a christian festival.

    And santa? Check out the original Santa http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krampus

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  • Dr. Pyro says:

    Well, that was certainly uplifting.

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  • joe says:

    AMEN Brother! Hope is alive!!! Just forwarded this to my priest. He’ll get a kick out of it. May even hear parts of it again on Sunday. He’s more the John the Baptist type – a loud cry in the wildeness. Can you see light without the darkness? Can you see the real me, can ya, can ya??! (with copyrwrite credits to Jesse Jackson and The Who :-))

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  • Sugarlarry says:

    Burning Man walks into a bar and sees an old, old man sitting alone at a table. Recognizing him as old man Xmas, he strolls on up and lays in on him.

    “What’s with all the tacky ornaments, the bad music, the rampant consumerism, that pretending everyone is happy, when for many this season is nothing but loneliness? Huh?”

    Old man Xmas looks up at the young pup. Standing before him is the newest of rituals, a festival that features all manner of pretty lights, no little amount of bad music, rampant consumerism, and despite what it might believe about itself, a good many people who still manage to feel like lonely outsiders at an outsider festival.

    And so old Man Xmas takes a sip of his beer and asks BM if he imagines that maybe 8000 years from now his original meanings might be lost in hype.

    Okay, I don’t really know where I was going with that, but my point is that Christmas, or Yule, or Hanukkah or whatever the hell you want to call it, is the ultimate in hackable festivals. This winter festival has been around way longer than BM, and will probably be around long after it’s gone.

    Sure, it’s been loaded down with too much bullshit, but the core concept is solid, and as old as human culture, brightening our darkest night with a festival of light, feasting, and rituals such as gift-giving that bind us to each other.

    Does it have to mean buttfucking your credit cards? No. Does it mean you have to worship JesusChristyourpersonallordandsavior? No. Does it mean you have to sing shitty carols? No.

    You’re free to interpret the event however you like, or not at all. Considering the subculture we’re all part of, hacking Xmas to our own purposes should come easy.

    Also, I would like to draw your attention to this excellent alt. selection of Xmas music, because it is awesome:


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  • Sparky says:

    This isn’t about Burning Man.

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  • Shryche says:

    Wow, so the bloggers around here aren’t allowed to deviate off-topic Sparky?

    I get this post. Dusty Bells and all. This time of the year hasn’t been kind to me for a while. I can remember being so out of phase with the “Christmas” spirit that I wrote a piece about it. I never published it and I have since lost track of it’s whereabouts but it was not commercially friendly.

    As far as the Christmas Story goes, i can imagine a lot worse places to be forced to give birth to a child than amongst livestock. One being the burned out wreck of a car in a trash filled alley of the worst slum you can name, the other being in a mediocre health care facility understaffed by overworked people with not enough funding and/or ulterior motives. You pick the lesser of those two evils, I’m not going any further with it.

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  • sugarlarry says:

    Heeeey, what’s up? The comment I posted has been deleted. Was it perceived as disrespectful? I apologize if that was how I came off. No insult was intended… I just happen to be a fan of xmas, despite being a non-believer. Sure, it might have been poorly written and kind of rambly, but there was nothing resembling an attack of any sort. Was the opinion expressed somehow out of line? Is that even possible at BM? What about this who radical free expression thingy?

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  • sage_ says:

    i can relate to the feelings of disconnection from a world whose values do not match mine. the only significance i can gleen from this season is joyous recognition that daylight is growing and i will soon be out with the warmth of the sun on my bare skin. in the mean time i take extra vitamin D3….seriously

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