Off-Topic: I Disagree With Your Festive Holiday Wishes!

This isn’t about Burning Man. This is a rant about Christmas that I first posted on the Burning Blog in 2011, in the hope of supporting people who, like me, fall into depression around the holidays. In 2015, when BMIR had a completely pointless Christmas theme all Burn week, I played it on the air then, too.

Somehow it seems more relevant this year than it ever did before. Which is not a good sign. But I need this now, and maybe it will help you too.  

– 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 capital gains tax cuts will 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 12 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 be 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.

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

25 Comments on “Off-Topic: I Disagree With Your Festive Holiday Wishes!

  • Ty Eckley says:

    I think I will take both roads. The happy fake one, and the realistic sad one. I choose to be nice to pretty much everyone in the hope that they will smile when I come in contact with them. That may not be much, but that’s my goal. That’s what I aim for every time a person is next to me, or on the phone, or online. And you know what? If we all do that…… might be enough………even if I do have a candy cane between my teeth. Smile Mr. Caveat! Smiling is good. People love you and your crazy stories, and that really is enough.

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  • Mississippi ronn says:

    As an Atheist, I still say Merry Christmas and go to the Christmas Eve service with my 80 year old Mom, She loves it and I love her. Life is short, find happiness where you can. And don’t worry life isn’t permanent.

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  • cosmedoc says:

    Perhaps in order to be a ” real burner” one must feel as tortured as Caveat when it comes to Christmas. My memories of Christmas were of being surrounded by love and family and people that unconditionally loved and accepted everyone regardless of who they were, what they were and their sexual orientation. I guess I’m naive in thinking that is what burning man is supposed to represent,. The world is a fucked up place but occasionally it’s good for the soul to embrace something that we may fundamentally disagree with but brings joy and love and hope to millions. My wish is for all to have a very Mery Christmas.

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    • qwertyuiop says:

      But there it is…..that tyranny of cheerfulness that is imposed on the likes of us who don’t feel it. “It was great for me, so you mustn’t say it’s not great for you too!”
      I haven’t liked Christmas since I left childhood. I get depressed every year, though I don’t have the problems described in this article. There are only a few things in this culture that really make people lash out at you, not liking Christmas is definitely one of them! I really don’t get it.

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  • Steven Howell says:

    Happiness is a choice, as we could all be totally depressed all the time by what we see around us — if we choose. Happily, we have CHOICE. Not ignoring the bad, in an ostrich sort of way, or ignoring those for whom the holidays brings sadness, but instead a choice to look — and dwell — on the good surrounding our lives.

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  • Alina says:

    Wohoo! This was hot! Isn’t it about getting together, family, friends? For me it is all about!

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  • Space Kitty says:

    This is a message I really needed to hear- thank you.

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  • JV says:

    Christmas was better last year!

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  • Playa Monster says:

    It is Merry specifically for the reasons pointed out in this blog…that the savior of the world was born out of the darkness to dispel it forever. They are not mutually exclusive and you cannot have one without the other. So have a truly Merry Christmas, because of Jesus, you can I can.

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  • JudyinBoston says:

    A friend told me about a similar Christmas Eve sermon he heard once in New York. Said it made him cry. Powerful stuff.

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  • eeyore says:

    Two thumbs up, would call bullshit on baseless, paper-thin holiday cheer again. Thanks, Caveat.

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  • qwertyuiop says:

    Family and friends getting together is wonderful, but why must there be a two month build up to that one day? Why is it more important than the time we all got together for Thanksgiving? Why does anyone care that I find Christmas fucking tacky and fake and obnoxious? Why do they jump down my throat for that opinion? Why can’t they see what I see???
    Why must people slap Santa hats on everything-porn images, Star Wars, you name it-and declare it Christamassy? Yes, the GODDAMNED MUSIC never changes, never goes away, never improves.
    What I do like is the Nativity story, I’m glad to see it talked about here. It’s meaningful when Linus says “Lights please,” and begins to recount the story, right there on prime time TV. “That’s what Christmas is all about.” Have they censored that yet?
    The utter hypocrisy of the rejection of anything religious but an unwavering attachment to secular commercial style Christmas drives me batty.

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  • xprmntl says:

    Oh boy, it’s always BS, but who cares?! Everyone reads whatever they want into Christmas. It was only invented as a holiday by what would become the Christian church as to offset the celebrations of the winter solstice and of the birth of the sky god Horus (son of the Mother god Isis–analogous to Mary)

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  • Mountain Bobby says:

    When Christmas comes along I think back to when all my kids were just small and the joy in their eyes, that is all I need to remember about Christmas when I look around at the way, what is a special time of year for Christians, to be hijacked by the commercial interests. I am not a Christian, but I can understand how some of us need to believe in something. For some of us it a belief that our art can and will inspire someone; for others, it is that we can do something to brighten someone else’s life, whether it is by a simple act, like thinking of holding that door, or just a smile. I know that I am a bit of the sentimental side, but what the heck we all have our faults!

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  • Sally says:

    Why should Christmas have to fit a single definition? I personally think Christmas is about it ALL, the light, the dark, the good deeds, the hunger, the sharing, the sadness, and the hope. Just like the rest of life.

    I just find it annoying that you think you need to tell others they are wrong because they don’t agree with you.

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  • bigDADDYD says:

    The last holiday season before the end of truth. Hold each other close, then fight like hell. No Fascist America!

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  • RLimoP says:

    You are guilty of one of the things you complain about, people pushing their beliefs onto you. So you don’t like Christmas, so what. Your business. People enjoy/hate the holidays for their own reasons. As with most opinions, best kept to yourself.

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  • Eric says:

    It’s amazing how bright even the tiniest light shines when the darkness around it is complete. Thank you, Caveat, for reminding us of this during the holiday season, when too often we don’t even allow the darkness to be acknowledged, opting instead to blind ourselves with excess and materialism. This reminder is especially important for the coming year, when the impending darkness may seem overwhelming. There is hope. And that’s something to be merry about.

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  • Gerflash says:

    The indoctrinated — better-known as the well-educated — have been misled to believe that because secular government is good and theocracy is bad, secularism must be good. But it isn’t.
    Secularism not only knocks out joy but also destroys ultimate meaning.
    Personally, I am Jewish, but I enjoy the season, the lights, the songs, and even do Christmas caroling annually.
    Curmudgeons like Caveat may be beyond hope, but I think most rational folks can still see the happiness in the season and take hope and more from that.

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  • xprmntl says:

    Secularism knocks out joy? Do tell! With some valid statistics, please…

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  • Gaar says:

    Global Warming is Burning Man. I am going to play Xmas music in my stupid spinning classes.

    Sunrise in an eggshell
    God know whatever for
    Illuminates the upper depths
    As if forever more
    Goodness should it ever bridge
    The sordid wake of man
    Will never frame the comming DON
    As only darkness can

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  • Tom says:

    As a born-again, Evangelical, Messianic Jewish believer in God and the Rabbi Yshua (Jesus) the Messiah (for those who need labels – oh, and an old age Creationist) I say, “WELL DONE!!” You are one of the few I have ever heard actually discuss this miraculous, joyful event in it’s appropriate context.

    God is, if nothing else, very “real”. He dips into the pain and injustice of this world and proclaims hope. He says, “Hold on! There really is someone on the other end of the line!”

    Nice job Caveat – If you hadn’t said otherwise, I’d almost think you were a Christian, too!

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