The Holidays Are More Like Burning Man Than You Think

The holidays are for everyone. They welcome the stranger. They encourage Gifting. The holidays encourage Radical Self-reliance, especially in 2020. They encourage us to maintain and develop community. They want us to be all-in, and they encourage us to be in the moment, to be here, now. 

But I think we need to take a breath and think about the holiday season in a different way, however you choose to celebrate (or not). This season is a time when different groups of people come together to celebrate, all at various times in various ways, combining different customs, cultures and ideas. This is a season based on traditions and ceremonies — some sold, some new. In non-pandemic years, many of us travel to a destination — making a pilgrimage, perhaps — which may take extensive planning and expense. For some, it’s a homecoming of sorts. 

One central idea behind the holiday season is that it’s a time for peace, love and joy, all wrapped up nicely in festive tackiness (in the best possible way). It’s easy to ignore the consumerism spackled on top of the colored lights, delicious confections, and sequined sweaters with images of reindeer or dredels. It’s also easy to ignore the impassioned whining of the permanently offended who opine about the mythical “War on Christmas.” I say let them have their religion, we’re going to have some fun instead! 

A snowman in the city, with dreams of Burning Man dancing in their head (Photo by Brian McGloin)

I grew up in Connecticut with NYC-born parents who have a whole lot of Irish Catholic traditions. Although I went to a Roman Catholic (thanks, Constantine!) parochial school from kindergarten through eighth grade and spent a few years in a Boy Scout troop that went to church after campouts, I never really believed in the religion aspect of it all. To give you an idea: I generally had Ds and Fs in religion class but As and Bs in science class, to the continuous horror of my parents. 

By the time I got to high school, or maybe sometime in my 20s, I was firmly in the camp that Christmas was one more tedious, fake holiday to be endured. I wanted nothing to do with it and would recoil in angered horror at the mere mention of it. 

That all changed when Reverend Billy (lemme get an Earthalluja!) introduced me to the idea of Buy Nothing Day. Or maybe it was Adbusters magazine. Either way, that’s when it started to sink in that Christmas is for everyone and that it’s even more meaningful and a lot more fun with none of the religious baggage and dogma attached. I figured, if you can do Burning Man without going anywhere, then you can do the holidays without going anywhere or buying anything. Who says we can’t make it whatever we want? Bring your own traditions, ideas, and add it to the mix. Radical Inclusion makes a more robust and stable community that’s a whole helluva lot more fun anyways. 

As the 2020 holiday season began, I started thinking in Burning Man terms, comparing the week between Christmas and New Year to Black Rock City. When viewed through the same dusty lens, they’re actually not that different.

Photo taken by Kevin Haas at Burning Man in 2007, titled “Oh Christmas Tree”

We can take all the wonderfully tacky parts and traditions of whatever holiday you celebrate this season — the ugly sweaters, bright lights, Gifting, gathering with friends and family, complaining about getting together with friends and family — and Burnerify them to be something more representative of who we are. Burnerify them into something more like what we want to be: How can we include more ideas and people? How can we take selfishness and consumerism out of the season? How can we trade loathsome obligations for fun and play? Perhaps we should ask ourselves, “What would Caveat do?”

Maybe Buy Nothing Day can be some combination of Greeters and Gate, a point where we cross that line in the dust and begin to celebrate and mourn the twilight weeks of 2020. We can substitute the previous year as the journey from getting the idea to go to Burning Man to finally turning off Washoe County Route 34 onto that bumpy unpaved road. Getting the time off work, finding a ticket, figuring out how to get to Black Rock City, getting camping gear and arrangements sorted, figuring out how not to become a desiccated zombie. 

Burn Night can be Christmas Day or the eighth crazy night of Hanukkah or the Karamu of Kwanzaa. This is Burning Man after all, we can disobey time-space if it fits a narrative. 

Temple Burn can be the winter solstice or New Year’s Eve. The Temple is a way to remember, to mourn, to celebrate, and to release. For many Burners the Temple is a way to release pain, a way to release the tension of anger, a way to remember those who have passed on. For many people, New Year’s Eve is the same. It’s a way to think about everything that happened in the previous year, honor and release it, and then reset for the new year ahead.

I think the next time we build Black Rock City we’re going to need a bigger-than-ever Temple, and it’s going to be even more significant (if that’s possible) than in the past. I also think this New Year’s Eve will be bittersweet; 2020 will be fading as we flip the calendar page, but we may not have many of the familiar faces surrounding us to celebrate the end of the shitshow year and beginning of renewal. New Year’s Eve for many may be a symphony of despair and glee, just like the night of the Temple Burn.

If there’s no right way to do Burning Man (we’re all doing it wrong anyway, right?) then there’s no right or wrong way to do Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, winter solstice… 

I’m curious about how you celebrate your chosen holiday, or — if you did but don’t anymore — how you used to. Because there’s no wrong way; the holidays are for everyone. 

May all your celebrations burn bright (safely) this holiday season.


(Cover photo courtesy of Danil Aksenov)

About the author: Brian McGloin

Brian rolled through the dusty gates of Black Rock City for the first time in 2011, which was his first year as a volunteer in Media Mecca, as well. A few years later, Munney yelled across Media Mecca that Brian’s playa name was now The Hustler. When Brian gets breakfast burritos in the Portland Farmers Market, he uses the name Cornelius. On and off playa, you can find Brian riding a bike with one gear and carrying around a film camera.

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