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The Politics of the Holiday Season

If you visited a major news site a few weeks ago, you likely encountered video guides to the crispiest-skinned turkey, the richest gravy, or the most gossamer of pie crusts. But you also likely found a different kind of guide, perhaps about what not to bring to the Thanksgiving table: the increasingly inevitable political talk. This year, a new poll showed that 58 percent Americans had anxieties over the subject coming up during the meal. CNN, NBC, Salon, Fox, and Huffington Post were among the of sources offering guides to avoid political battle mid-Turkey carving.

Thanksgiving was only the beginning. Throughout December, Americans re-enact the scenes of the War on Christmas, whose generals, tactics, and counter-insurgencies are as predictable as they are inevitable. This year, the first shots were fired early, with controversy over a Starbucks holiday cup that depicts two men holding hands in Christmas sweaters emerging a full month before the holiday, a fitting temporal distortion for a company that now releases pumpkin spice lattes in late August.

And Christmas isn’t the only holiday under attack. Less than a week after the holiday, the lead-up to New Year’s will see us rehashing every political debate of the past twelve months via “Bests and Worsts of 2017” lists.

With the re-emergence of the politicization of celebration comes further barrages of pleas for peace. For all the concern over political battles that may ensue during the holiday, the fight to keep the holidays apolitical is almost as heated.

Maybe we are reaching a point of recognition. After publishing a guide on how to avoid political talk in 2012, and a how-to in the unhappy event politics do come up in 2013, The Atlantic has taken the logical next step.

This year, David Graham wrote “Go Ahead, Talk Politics at Thanksgiving,” but his logic was little more than a fatalist acceptance of politics as corruptors of the once-holy holidays. He said that, given Trump’s constant media presence and the higher stakes regarding the State of the Union, political discourse is inevitable.

Rather, consider the following: the holidays have always been political. Whether we take our holiday feasts swimming in Trump Talk, with a small dollop on the side, or with an unspoken family agreement to disagree, we must recognize that the holidays are inherently political in their formation, dissemination, and celebration. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.

On the most basic level, the question of what the holidays actually are is a loaded one. The focus on December carries with it the legacy of Christendom and Western dominance, which, depending on who you ask, is either something worth celebrating or bemoaning. It would seem tempting to depoliticize it with an appeal to the seasonsthe respite of the fireplace and familial warmth seems more alluring during cold days and even colder, drawn-out nights. This could help explain why Passover and Easter don’t hold a candle (or eight) to Hanukkah and Christmas when it comes to being a capital-H Holiday, despite their equal-if-not-greater spiritual significance. Except December means summer for half the globe, not winter — even the ostensibly innocuous explanation through weather shows that defining the holidays requires some spatial, temporal, and cultural biases.  

The specific holidays of the “Holiday Season” show the politicking of any given fête’s formation. The fraught relationship between Native Americans and the Pilgrims forms an uneasy backdrop to the Thanksgiving Cornucopia; most scholars accept that we celebrate Christmas on December 25th at least in part due to the clout it had in the Roman Empire as the Winter Solstice. Many Jews believe that Hanukkah, a spiritually minor holiday, exerts its outsized commercial influence only due to its temporal proximity to Christmas. Finally, New Year’s brings into view the question of calendrical authority. The question of what calendar to use draws upon some of the largest-looming figures and moments in history, such as Caesar, Jesus, the French Revolution, and, as evidenced in contemporary celebrations of Jewish, Chinese, and Islamic New Years among others, a question that remains unresolved.

The substance of the holidays is no less political. Even the most superficial questions evince the combative soil of celebration. This Thanksgiving season, the Huffington Post suggested that questions like “Which side dish is your favorite?” and “Which pie do you prefer?” could replace queries that produce political tension. I beg to differ, having weathered both a stuffing-off and a pie battle in which any choice brought the wrath of at least one relative. Not only do these debates become as heated as political ones, they can extend to the fundamental inquiries of modern political discourse. I have seen the question of adding Ras al Hanout to the turkey bring the battle between conservative stand-by-your-spice mix attitudes and liberal experimentation to a head. Partisans of dark-meat and white-meat, homemade cranberry sauce and the ersatz canned variety can defend their gustatory preferences with a party-line fervor that flirts with identity politics: I’m a drumstick guy. She’s an apple pie person.

I admit that my belief that the holidays are political comes in part from personal circumstance. My mother’s side of the family is Jewish, a tradition in which I was raised; my father’s is Catholic. My family tree includes a not-insignificant smattering of democratic socialists, many party-line democrats and republicans, and a branch of far-right relatives (one wrote a book on the “Jewish 9/11 Conspiracy”).

But when I’m listening to Christmas music for hoursI’d call it a guilty pleasure, but the alternative is listening to Dreidel, Dreidel, which is too much pain to bear for religious authenticityI can’t help but notice the political narratives so many artists have woven into their holiday platforms. Noel Regney and Gloria Baker wrote Do You Hear What I Hear? as a call for peace in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. “Pray for peace, people everywhere” is the most direct lyrical reference, but people have further interpreted “a star, a star, dancing in the night with a tail as big as a kite,” as a reference to an incoming missile.

Then there is John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),which pits a universalizing holiday spirit against the tensions plaguing society: “And so happy Christmas/for black and for white / for yellow and red ones / let’s stop all the fight.” While it could be seen as a call to end the political tensions in the name of something sacred and non-partisan, it’s unabashedly political in its own way. With a children’s choir evoking holiday bells, singing “War is over, if you want it,” it uses holiday-themed holiness to disseminate its message just as it appears to say such a spirit transcends political leanings.

And “Do they know it’s Christmas?”, Band Aid’s pop-star emporium charity-anthem during the Ethiopian Famine of 1983-1985, has been criticized for patronizing lyrics like “Where nothing ever grows / No rain or rivers flow” with regards to Africa, and even its title. As the website Genius has pointed out, in Ethiopia, “Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January…From the Ethiopian perspective, it was the pop stars who didn’t know when Christmas was.” At the same time, the song raised over 8 million pounds, or about 27 million 2017 US dollars, for its cause; its problematic execution thus stands in conflict with its positive impact. Pop culture, which both reflects and helps form our image of the Holidays as consumers, politicizes just as readily around the season as bickering relatives.

This seems pessimistic. Is nothing holy anymore, quite literally? The depoliticizing urges around the holidays reflect an earnest desire to keep them the last frontier of agreement amid the ever-expanding politicization of everything. But recognizing the holidays as political need not negate their value. It’s a bad cliché to begin or end an article with an appeal to a keyword’s etymology, and a worse one to qualify a tendency as a cliché but employ it nevertheless because the present case proves why it’s so overused.

But here I will do both: politics comes from the Greek Politika, or “affairs of the cities,” which owes its origin, in turn, to polites (citizens), which itself stems from polis (city). That the holidays are political proves, as the word itself indicates, that they are both communal and individual. While celebration centers on this idea of “togetherness” (hence the holiday heartbreak anthems on being alone at Christmas), personal preference looms equally large, as any jealous present-opener can attest. The way that we fight—often with the people we love the most, about the beliefs we hold most dearly—is an illustration of how much celebration matters, whether for the Hallmark Holidays this time of year or any other.


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