On Keeping Christmas

I love Christmas: to begin with. In a world so thoroughly immiserated, Christmas’s annual attempt at fraternity and giving, at eating pie and drinking to rapturous excess has always seemed like a worthy enterprise. The paeans to renewed and redoubled winter romance that occupy the radio each year fail to disturb me. Rather, they animate me at some garish melodic core.

But loving Christmas hasn’t always come easy. As someone whose first and most treasured intellectual commitments were to the many varieties of inquiry that go by the name critique, my allegiance to this most sentimental of seasons has sometimes been, to put it lightly, a problem. Imagine me, many years ago, reading Aesthetic Theory, desperately trying to reconcile Adorno’s ruthless critique of cultural production under capital with the Griswoldian holiday glow of a very different kind of enlightenment. It came out like a nightmarish koan on subconscious loop: “what is the proper tone row for an Adornian Christmas song?”

These attempted reconciliations were all rooted in the implicit understanding, one I felt I should adopt fully, that December’s lurid sheen stood opposed to anything like serious critical work. Despite my desire — mortifying as it then felt — to cite Christmas Geist far and wide, it seemed that Christmas in the academy was only available as a joke told with cool detachment; that the schticky sentimentality and boundless cheer requisite of the season had no place on the urgent battlefields of critique.

As I spent season after season haunted by the phantasm of Christmas, a friend finally had enough: “We all know we are jaded or at least that we are supposed to be,” she said “but you love Christmas. Just jump off the fucking bridge!”

And so I did.

I made (and annotated) a playlist, I drafted invitations for a party, I began to explore in earnest the bewildering sensorium of potpourri. But on the other side of my reindeer’s leap I found something surprising. I wasn’t able to fully submit to my childlike ardor. For the world from which I leapt remained, gnawing at the edges of my Christmas idyll.

And yet: what I finally realized is that the opposition between Christmas and intellectual sobreity I had established so firmly in my mind was precisely not what Christmas was about. The jump into Christmas was never meant to flee the world; it was meant to gird against it, to grasp at something that might transform the most frustrating and dire moments of our enduring political quagmire. Christmas is a story we tell to ourselves: a grand confabulation improvised over contingent times. It attempts to reimagine all the mundanity and melancholy, dread and fear, against impoverishing odds.

This matters. For in the midst of the catastrophic, crushing weight of history, our headlong manthropocentric species-being-toward-death calls out for supplement. Christmas asks us to imagine forms of relation that include the vulnerabilities of hope and joy; it insists that we gather with friends, and dream in earnest a world otherwise. In the absence of the structural changes to our political-economic systems we so desperately need, we might think of those perennial toy drives and coat collections not simply as markers of inequality, but as evidence of the genuine possibility for redistribution – that there are those who would give such that others might have. In all their tasteless excess and gaudy glee, these moments force us to syncopate ourselves to different rhythms of collectivity (the party, the crowded market, the overfull train), they give us occasion to channel our everyday melancholy into forms of collective flourishing and communion.

And in the still-tightening psychic twist of 2017, we need collective projects. Unabashed and unashamed, Christmas asks that together we seize on uneasy hope and hopeless ambition. One of the best ways we do this, I want to suggest, is music. Christmas music — that tawdry cousin of the top 40 — addresses us in our most public spaces: on the radio, in the store, diffuse through the saccharine atmosphere of crackling, tinny speakers. In its very season-being, it is imagined and reimagined at constant: a canon in dizzying variation, covers and adaptations appear yearly ranging from synth-pop to a cappella, orchestral to, well, this. The nonce-collectivities that gather around these shared objects open genuinely communal spaces, making possible the irruption of wassailing on the most silent and dark of nights. Rather than immediately dismiss these songs as trite anthems of bourgeois capitulation, we might try to hear those huge, overbearing melodies and insistent rhythms as soliciting us at one of our most basic levels.

Also, they are sad.

While a fair portion of the Christmas canon seems hell-bent on unmitigated cheer, much of our most familiar standards are shot through with a foundational sadness. Richard B. Smith wrote “Winter Wonderland” while convalescing in a sanitarium recovering from a particularly debilitating bout of tuberculosis pining for his native Pennsylvania. “I’ll be Home for Christmas” was meant to index the dream of reunion across the oceanic void during the Second World War. Just think at the level of language: “we’ll have to muddle through, somehow”; “ye beneath life’s crushing load”; “Baby, please come home.” These are not songs of joy. They are songs of disruption, yearning, and loss. They are the sound of the world tearing itself asunder, and offer patchwork to the fragile, fraying social fabric we all inhabit. They are forms of deep commitment and imagination; and we decide how to use them.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t think critically. It simply means we don’t imagine criticality as a zero-sum project of dismay and disapproval. Criticality and sentiment have never been exclusive: they foster and propel one another. And when this is brought to the fore, their particular imbrication leads to a richer communality: gathering around, muddling through, all the dazzling possibilities of thinking together. The affective weight of Christmas, overmuch as it may sometimes be, is never without the recognition of a world deeply flawed, and the insistence on forging more durable and lasting bonds. As the darkness of this year passes seemingly unchecked into the next, as we confront yet unseen terrors, forms like these will be what sustain us, allowing us to gather, and in the absence of anything more, attempt to find ourselves together.

Robert Cashin Ryan is a Ph.D. student in the department of English at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He tweets at @wreckpark and can be reached there for an annotated Christmas playlist.