What if we were to actually use the life of Christ as a basis for Christmas?
I have many beautiful memories of Christmas as a child. By age 6, I learned I could get out of church on Christmas Eve just by refusing to get dressed, a crucial lesson in the power of Gandhian passive resistance. There were always gifts under our tree purportedly from our cat, which taught me how much fun it is to create elaborate myths with only the loosest basis in reality. I still have a pirate ornament I had received after performing at age 12 in “The Pirates of Penzance,” together with a future “Daily Show” correspondent and a physicist specializing in quantum information.
But it was difficult then, and is impossible now, to believe that any of it had anything to do with the supposed subject of the holiday: i.e., the birth of Jesus. In fact, Christmas in the United States is the negation of that event. It’s a berserk bacchanal celebrating an Opposite Jesus, like one from the mirror image “Star Trek” universe with a muscle shirt and a goatee.
There’s a surprisingly small amount of material in the Bible about Jesus being born. But if we were actually to use it as a basis for Christmas, there are some basic things we could do.
In Matthew 1:20, an angel tells Joseph not to be upset that Mary is with child: “Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.” This suggests that Christmas would be a good day not to hassle women about how they got pregnant.
Then, in Luke 1:26, the angel Gabriel tells Mary, “thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age.” Elisabeth was over 60, so again, Christmas should be a time to remember that this is an area of life where pretty much anything can happen, and we shouldn’t get uptight about it.
In Matthew 2:21, we learn that the three wise men “presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.” Thus, on Christmas, we should give presents, but only to newborns, with one-third of the gifts precious metals and two-thirds some kind of resin.
More seriously, a biblically based Christmas could also take as its inspiration the teachings of Jesus when he grew up. Thomas Jefferson believed that the Bible contained “a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications” — but that this was mixed with “aphorisms and precepts of the purest morality and benevolence, sanctioned by a life of humility, innocence and simplicity of manners, neglect of riches, [and] absence of worldly ambition and honors.” So Jefferson took a razor to a copy of the Bible and sliced out everything he considered to be nonsense, and then stitched back together what remained.
The core of the Jefferson Bible is the Sermon on the Mount. In it, Jesus teaches us: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In the United States, 64 percent of people with a diagnosed mental illness say the holidays make their condition somewhat or a lot worse. Another poll found that 22 percent of Americans are somewhat lonely during the holidays, and an additional 19 percent are extremely lonely. Both surveys were conducted in pre-pandemic years. These results should be no surprise since U.S. society is more atomized than any that’s ever existed in human history, with an economy that rips families and communities into shreds and redistributes their members wherever is most profitable.
“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” Certainly this has never been true at any American Christmas. But in 2020, the meek are being actively disinherited just before the holiday. They may receive $600 apiece from a coronavirus relief bill, or $2,000, or there may be no coronavirus relief bill at all — but what’s certain is that the wealth of America’s 10 richest billionaires has risen by $400 billion during the pandemic. Meanwhile, the federal moratorium on evictions is set to expire on December 31, leaving at least 30 million Americans at risk of being thrown out of their homes. The bill that Congress passed, and President Donald Trump may veto, extends the moratorium by one munificent month.
“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” “Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” “Love your enemies.” Trump used Christmas Eve last year for a video call with U.S. soldiers stationed in Afghanistan, Kuwait, and the Gulf of Aden, telling them, “You’re tremendous warriors, and we appreciate it so much.” On Christmas Eve in 2012, Barack Obama’s administration conducted two drone strikes in Yemen, killing seven. On Christmas Day of 2013, a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan obliterated four people, with a Pakistani newspaper reporting that their bodies were so charred they could not be identified. In 2016, Obama visited Marine Corps Base Hawaii on Christmas to tell troops there that being commander in chief of America’s military had been “the privilege of my life.”
“When thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. … But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret.” There could not be a clearer admonition against organized religion of any kind. Yet half of Americans celebrate Jesus’s birth by attending Christmas services.
“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth.” The National Retail Federation estimates that we’ll spend over $750 billion on holiday sales this year, with the majority of that going toward gifts. A 2019 survey found that about half of Americans will take on debt for holiday expenses, with only half of those expecting to be able to pay it back within three months. Meanwhile, Visa and Mastercard are the 13th and 15th largest corporations in the United States, precisely because they facilitate trillions in loans that won’t be forgiven.
Finally, “whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock. … Every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand.” Perhaps there’s a loophole here for Americans, because it’s not clear how many of us have ever actually heard these sayings. Our house may be built on something in between a rock and sand, such as low-quality concrete.
Indeed, our Reverse Christmas is only possible because it’s just a modest extension of our standard modus operandi: To a greater or lesser degree, every day is Opposite Day in America.
So Christmas is America’s top Opposite Day, when up is down, day is night, and Donald Trump will be named the lead dancer for the New York City Ballet. But it’s by no means our only Opposite Day. Indeed, our Reverse Christmas is only possible because it’s just a modest extension of our standard modus operandi: To a greater or lesser degree, every day is Opposite Day in America.
For instance, George Orwell’s novel “1984” was published in 1949. Orwell thought he was making an exaggerated satirical joke by naming Oceania’s war ministry the Ministry of Peace. That same year, the U.S. Department of War renamed itself the Department of Defense. A good rule of thumb is that a country’s soldiers are generally only defending a country if they’re inside that country. Now, every day, the news media informs us how the Defense Department is defending us by doing things 7,000 miles away from America.
Likewise, one of the possible questions on the U.S. naturalization test is “What is the economic system of the United States?” There are two correct answers: “Capitalism” or “Free market economy.” It should therefore be obvious that whenever Wall Street or powerful corporations face disaster, the federal government leaps to rescue them with trillions of dollars. Likewise, the five biggest U.S. companies — Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and Facebook — exist solely because massive government spending developed computers and the internet, and massive government interventions in the marketplace protect the companies’ intellectual property.
The list goes on and on. We love freedom, which is why we incarcerate more people per capita than any other country on Earth. We believe in the value and dignity of work, which is why the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, or $2.13 if you’re waitstaff. We treasure free speech, so sitcoms will yank an episode if they’re scared it will make the president mad, “Saturday Night Live” kills segments that might anger big advertisers, and we claim the authority to prosecute an Australian for committing journalism in Malaysia, Iceland and the Netherlands.
In theory, Christmas should be the perfect time for Americans to sit and think about all of this — all the evidence that we have a propaganda system more enveloping and effective than any country besides North Korea. But that would require taking the theoretical meaning of Christmas seriously. So we won’t. We’re too busy getting ready for the next year of being exactly the opposite of who we say we are.