Posted by: ithacaisdoomed | December 24, 2009

A Christmas Eve Message From Ithaca is Doomed

In a recent piece in The Guardian, George Monbiot wrote about the effort to redefine humanity:

Humanity is no longer split between conservatives and liberals, reactionaries and progressives, though both sides are informed by the older politics. Today the battle lines are drawn between expanders and restrainers; those who believe that there should be no impediments and those who believe that we must live within limits.

I highly recommend reading this article yourself.  I’ve been thinking about it in the context of this season of both giving and excess.  At no other time of the year is the contrast between restraint and expansion so vivid.  Historically, the Christmas season has always had its elements of excess–this was the main reason the Puritans outlawed the traditional celebration of Christmas in Colonial New England.  A this time of the year, it was customary for roving bands, composed primarily of young men, to go from house to house, “wassailing.”  Under threat of violence or vandalism, these bands would coerce the master of a household to share some of his “private stock,” of liquor, ale, or good food.

This sort of “turning of the tables” custom has been widespread: in the European Kalends Traditions when revelers could shake off some of the restraints imposed by the Catholic Church.  In the Feast of Fools, when a “kingly fool” was chosen by lot, and who then got to behave without restraint, consuming, chasing women, and insulting everyone around.  In the Antebellum South, masters often served their slaves on one special night of wild disport and merriment.  Underlying all of these customs was an attempt to reinforce the status quo:  the hierarchy could maintain its dominance a bit easier if those lower down were given the illusion of some freedom. In America, these customs were so widespread, and so potentially troublesome, that there was a deliberate effort to shift the Christmas celebration away from the “wassailing” and merriment towards a more quiet family, oriented affair–accompanied by a movement into a controlled, capitalist orgy of giving and receiving the gifts advertisers propagandizing the American public to desire. Now, Americans’ lack of restraint in spending money they might not even have has come to uphold a good deal of the global economy. 

In addition to these traditions of sanctioned excess, the Christmas season has also featured those more reflective traditions, quiet inward looking traditions, most notably the recognition of a Saviour’s birth, but also the birth of a renewed sun, as the longest night of the year finally gives sway to increasing day.  I’m not a religious person, but I struggle with meaning this time of year, and search for it just as earnestly as the most pious.  How amazing the solstice must have been in a world without electric light!  How sumptuous the rituals of excess in a world where you produced your food yourself!  And in the days before strands of LED christmas lights, how magical to awake on Christmas morning to a tree glowing with lit candles!

Circumstancial reality imposed the limits on people that made the Christmas excess seem all the more precious. Why even an orange tossed through your log cabin door by a reveler posing as Saint Nicholas was a special thing! 

The Austrian Krampus would give a child an orange before beating him with a rusty chain

Nowadays, I can walk into Wegmans anytime of year and pick up a quart of orange juice.  Profligate use of fossil fuels has dissolved many of the old limits and just about any desire can be satisfied on a whim.  However, for many, limits have reared an ugly head as people have lost their jobs and homes due to the machinations of an expansionist “free market economy.”  For the record 73 million Americans on Foodstamps this Christmas Eve, knowledge of limits is becoming all too familiar.  Reality, whatever it might be, could mean learning to both recognize and live within a new set of limits.

Are you an expander or a restrainer?  I ask this not from any implied expertise or sense of moral superiority, but as one who struggles with the question just as surely as anyone else.  Minute by minute, second by second, we can be bombarded with messages, exorting us to excess–the messages from the “expanders.”  The expansionist voice would even have us believe that by choosing the right gift we can do a little bit to “save the planet,” as though that task has ever been any one person’s responsibility.  Who and what are we trying to save?  This Christmas, I’m trying to find meaning in living as a restrainer.  I’m trying to discern  the voice of a new reality.  I’m hoping that I can restore my own sense of meaning, and that the bit of excess I allow myself this time of year will be all the more precious because I have heard the call.  May your Holiday be filled with both limits and excess…and most of all, meaning.

Next week:  The Ithaca is Doomed Predictions for 2010!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: