Friday, December 18, 2009

Season of Distraction

Christmas is, above all, a season of distraction, and this no less for people who’re retired and, with a vengeance, for those still in the mainstream of life. The festival certainly fits an agricultural society much better—especially one in the northern latitudes with a genuine winter. Life slowed down in those days although the chores, say of feeding livestock, still remained. In urban civilizations we live in a time shorn of all seasons—except shopping seasons: With great collective avarice, Society cheerlessly grants us one or two extra days of paid personal time off, but in its alternate manifestation, as the hysterical Economy, it uses Christmas to whip up a fierce storm of activity.

Back in those days (work-work-work) this time used to offer me mountain-sized opportunities for overcoming—reflexive tension and frustration. Some years I rose to the occasion—and those times are illuminated. Success required a harsh act of will simply to accept—and a decision to make the most of it. Mostly I failed, meaning that when “silent night” finally arrived, I could barely force my frozen features to unthaw into obligatory smiles.

More and more people, it seems to me, are joining what amounts to a silent resistance to the mad charade—certainly in my circles of acquaintance. It takes collective family effort, coordination, planning, and agreement: limit the festival. I remember when we first began (about thirty years ago) with interesting experiments—like deliberately celebrating Christmas a week late, holding down the giving, emphasizing togetherness or religious observances, and staying clear of malls. One of our nice innovations was to use large, colored sacks. We embroidered these each year with messages—and used the sacks to hold unwrapped presents. Much more fun to embroider with others while laughing together than to wrap all alone…

Large parts of the population seem to be participating in this quiet revolution. Or so it seems. For some significant number of years already, the retail sector comes up short. I feel for the sector. But having had any number of down-sized Christmases since we began, I notice that they grow on you; opting out becomes habitual. And the more people get with this sensible program, the easier it is.

All this illustrates how very long it takes for vast collectives to change behavior. A tanking economy certain helps, but the price, it seems to me, is high. What is intellectually thinkable and physically possible—namely to shift to an economic system in which far fewer jobs depend on retail consumption and more and more on public services—is not always achievable without the helping hand of trouble and chaos.

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