In her biweekly column for Document, McKenzie Wark finds the pagan spirit of the season.
All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray. Walking across the park on a chilly day, I spot the Christmas tree, freshly lit, resplendent in green. The tree is considered “secular,” so here it is, on public land. It’s no such thing, of course.
This tree has pagan roots. The ancient Germanic tribes bent a bough of evergreen across the cold, hard snow and slaughtered a beast upon it. Imagine: the scent of hot blood, subliming into the frigid air. That splash of red amid the dim grays, or blinding white.
It’s all about life, death, and the seasons. In the deep of winter, the evergreen is the living tree among the bare skeletal fingers among the deciduous. Sign of the spring to come, when all else greens. The beast, sacrificed and honored, that human life might go on until the rest of life swells again, when the days lengthen and air warms.
As is the tendency with many such rituals, over time signs came to stand in for the meat of the matter. Rather than sacrificing an animal, a tree would be hung with preserved meats and other durable winter foods. Those in turn, to be replaced by ornaments. Now we have the sign without the thing, and forgot the thing.
Being, by temperament at least, a pagan, I want to hold onto some of what the tree can stand in for, and rethink it a little in these times. When all seems desolate in the northern winter, the tree is a reminder of abundance. That the world really could be a place of plenty, if only we’d treat it right.
This is different than the Christian story. In that one, winter is the time when the savior is born. In spring he dies, on Good Friday. Upon his death, what we are supposed to owe him is an infinite, unpayable debt. The tree is not about anything infinite. Even abundance has its limits. There is nothing infinite or eternal in the pagan worldview.
When my kids were little, my co-parent and I loved to make a little Christmas theater for them. I used to have qualms about this. My French publisher, Aliette Guibert-Certhoux, set me straight: “It’s surrealism for children,” she said. “Make the marvelous happen! What’s wrong with that?”
I decided she was right. When people complain about the excessive consumerism of Christmas, it just seems to me to be a covert justification for the regular consumerism of the rest of the year. It doesn’t really rise to the level of a critique of the whole consumer economy.
A little pagan worldview might help with that: rather than making our God the infinite expansion of consumer capitalism, what if we thought about an abundance that has limits? A world where there really could be enough, in both senses of the word. Enough, meaning sufficient, and enough, meaning no more after that.
It’s not enough, but maybe some little rituals might help us think that way. Even as a kid I wasn’t all that keen on Santa. You’re supposed to sit on some man’s lap and promise to be good according to some arbitrary grown-up-imposed standards or he’ll withhold joy? Fuck that. It’s patriarchal and coercive. And creepy.
My co-parent and I didn’t make our kids promise anything. They don’t owe Santa anything. They don’t owe us anything. We’re the ones who dragged them unbidden into this existence. And so there would just be a marvelous moment of abundance, gathered around our tree, come Christmas day. In our version of the story, Santa would be just some guy. A delivery worker, but also a stand-in for the potential abundance of the world. We left him a little gift, too. A plate of homemade cookies. Always tip your server!
Sure, our Santa theater is make-believe, but with little kids it’s a way of making the world seem enchanted—and it deflects the possibility that a child will feel obligated to a parent as the real gift-giver. I wanted my kids to grow up to be good people because it is in their gift to be so. Not because of a debt to the abstract other, or the fear of one. I wanted them to feel the capacity for their own abundance in the abundance of the world.
This is not that far removed from how Sartre thought: that we are condemned to freedom. That it’s bad faith to claim that it is the other who makes me do what I do. We have to accept that we are what we do. We could accept responsibility for our own actions without the conceit that we obey gods or masters, because of a debt to them. I take that to mean acting out of one’s own abundance, and along the lines of the potential abundance of the world.
The tree in the park is for me the sign of that possibility, its green branches laden with fairy lights. Even in the stark, bare winter, there could be enough for all, enough of enough. It’s a seasonal ritual, in a time when seasons are getting weird. It’s December and it’s barely been cold in New York. The climate isn’t what it used to be. Something has to give.
Those who own everything and imagine we owe them everything propose austerity as the solution. For us and not for them, of course. The alternative is learning to share the gifts of abundance. But gifts are tricky things. Unlike a commodity that you buy, a gift you receive implies an obligation. Gifts create debts, but maybe there can be more than one kind. While I don’t want my kids to feel any debt to me as a parent, I would like them to feel obliged in some way to love the world back for its abundance.
Sometimes obligations can feel exorbitant. Owe everything to God, or—what amounts to the same thing in today’s America—owe everything to the market. These supposed gifts come with obligations of obedience. Maybe, instead, the way to repay the gift of abundance is just more abundance. To make one’s capacity for bright, warm life a little gift in itself.