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We Won’t Go

by Miriam Axel-Lute on December 21, 2011

“Welcome here, or welcome not, old Father Christmas should never be forgot!”

Where, you might ask might Father Christmas not be welcome?

Perhaps if he is part of a rag-tag band of mummers, bringing a archetypal play about death and resurrection (old year, new year) overlaid with raunchy and politically loaded jokes that vary from year to year, into the front hall of your mansion. And then demanding to be paid for it whether they had been invited or not.

Merry traditional Christmas.

This is, perhaps, a good year to remember that the idea of Christmas as a nuclear-family-centered holiday involving mostly gift-giving comes from the 1800s.

Before then in Puritan America it was a fairly minor holiday. And before then in Britain and at least, the 12 Days of Christmas were a time when working class folks went partying and wassailing, singing songs from door to door and demanding food and drink and money in return. Others did the same with mummer’s plays.

They drove the cold winter away with good company, music, and lots of booze. And along the way, they occupied, if you will, public space, and sometimes private space, taking the opportunity that tradition and the Christmas story afforded them to demand a little recognition of social inequality and the things they suffered through in the rest of the year.

You can hear it in the older Christmas songs. Sometimes more strident, sometimes more in an appeal to charity, but nonetheless often much more willing to talk about tough topics than the top 20 radio Christmas songs we get played at us today. “Good master and good mistress, while you’re sitting by the fire, pray think of us poor travelers a wandering in the mire.” (Various wassailing songs) “Nowell nowell nowell, nowell sing we loud, God today hath poor folk raised and casted down the proud.” (“Masters in this Hall”) “When in plenty you are sitting by a warm fireside, You will tremble to think of the poor (“Time to Remember the Poor”) “And oh remember, gentles gay; you who bask in fortune’s ray; they year is all a holiday; the poor have only Christmas.” (“The Ditchling Carol”)

Some of the mummers play introductory songs are more explicit than others about these dynamics too. One features a “working man, they call him Common Jack. He puts food up on our tables and clothes upon our back.” At the end of that one, we are told, “the rich take all the money, but the poor will take the earth.”

(For anyone interested in older winter holiday songs like these, by the way, I recommend checking out the albums of Nowell Sing We Clear.)

Now I don’t advocate a complete politicizing of the winter holidays. Everyone needs to have a chance to focus on family and celebration and/or some inward-turning contemplation of the dark time and the coming new year.

Nonetheless, this is a traditional time for charity, and it is also a traditional time to face injustice and speak out about it. We’ve had a good lesson this fall, I think, thanks to Occupy Wall Street, in the power and relief that comes from not ignoring the hard topics, not being afraid to speak truth to power, not being afraid to come together and do what it takes to make sure that the stories of those who are suffering are not swept under the carpet and papered over with a bunch of formulas based on false assumptions and scapegoating of victims. There are ways in which forcing ourselves and everyone else to have the right conversation is the heritage of our winter holidays too.

Light in the darkness can be literal. Or it can be one candle of truth that calls other people to a park or a speakout to feel less alone.

It can also be the Christmas tree lights in the home of Brigitte Walker, a decorated Iraq War veteran on forced medical retirement from a shattered spine who is celebrating at home instead of facing foreclosure and eviction on Jan. 3, because Occupy Atlanta occupied her home with her. They generated the people power and attention to force JPMorgan Chase to agree to a modification of her mortgage loan. Which, it should be noted, is almost certainly going to be a better deal for the bank in the long run.

Civil rights icon Rev. Joseph Lowery said Occupy Atlanta was the main reason Walker got action. “They have become the conscience. They have touched the conscience of America.”

Homeowners facing foreclosure: Occupy Albany is laying the groundwork to do this for you too. You are not alone. Reach out: here or occupyalbanyfac@gmail.com or (518) 227-1861.

Today the light starts growing.