At Its Best, Christmas Is About the Joy That Fuels the Struggle for Justice

It is in the darkest time of the year that we must make room for, and remember, the light.

This is a truth that finds a place in many religions: Right around November and December we find Hindus, Jains and Sikhs setting out lanterns and candles to celebrate Diwali; Jewish families lighting menorahs; crowds releasing floating lanterns in the Yi Peng festival in Thailand; and Christians lighting not only the pine tree they have brought into their home for the season, but also, for some, a new candle on each of the four weeks of Advent leading to Christmas Day.

Christmas as it has been commercialized is a season of consumption and ease, which is particularly sad given its roots in an often-misunderstood but deeply radical concept: joy.

Audre Lorde wrote compellingly about joy: “The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.”

Perhaps this is not the year to talk about joy. Who would want to celebrate a season of light in this deep darkness of 2020? Given the difficult realities we have all faced, the cultural trappings of Christmas can seem like harmless escapism at best, dangerous denial at worst. Is there a way to approach Christmas in 2020 that is neither despair-riddled nor the tragically oblivious consumerism of modern Christmas?

The story upon which the season of Christmas is based is difficult to verify. It is possible, though, that this is less a reason to dismiss the story entirely than a reason to listen even more carefully, because ancient religious stories did not exist in order to portray historical, literal fact. These are stories that were shared to answer entirely different kinds of questions: questions about hope, survival, ethics — and, yes, joy. What can the story of Christmas tell those of us who work for justice about the place of joy in this seemingly joyless world?

Let’s start at the beginning: We misunderstand Mary, often presenting her as a sort of spunkless version of a Disney princess. In contrast, the Christian scriptures seem to go out of their way to portray Mary as brave, powerful and free. That much is clear to anyone who reads her prophetic vision, often referred to as The Magnificat, which was banned from being read aloud in India under British colonial rule and was outlawed in Guatemala in the 1980s due to its themes of liberation from oppression and justice for the poor.

Joseph, of course, had the power to make or break Mary when he found out about the pregnancy. He could have exposed her and had her stoned to death for the crime of being pregnant before the official consummation of their marriage; he could have simply left. In that time and place, when women were treated as property, he would not have been outside his legal rights or social norms to do so, but he opted for something better than social norms: to become a co-parent with her. Joseph allowed his humanity to triumph over the patriarchy that formed him — a suggestion made to him, of course, by an angel. It is clear what goals of the Divine are in this story so far, and it has nothing to do with upholding patriarchy or dominant sexual norms.

On Christmas Eve some 2,000 years ago, we find this couple trudging slowly to Bethlehem to be registered in a census. Scholars debate the historical veracity of the existence of this census, which, again, is why we need to listen all the more closely to what truth the ancient storytellers wanted us to hear: Jesus was born in an occupied territory, and lived at the mercy of the Roman Empire.

The child is born among animals, welcomed by laborers who tend to the sheep in the nearby fields. Mysterious visitors from a foreign land descend on the young family, bringing gifts to celebrate this very nontraditional birth. A short time later, the family will flee to nearby Egypt to escape a genocide. They will return when it is safe once again to live in their homeland, and they will raise their family in a town called Nazareth — a small, off-the-beaten-path town not known for producing greatness.

The Christmas story is a story of a miraculous birth, of people from different social locations witnessing what Christians call the incarnation, the birth of God-with-us. But it is also a story about loss: the loss of the comforts of home, of familial celebrations of a first child, of safety. These are losses that feel deeply familiar in 2020.

We have all lost something in 2020. This is true every year, but this year it is a particularly communal experience. The losses that resonate the most widely are the most commonplace: birthday parties, family gatherings, dinners with friends. We lost hugging people outside our immediate household. Some of us lost our financial stability. Some of us lost friends and family.

“Disenfranchised grief” is a term used to describe the experience of feeling like one is not “allowed” to feel one’s own grief. This is the kind of grief we associate with losses that do not fit neatly into socially recognized packages, losses that are not given the social stamp of approval: grieving the death of an ex-spouse, for example, or the loss of a childhood friend one has not been in touch with for years.

On a communal level, 2020 has been rife with disenfranchised grief (albeit alongside “socially acceptable” grief). Certainly, knowing the depths of pain for those who lost loved ones, face financial ruin, or are anticipating losing housing can make expressing grief over annual get-togethers or anticipated graduations feel out of touch. It’s clear that the loss of life is not on the same level as the loss of a much-anticipated gathering.

But the lack of parity between the losses does not mean that the smaller losses are not real and deserving of their own attention. When our first response is to tacitly shame others for naming their grief over things we deem insignificant, it is usually a sign that we are also forgetting to acknowledge our own losses, as unimportant as they may seem in the face of a global pandemic.

When there is little room for grief at the inn of Christmas Eve, there is also little room for joy — real joy, not simple comfort or ease or numbness. We who work for social transformation are often suspicious of joy in that we worry it may fuel complacency. Could joy be the opiate of the masses in a secular age? Audre Lorde, again, reminds us otherwise:

That deep and irreplaceable knowledge of my capacity for joy comes to demand from all of my life that it be lived within the knowledge that such satisfaction is possible, and does not have to be called marriage, nor God, nor an afterlife….

For once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves capable of.

Lorde reminds us that disenfranchised joy, just like disenfranchised grief, is real. There is no recovering one without the other, and both are necessary for transformation. Recognizing, honoring and making room for one’s joy is central to the work of social change.

The “joy” we speak of at Christmas is not the joy of escapism — it is the joy that fuels social change. It is the joy that, if we abandon it for cynical self-denial or consumerist ease, renders us trapped in our own outrage or despair, limiting our ability to live the world that we hope for into being. This is a joy rooted in the struggle of hope and the power of empathy, a joy from which all resistance and resilience springs.