‘Tis the season…for leftist ambivalence toward commercialist and patriarchal holiday traditions.
It’s no wonder that many leftists have mixed feelings about holiday festivities, given their link to oppressive institutions and crass cooptation by capitalism.
Celebrating the virgin birth of a male deity who was to become king can be alienating for those who have anti-hierarchal, feminist values, and likewise many anti-Zionist internationalists struggle with ethno-nationalist expressions of the Passover holiday.
Secular, national holidays like the 4th of July and Thanksgiving are even more offensive, as they enact a false and incomplete narrative of the US’s settler colonial past.
Nearly every holiday has also become an excuse for marketers to pressure people to shop (Black Friday and Christmas most notoriously), while the temptingly secular New Year’s Eve often feels like a joyless mandate to get drunk and pretend to be having fun.
The looming prospect of political arguments over the dinner table with family adds another dimension to our mixed feelings about the holidays.
However, it’s worth thinking about what holidays and rituals mean, or could mean, for the left. Rituals and holidays serve strong emotional, social needs. Taking time to gather with loved ones, marking the seasons and the passage of time, reflecting on the year past and setting hopes for the year ahead — all of these are positive things that are just as relevant to leftists as anyone else.
While rituals and holidays are most commonly used to affirm exclusive national, ethnic, and religious identities while upholding the authority of oppressive institutions from church to state, it doesn’t have to be this way. By structuring our holidays around anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and anti-oppressive values; and centering narratives of liberation, solidarity, and perseverance within our communal rituals, we can turn them into important sources of strength and community.
There is a long history of reinterpreting and reclaiming hegemonic holidays to serve liberatory ends. I know some people who seek to do so in a serious, faithful way — for example, leftist Jews whose interpretation of Passover is a message about the struggle for freedom from oppression for all peoples, or leftist Christians who see in the story of the nativity a message about the dignity of the poor migrant. I know others who make small, lighthearted gestures to try to give existing holidays a different spin, like my friends who baked an apple pie decorated with a hammer and sickle for “Redsgiving.” An alternative holiday can also be a form of protest, such as the coining of Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a replacement to Columbus Day.
A deep re-interpretation can completely change the meaning of a holiday and its traditions, as the Soviet celebration of New Year’s demonstrates. Complete with a New Year’s Tree, this avowedly secular holiday involved gift-giving (delivered by Grandfather Frost and his granddaughter, the little snow maiden) and other originally pagan elements of the western Christmas holiday. A particularly communist twist was topping the tree with a red star. The holiday is still celebrated in much the same manner in the former Soviet Union today and among émigrés, regardless of their religious affiliation.
There is no reason, however, for the left to restrict itself to reinterpreting mainstream, hegemonic holidays. We can make our own! New holidays and ritual traditions can help affirm our values, teach our own histories, and build our community and chosen family. Many leftists have tended to align themselves with certain interpretations of scientific rationalism or critiques of religion, eschewing oppressive traditions while paying less attention to their replacements.
Yet there are examples of holiday and ritual-making on the left and aligned movements. The creation of May Day to commemorate the Haymarket martyrs is a holiday that belongs solely to the left and has been celebrated for over 100 years. The creation of Kwanzaa as a new, Pan-Africanist holiday, intended to serve an explicitly political project of Black nationalism, is an example of large-scale movement ritual-making in action. The struggle for the creation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a national holiday is another example of the importance of holidays to movements. In Paris, the fall of the 1871 Commune is remembered every May with a type of secular pilgrimage to the Communards’ Wall in Père-Lachaise Cemetery, where members of the Paris Commune were executed and buried.
Yet living in a capitalist society, these histories and their significance may be lost. As a result, many of us don’t actively celebrate these alternative holidays or think about making new ones to address the social conditions of today. The aesthetic retreats from mass consumerism that neoliberal society offers (solo hikes through beautiful nature, a solo cup of organic tea, listening to music through headphones) can be a welcome break, but there is also restorative healing to be found in groups and masses when we do something joyous together. (I was once again stirringly reminded of this reality while watching this scene from the movie Pride.)
So how can we revive and create anti-capitalist, anti-oppressive holidays? In recent years I have developed two new holidays that I have been celebrating with friends and family. One is May Day Eve, a Seder-like meal the night before May Day. Drawing on the history of May Day and other workers’ struggles, we read poems, talk about history and recite “affirmations” of our values and hopes for the world. A rosewater and cardamom cake is served after a singing of “Bread and Roses,” in honor of the Lawrence Strike.
“Martyrs’ Day” is held approximately six months later, to honor the dead including our left heroes. On Martyrs’ Day, each person shares a particular person they would like to honor (participants’ choices have included our own grandparents, Claudia Jones, Clara Zetkin and Ursula K. LeGuin), and we read poetry and sing songs about martyrs of the left, reflecting upon how this tradition deals with death and its lessons.
A memorial altar is decorated with red carnations — a flower that has a tradition of memorial use on the left — and the night is closed with a “purging” of evils, in which we write something we wish to do away with (previous choices included “sectarianism,” “management,” “for-profit prisons” and “Trump”) on a piece of paper to be burned in a fire bowl. (A previous tradition was to write it on a pumpkin that was tossed out the window or smashed). Naming the dead so they will not be forgotten and singing about maintaining hope in the face of fascism felt particularly meaningful this year, as a holiday fell shortly after the white supremacist murder of two African-American shoppers at a Kentucky Kroger store and the anti-Semitic murder of eleven congregants at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
If you’re thinking about developing a new holiday ritual, some considerations that might be helpful: even if there isn’t a specific tradition going back forever of doing a particular thing, linking it to a history can still help make it feel meaningful. When the anxiety and precarity of 21st century capitalism starts to eat away at our confidence, talking openly about it with others, and retelling the histories of people who fought the same battles before, can give us strength. There are many organizations and collectives dedicated to documenting movement history, and looking through calendars and web resources can be a place to start.
It can also be helpful to make a discussion of the meaning of the holiday part of the ritual itself. Throwing a May Day dance party is (very) fun, but it doesn’t do much to remind attendees of history of May Day or to encourage them to reflect on why we still celebrate it. Nor does it serve as a pedagogical tool for those who are new to the movement and just learning about its past. If you have a smaller group gathering, consider incorporating an activity where people share something personal. Creating supportive spaces for people to talk about personal things creates bonds of trust between people, which is good for our communities and movements. Connecting our personal experiences to a larger narrative is both a signature part of organizing, and also a signature part of how ideologies and religions help people interpret and create meaning out of their lives.
Some examples of left rituals in a non-holiday context may also be inspirational. The annual graduation ceremony of the University of Massachusetts Social Thought and Political Economy (STPEC) undergraduate major involves a potluck dinner in which graduating seniors, their classmates, teachers and family all commune at someone’s house, break bread, and do a short ceremony of affirmations and reflections. Graduating seniors are “pinned” with a black and red star pin, and the event is closed with a celebratory shot of tequila. Camp Kinderland, one of the only remaining “red summer camps” from the 1930s, holds an annual candle-lighting ceremony to remember the victims of the Holocaust, and another to remember the victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The camp also holds an annual “Peace Olympics” where children are assigned to teams named after political movements and groups (recent ones included Black Lives Matter and the United Farm Workers). In addition to sports competitions, the kids also learn about their team’s movement and create a mural about it to hang in the Paul Robeson Playhouse. This year I also participated in a thoughtfully planned memorial to Heather Heyer at Mayday Space in Brooklyn, which was held on the anniversary of her death.
As the holidays descend upon us, let’s remember that we have the capacity to break free from hegemonic traditions if we so choose. It’s easy to succumb to inertia and maintain traditions because there is a playbook and people know what to do. But if we take the time and care to dream with each other about what sorts of holiday practices would actually reflect our values, the possibilities are vibrant. We can build new holiday traditions to reflect the most urgent political and social conditions we face in the current moment, as other movements have already done in the past. What would it look like to translate the urgency and immediacy of anti-capitalist struggle, the movement against racist violence, 21st-century feminism, the revived labor movement, the movement against borders, and the other struggles of the contemporary moment into holiday practices that reinforce and breathe life into these movements?
Perhaps we can use these year’s holiday gatherings to start asking our friends and family to try some new practices, and brainstorm about new traditions we could develop for next year and share with our broader communities. Let’s build a collective knowledge base of joy and celebration!