Laurie Essig Ph.D.

Love, Inc

The Cruel Optimism of Xmas

The Holidays take more wealth away from struggling Americans

Posted Dec 15, 2014

Xmas Decorations
Xmas Decorations

Perhaps this optimism is a result of the stories we tell this time of year? Most Christian and, to a certain extent, Jewish traditions related to this time of year tell of a better tomorrow.  A poor couple with no place to spend the night find shelter in a stable only to be greeted upon their son’s birth with angels and gifts from wise men. A besieged religious minority finds light where none is meant to be.   A reindeer who is bullied his whole life becomes popular among his peers because of his shiny red nose.  A mean and miserly man, Ebenezer Scrooge, learns human relationships are more important than money.  Is it any surprise that those who have the least cause for optimism, those who are destitute or homeless, bullied and besieged, are also the ones most susceptible to the cruel optimism of Xmas? 

And our optimism is expressed primarily through consumption.  Americans spend more than $616.9 billion dollars a year- or about $1900 per person- on the Holidays.  The average American household carries $15,593 in credit card debt, but the thing about averages is they don’t tell us much about reality. In reality, the top ten percent keep getting richer even after the Recession while 90% of Americans are worse off.   

It is not the super rich taking on household debt to pay for Xmas anymore than they are showing up for Black Friday sales.  Although there is not a lot of research on it, Black Friday is primarily an event for the poor.  As we know from YouTube videos, poor Americans are so desperate that they will fight one another over discounted electronics and clothes.  Not surprisingly Black Friday shoppers tend to be less white than the overall population and more poor and are also much more likely to be single mothers. 

My own single mother, a woman who left high school to have her first child and never earned more than ten thousand dollars a year, loved the holidays.  She would spend far more than she could afford filling her living room with gifts from discount stores.  In my mixed class neighborhood, it is the poorest among us, some of whose own daughters dropped out of high school to have babies, who seem to take the most joy in the holiday.  Many of them create entire Xmas villages while the more well heeled in my neighborhood skip the excessive displays of exuberance in favor of tasteful wreaths and subdued lighting. 

The cruel optimism of Xmas is reserved for those who need it most and also are the least likely to benefit from it. Cultural theorist Lauren Berlant argues that cruel optimism

 “ignites a sense of possibility (yet) actually makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person or a people risks striving; and, doubly cruel… such that a person or a world finds itself bound to a situation of profound threat that is, at the same time, profoundly confirming.”

Perhaps cruel optimism is what can keep the capitalist world spinning.  An entire year of minimum wage jobs, health insurance woes, not making ends meet, not being able to afford the basic necessities of being fully human in a culture based almost entirely on the ability to consume culminates in spending like there’s no tomorrow in the hopes that there will be a better tomorrow.  But as Berlant points out, it is this very optimism that prevents us from real change- in part because it provides hope.  And although the message of Jesus’s birth is one of hope, it is also one of extreme poverty and state oppression.  And even Santa and his workshop of elves can’t fix that.