United States

Visions of Sugar Plums

December 8, 2019

       In all its glory and baggage, December is the height of the Holiday Season in the United States. It showcases the carefully curated gloss of consumer culture alongside the wilted state of the American dream. The Holiday Season begs the question: When did Americans stop being referred to as citizens and begin being termed “consumers”? December is a time of imperfect family reunions accompanied by white-picket-fence depictions of smiling families on television. The mother places the roast beef on an immaculately tidy dining room table and the family happily passes the food around. Naturally, the scene is devoid of clutter, tense political discussions, or any other hallmarks of a reality too dysfunctional for TV. Picture-perfect as the children's visions of sugar plums in Clement Clarke Moore's famous poem, "The Night Before Christmas," these ads herald the beginning of the Holiday Season.
        Despite my evident cynicism towards the capitalist hijacking of the Holiday Season, I am nonetheless inured in the staged glamour of the culture into which I was born. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, about an hour from the city itself. Generally, Christmas is about magic for children in the United States. Though rife with the overripe reality of economic inequality, the Bay Area is no exception to this rule. When my sister and I were young children, a trip to San Francisco in December served as a yearly rite of passage. To us, the plain green city limits sign on the Golden Gate bridge was a proclamation. To us, the amorphous fog that cloaked the city was like a gate through which one must pass to truly feel the kindling in the heart known as the Christmas spirit. To us, the only thing missing from the fantasy was the blanket of snow present in all of our winter-themed picture books. Even with its lack of snow, if downtown San Francisco doesn’t get you into the Holiday spirit, nowhere will.
        After all, San Francisco is a gleaming and bustling mecca in December, a jewel filled with a myriad of smaller jewels just a few too many dollars above reasonably priced. Some of my most beautiful and vivid childhood memories of December involve San Francisco. When I was six, I remember clumsily skating on the smooth, cool expanse of the ice rink and posing for pictures with my sister next to the great tree downtown. When I was seven, I remember marveling at the even greater tree spanning all four stories of Neiman Marcus in Union Square and gushing about the tiny kittens on display in the Macy’s window. When I was eight, I remember going to see the Nutcracker at the Opera House on Van Ness. I waited with rapt attention for the house lights to fall and for the first of the graceful ballerinas to pointe-toe her way across the stage in perfect harmony with the familiar melodies of Tchaikovsky. In our quiet East Bay suburb, I eagerly anticipated my own yearly performances in my school's production of the Nutcracker, hoping I’d look just as elegant in a red lip as the prima ballerina. Through the narrow lens that child-me viewed it, San Francisco during the holidays was pure dream-stoking splendor.
        Despite its power to bring joy and wonderment, December also possesses the power to isolate and to exacerbate loneliness due to its commercialization. The televised fantasies that spur consumerism during December impart new meaning upon the line about visions of sugar plums dancing in the children’s heads in "The Night Before Christmas." It is almost painfully awkward to watch a near-perfect depiction of a family around the holidays while being keenly aware of reality’s dearth of sufficient love and prosperity to go around. My metamorphosis from enamored eight year old to world-weary eighteen year old was a gradual one. As a child possessing great privilege that no one had ever made me aware of, the world seemed entirely perfectible through acts of kindness and charity. Suffering seemed to be the exception rather than the rule; a Protestant work ethic seemed a universal safeguard against failure. I became more politically aware in early high school; adjacent to this newfound awareness was my awareness of the inequality surrounding me. I studied historical reality as opposed to the highlight-reel heavy with American exceptionalism that pervaded my elementary education. I realized the magnitude of past systemic inequalities and their continuation into the present. Although I knew that my privileged upbringing had sheltered me, I had never before realized the full extent of this sheltering. Often the children we all have been are the only ones who readily believe that our visions of a sugar plum world will someday come to fruition.
        As I've matured, I've learned to accept December as the mixed bag that it is. December is the comfortable unity in helping my family prepare Christmas dinner and the anxiety brought on by a persistent feeling that I'm missing out on some life-affirming experience to neatly cap the year as it draws to a close. It is a reminder of the universal nature of shared values and of amoral commercialization. It is dressing glamorously to attend a Christmas ballet in San Francisco and practically stepping over homeless people on the way to the theater. My view of the Holiday Season's magic is a distinctly privileged one, one that often relies on feigning willful ignorance of suffering. Much of San Francisco is downtrodden, bitten by the reality of a devastating economic crash eleven years ago that many never recovered from, the reality of living in one of the most expensive cities in the world, and the overarching reality of vast wealth disparity in the United States. Although the world is not perfectible, it can be bettered through systemic change to remedy the economic hardships that disproportionately affect marginalized people in the United States. I now view December as a beginning and an end, a time of rest and a reminder of the work that is yet to be done. 


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