My family was never into Christmas. We were just too African to really feel it. Christmas is a feeling. The gifts, the trees, the little lights, the stockings, the carols were all a big bother without this feeling. For my family, Christmas was a time to go to a loud bar, drink heavily, wake up late the next morning with a hangover, and have a big brunch with the hair of the dog. When I relocated to the United States, married, and had kids, my African Christmas came to an end. I was now an American with an American family and American relatives who, like all Americans, were super into the day that celebrated the birth of a man who claimed to be the son of the man who created the whole universe.
I learned to become accustomed to the whole business, which requires waking up at 7 a.m. and watching desperately excited kids opening present after present. During the panic of unwrapping, I sit in a comfortable chair, drink coffee, do a few bills in my head, and wait for the moment when it's appropriate to drink something strong in front of everyone (about 10 a.m.). By around 11 a.m., there are no boxes left under the tree and the kids have about their faces the nimbus of a junkie finally hit with a fix.
Christmas for my American family happens in Portland, where the relatives live. And during the trip down from Seattle, stops are made at small towns for gas, snacks, and restrooms. The kids love how rural people go nuts with the lights and decorations. Christmas is for these people that form of Bataillean expenditure or excess that's needed to release social pressures. You can see all of the money and time they wasted to make their ordinary homes galaxies of the Christmas spirit.
My kids particularly love a house in Kelso that's across the street from a gas station. A sheriff lives there, and his entire garden is covered with shimmering lights and ornaments. There is a glowing Santa by the home's front door, a glowing overgrown elf near the side of the garage, a glowing snowman by a pine tree, and the star of Bethlehem on top of that tree.
Kelso is in Cowlitz County, and like all of the other rural and small-town counties in Washington State, it voted for Donald Trump by a considerable margin (17.1 percent). But when someone made a cardboard sign that directly quoted Trump's line "Grab them by the pussy," Kelso made its police department take it down. The sign, made by a local resident and intended to "start a conversation," was deemed offensive by a number of upstanding Kelso citizens—it was posted less than 500 feet away from a school (think of the children) and violated the city code of disorderly conduct by encouraging sexual assault. And yet these people voted for Trump. What's wrong with Kelso? Was the town under some evil spell? How could all these fine Americans, so passionate about the birth of Jesus Christ, overcome their repulsion for Trump's very own words and make him their leader?
It's like a horror movie, the kind that takes place in a classically American small town. The people are friendly and satisfied with their quiet, normal way of life. But you can't help feeling there is something that's not quite right. While walking down the town's main street one night, a person, usually a woman with frightened eyes, pulls you into an alley and warns you to get out of town before it is too late. You ask her to explain herself. But just as she is about to provide an answer, the sheriff with the Christmas lights appears out of nowhere and asks if everything is fine. The woman hurries off with her head down, and you are left looking after her and back at the sheriff with confusion, and then the strangely smiling sheriff offers to give you a ride back to your motel at the edge of town.
The terror arises from the disruption of the ordinary. It makes you realize that the ordinary is terrifying just as it is. This is how I now feel about small-town America in the age of Trump. How on earth can you be good people when you vote for a pussy grabber but can't bring yourself to look at his own words?
Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life forged a permanent link in the popular imagination between the small American town and Christmas, and that iconography is the most identifiable trait of Christmas films from White Christmas to A Christmas Story to Gremlins. The main street and its family-owned businesses, the lonely country road, the little bridge over the frozen stream, the mat-stamping of freezing feet before one enters a home in the woods, the warming of cold hands at a fireplace, the smoke rising from the chimney, the tops of pine trees, the slowly falling snow. This is the structure of Christmas feeling. And It's a Wonderful Life associated this feeling with the idea that small American towns were populated by the kindest humans in the world—hardworking, honest to God, ready to help when help was needed, and committed to the deepest and most ancient community values. The bad people were rich and individualistic. Money mattered to them more than the good of all.
But these people have revealed themselves to be Trump voters. They hate strangers, they have guns loaded and ready in their humble homes, they hang burning effigies of Obama from trees, they oppress their women, they do not care about climate change because only their God can bring the world to an end. And when it ends, only they will be saved. The rest of us will enter hell and be tortured by demons forever.
We're now living in a world where the people of Bedford Falls have sided with nasty old Mr. Potter. Instead of banding together to bail George Bailey out of a jam with their nickels and dimes, they've formed a lynch mob to string him up. Donald Trump has made Christmas movies into horror movies for anyone not born into the comforting illusions of white, small-town America.
This Christmas, I'm going to revert to my African ways. I will go to a Portland bar on Christmas Eve, drink until last call, wake up late in the afternoon (spent wrapping paper of long opened presents on the floor or in the bins), eat something heavy with the hair of the dog, and, on the return trip to Seattle, not stop in Kelso or any other small town. I never want to see the horror of Christmas lights in rural America again.