Autism Without Fear: The War on Christmas

12/25/2017 01:01 am ET Updated Dec 25, 2017

by Michael John Carley

<strong>Me, a long time ago.</strong>
Me, a long time ago.

(Sigh…Ever write an article that you hope your kids never read?)

I’ve heard there’s a war on Christmas…but I can’t find the recruiting office.

***

You might remember my writing about my autism spectrum interpretation of, and complicated history with the holiday of Thanksgiving. Well, spectrum folk can be just as individualistic, pragmatic, and outside-the-box in their takes on Christmas—or any other holiday for that matter (wait until I tackle Arbor Day!).

But whereas my take on Thanksgiving was complicated, my take on Christmas is simplistic, and characteristically literal-minded. It predictably starts and ends on what Jesus Christ would have really wanted.

But in honoring spectrum, pragmatic thinking, it unpredictably steers away from the Jesus Christ we think we know.

***

At the risk of being the 10,000th article you might read this season about how we’re missing the true spirit of Christmas, let me first alleviate your fears by reporting that, in Wisconsin, the freedom-fighting opposition forces have scored resounding victories over Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. “Merry Christmas” is all I’ve ever heard in my three years there, so feel free to pop the champagne. When I say my NYC-conditioned “Happy Holidays,” to respect the possibility of non-Christian experience, I get “Merry Christmas” in return, sometimes bitterly (”Those awful non-Christians—Trying to make us share”).

This is also not a column that’s going to be about the separation of church and state. More enlightened others can worry about nativity scenes in Jim Crow courthouses.

And no, it won’t be yet another article about how we’ve over-commercialized the holiday. Too easy. By now we’re so anaesthetized to the hypocrisy of TV commercial messaging that…we get it; but we just don’t care. Come on: every other ad we watch between October 20th and January 5th depicts skinny, heterosexual couples presenting cars to each other on Christmas morning (just outside their luxurious houses). Oh, how I barf inside…but we all shrug it off. “Meh.”

Why won’t I tell you we’ve lost the true meaning of Christmas? Because…we’ve never had one (true meaning…)! Like marriage, these Christian institutions are somehow imagined as foundational rocks of traditions that have held for centuries. Not true at all. Along with the rest of us they’ve actually gone through evolutions that would astound the uneducated. Long ago, for instance, all people did during the holiday was over-eat and get drunk—the church actually tried to cancel the holiday. In the 19th century, December 25 even had a borderline feminist bent wherein the men were expected to do the cooking, cleaning, and gift-giving. And if you must have a reliable leitmotif for Christmas, embrace the author of “Christmas: A Biography,” Judith Flanders’ feelings that our emotional throughline binding all Christmases is nostalgia, which she depicts as a positive, or the “reaffirmations of core beliefs.”

(Flanders, in an interview I’ve liberally borrowed from, states that she’s found instances from as far back as 1616 where people are lamenting how Christmas has lost its meaning.)

This article also isn’t about the loss of art that the holiday once inspired. The original days of James Brown, John Fahey, Anonymous 4, and Paul Hillier, for instance, seem gone. Nowadays, yes; it is an obligation—not an option—for an emerging pop star to put out an uninspired, God-awful Christmas album; or for an emerging classical tenor to release a holiday CD that is ten parts emotional manipulation for every one part artistry. I’ll let others tackle this too (but for crying out loud, doesn’t anyone have another “Fairytale of New York” in their system???)

And I sort of won’t tell you that we don’t do enough for the poor…even though people on the spectrum, if not people with all disabilities, have a much higher percentage of poverty than non-disabled people…

Last night, on a beautiful, cold, snowy, “Christmassy” evening, alone, deep in the woods of Lily’s dogpark, I began wondering, as I looked up at the night…if I wanted to enlist in this “war.” Again, not because we don’t pay enough attention to poor people (during a season that we’re supposed to) but instead because we’ve turned this time of year into the WORST time of year for poor people.

***

I’m not religious, but if we’re going to say we celebrate Jesus Christ’s birthday—a person who even full-on athiests believe existed—then let’s be real. He would want his birthday celebration to be somewhat about Christian assimilation, perhaps, but moreover doing everything to help the poor.

First, though, some reminders about the other parts of Christ’s personality.

• No, holidays weren’t about “family” for him. Christ wanted people to think of everyone as their family. He would regard our devotion to only our kids as utter selfishness. I can even see him walking around our houses and spitting on all the presents. Crazy, right? Well, he loved you, but he didn’t necessarily like you.

• Let’s not forget: so long as poor people were suffering, Christ didn’t like rich people at all. If you’re in this category, just understand that Christ wouldn’t have agreed with you that your situation was “complicated,” or that you still had a big heart somewhere. Even if you go to church, know that your local priest might be slightly afraid of giving you the bad news herein.

• Conservatives who made it this far in the article get a reward…The evangelical portion of Christ’s personality seems a shoo-in that he would support the angry refusal to say “Happy Holidays.” “Merry Christmas” herein wins!

He is what he is, folks. Somehow since his death we came to the conclusion that he…changed his mind? Or did we change him to support our lives? Depending on your politics, he became someone who loves guns and hates “fags;” or that he wants to kill rich people. None of this is true.

***

Shouldn’t this be the time of year in which poor people feel the most valued? A time where we not only help them, but also convince them of their worth as human beings? Because as stands, we’re doing the opposite. We bombard poor people with messages pressuring them to spend money they know full well they do not have. And their inability to drown their children in presents stigmatizes them as bad, or even unloving people, when this is simply not true.

It’s also unreal how we could come to this conclusion (that they’re bad people)! Poor people work harder than you or I ever will, and they behave in ways you don’t like sometimes because they suffer anxieties, and stresses, and emotional pressures, and depressions that you may never know. Poor people sometimes can’t give you that speech your dad gave you about hard work because they’re either working too many shifts, or they’re just sometimes too strung out from financial anxieties to come up with great parenting strategies.

And yet how do we gracefully handle our privilege of having escaped all that? How do we react to the relief that we were not born under the same, relative economic challenges? “They have too many babies,” “A lot of those Syrian refugees are terrorists,” “They don’t want to work.” We send poor people signals that their tragedy is their own fault. We take more and more from them—and lately, we even have the audacity, as we take it, to sometimes lie to their face and tell them that they’ll get it back!

***

Yes, that was a cheap shot at the recent tax bill. Also too easy, I know. A better attack should be aimed at the also-recent net neutrality bill. Why? Well, in the late 90s, when I was working at the UN, I listened to Queen Noor of Jordan give what I thought was the best example of how to measure poverty…internet access. Before her suggestion, no one could agree on a decent system to measure such an element like poverty, and we’d been making great headway since.

But as per recent legislation on internet speed now becoming contingent on economics, the rich will get information faster, the poor slower. So in an hour’s time a rich person will be able to learn more than a poor person. And really slow connections will discourage poor people from even seeking information.

Ok. You’re right: Our legal system, healthcare system, and educational system, have kind of always been this way. But it’s part of a continuing trend to makes the lives of the poor worse and worse, as we add more and more people to their numbers. Even liberals ended up fully abandoning poor people. Up to the 1980s, they included poor people in their agendas. But then the liberals became “neoliberals,” who cared about all the great, historically-liberal causes like racism, sexism, homophobia (for which I thank them), but they dropped poor people from their agenda—Perhaps because it was too aligned with socialism? Maybe the newer causes pushed it out. After all, it was hard to justify many of the wonderful, new babies in the liberal agenda—like organic food—as compared to chemically-injected, or genetically-modified food…when poor people were shut out of all the progress due to (in this case, organic food’s) increased cost.

Liberals may have originally shunned suit-and-tie corporate types, but culturally they then embraced the tie-less, Silicon-valley corporations. Ping-pong table rooms aside, the Apples, Googles, and Microsofts of the world took income disparity between top and bottom earners to whole new levels.

On the other side of politics? To hear non-liberals talk? Small business owners are the people that deserve our sympathies, not poor people. Not that they’re rich-they’re not—but by design, if small business owners…

Own their own business

…then they can’t be doing that badly, can they?

Should small business owners not want to be rich? No. I want to be rich too (ouch. I said it).

But how will I handle the aforementioned responsibility if I get there?

***

A long time ago I tried. I heard the messages about Christmas: that it was about the life of Christ, who loved poor people, and who was a pacifist. The pacifism angle appealed to me because I was growing up fatherless with a single mother because of the Vietnam war. Pacifism made sense!

But one day I just had to realize that I wasn’t good enough to be a pacifist. Pacifists (the real ones; not the ones who are just too scared to fight) are amazing people, and because I am not a pacifist, I am less of a person. But the lesson that overrode for, and swayed me was that bullies don’t stop unless they’re stood up to. Until I was the age of 10, left-wing grownups felt comfortable telling me that my father was a murderer. They stopped when I was old enough to slug them. Right-wing grownups told me I was a disgrace to my father if I didn’t salute the flag in a certain way…until I was old enough to slug them.

<strong>Me (left) with relatives over the holidays, late 1970s.</strong>
Me (left) with relatives over the holidays, late 1970s.

As a teenager, I tried to work at least a soup kitchen shift during the holiday season, to mingle, and listen to people’s stories. But while my family was supportive, they weren’t going to sacrifice their traditions to make way for my new one. I was not rebelling against those families and their values. I wanted to shout it loud that I was the product of them. But I struggled to make those shifts happen.

I looked at most of my friends, who were poor, who saw programs like “Toys for Tots,” and wondered if anyone had thought of them (as teens). But I guess “teen toys” were too expensive, or the teens too far gone.

In 1988, as a ridiculous graduate thesis, I lived out of my car for five months, traveling across the country working odd jobs to pay for food and gas. I paved roads, mined, washed pots, worked on a ranch, and I have worked in more than one factory. I was shaped by adventure, yes, but also by the stories of people who, unlike me, would remain in those jobs at incredible sacrifices to their bodies, emotional selves, and souls. Most people who lament the loss of a work ethic do not know how much harder poor people work than they do. Those who say “people don’t want to work,” either consciously (disgusting) or unconsciously (mind-bogglingly stupid) invalidate not only the aforementioned psychological barriers and traumas, but also the sickening nature of the jobs that politicians (like many in Wisconsin) promise these days: Those supposedly-marvelous careers provide salaries that are barely above the poverty line, and from which it is impossible to support the type of family that everyone—not just the rich—is entitled to.

***

Our immediate family spent about $1,300 total on each other this year. That’s slightly up from prior years, but the youngest is getting his first phone. We probably gave 40% of that to charitable giving so, again, we’re no better. And that new phone is going to make Bo jump up and down for a joy that I will share.

Maybe we could just call the holiday something else? It’s not that December 25 is unChristlike, it’s that it’s become the opposite…of Christlike. I won’t mind the change, and neither should you. None of us are, will be, or should want to be Jesus Christ.

But I still dream of some year, when the four of us would hop in the car with no presents for each other, and drive to Central America with hundreds of baseball gloves, or deflated soccer balls stacked in the trunk. After giving them away, and maybe playing in a game or two, we’d spend the holiday holding hammers, or saws, as we worked to build or repair the new school, the new health care center….

Flanders, the author of that Christmas biography, is spot on. Someday, right?

With love…to Father G. Simon Harak

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Peace, y’all.

Lily, at her dog park.
Michael John Carley
Lily, at her dog park.

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Michael John Carley is the Founder of GRASP, a School Consultant, and the author of “Asperger’s From the Inside-Out” (Penguin/Perigee 2008), “Unemployed on the Autism Spectrum,” (Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2016), and the upcoming “The Book of Happy, Positive, and Confident Sex for Adults on the Autism Spectrum…and Beyond!” In addition to this, he also writes the more local Huffington Post column, “Autism Without Fear—Green Bay Edition.” In 2000, he and his son were diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, and re-evaluated in 2014 under DSM-5, Carley was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. For more information on Michael John, you can go to www.michaeljohncarley.com. To subscribe to his columns and newsletter, please click here, fill out the contact form, and check off the box at the bottom that reads, “Yes. Please include me on the event mailing list.”

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