The Beast of the Epiphany


The comedian Richard Herring has a Christmas story he tells about a thirsty cat in a bathroom. He was sitting on the toilet and reached across to turn the bath tap on for the cat, which then lapped enthusiastically at the water. He says he found the sight hilarious, but imagines that the cat also had quite an amusing view… though, as he goes on to observe, Jesus had the funniest view, getting the combined sights of the drinking cat and the “fat, defecating man”. Because, as Christianity teaches us, Jesus is always watching.

Now, I’m not sure I agree with Herring’s interpretation of Christian doctrine. He’s similarly dodgy in his representations of most religions, in his New-Atheisty way. He tends, as such people do, to take the worst and/or silliest possible interpretations of religious ideas and then generalise them, and to essentialise the religion he’s attacking along the lines of such thick-end-of-the-wedge strawmen. However, it’s also true that a) he’s unambiguously joking, what with saying most of this stuff as part of an open project of, y’know, being funny for a living, and b) he’s deliberately using his own infantile interpretation of religious ideas as part of his usual method of deriving irony from weaponised childishness.

(One day, when I write my massive series about Lee & Herring - comedians who fascinate me both as a team and as individuals - I’ll mean-spiritedly itemise Richard Herring’s many embarrassing forays into simplistic, Dawkinsian, secularist liberalism.)

More pertinently to this essay, there’s something on point about his combining of the concepts of Christmas and of surveillance… because, rather surprisingly, they turn out to be inextricably linked.

As we know, you’d better not pout, you’d better not cry, you’d better be good. I’m telling you why: Santa Claus is coming to town. He knows when you are sleeping, he knows if you’re awake; he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.

It’s a perfect example of shit we’re told as kids that we take for granted, and which the world as a whole winks at or takes as fun, but which is actually bloodcurdling when you stop to really think about it. All over the world, children - including almost all the ones you know, and are at school with, and are friends with - are gearing up to receive presents from a magic, benevolent man… but you might not get any if you fail to obey the rules set for your behaviour by the unaccountable authorities above you, including those who claim to love you. If you disappoint or anger those authorities by infringing their laws, even in your deportment, you might find yourself deprived and excluded from a massive fun game that literally everyone else is getting to play. Of course, you could argue that very few kids these days genuinely believe they’re likely to wake up on Christmas morning to a stocking full of coal. I’m honestly not sure, looking back, if I believed stuff like that or not. I’m honestly not sure, looking back, if I genuinely believed in Santa Claus at all… but then I’m far from sure how much of a role ‘belief’ really plays in motivating human actions and behaviours. It’s all very well for people like Sam Harris to confect little socio-neurological Just So stories about why people do stuff. I suspect that, out here in the real world, complex chains of human actions and interactions have little direct, linear, proximate causal relationship to any discrete mental artifacts lodged ‘in’ brains that we might call ‘beliefs’. Personally, I suspect it’s got far more to do with history, social context, and language games. I also suspect, relatedly, that most children understand - at least on some level - that Father Christmas is a figure comparable to Batman, i.e. someone you enact the performance of believing in for ludic and experimental and pleasurable purposes. And, as me and Gramsci often say, ideology doesn’t actually have to be convincing or believable - or even be believed - to work; it just has to be hegemonic. Even so, we tell kids that a supernatural agency is watching them throughout December, monitoring their actions and attitudes for conformity to an estranged and uncontrollable standard of acceptable behaviour, and using these criteria to decide whether or not they are to be materially deprived and socially punished. (And, though this is very far from being a perfect analogue for how most Christians think the universe operates, there certainly are many out there who - like their cousin-under-the-skin Sam Harris - would extend this basic structure of discipline and punishment to the cosmic management of immortal souls.)

But this is not just a kids’ game, or even just an adults’ game that adults foist on kids (which is what a disturbing number of kids’ games really are).

Take the quintessential Christmas story, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the fawned-upon fave of Victorians everywhere and everywhen, more frequently filmed than a kitten in a boot in front of a smartphone. There’s plenty to say about this thing, i.e. the way it peddles the pernicious doctrine of charity (so expertly exploded by Oscar) while also, ironically enough, putting most of today’s high-profile ‘philanthropists’ to shame by making Scrooge a sincerely self-denying ascetic who lives frugally and pays his taxes like a non-rock star, expecting the system to actually do what it claims to do and provide for those who can’t provide for themselves, and refusing to bail the system out when it makes such provisions a living hell and then waits for the Big Society to feel guilty and step in. And then there’s the whole notion of ‘the surplus population’, so lambasted by Dickens when applied Malthusian-style to the English poor, but so embraced by him when he was talking (elsewhere) about what a good idea it would be to exterminate Indians because some of them had the temerity to mutiny against the British empire. And then there’s the way Scrooge’s conversion to paying higher wages and being jovial seems to make everything ticketyboo with capitalism. And so on. For my purposes here, I want to ask one question: what is this story but the story of a man who is watched? Whose every move and feeling and moral choice is surveyed and weighed and judged and calculated by an utterly merciless, unfeeling, ruthless Providence? Marley’s Ghost tells Scrooge that he has sat beside him many times, unable to make himself seen or heard. Marley’s Ghost is, of course, chained forever, condemned for eternity to travel amongst the living, not only suffering (it seems that Providence - like all power and authority - is immune to its own sanctimonious injunctions towards pity and charity and mercy and forgiveness) the pangs of remorse and self-reproach and helpless frustration, but also watching. Marley and his fellow ghosts must always watch us, which means conversely (in one of those conversions that are strangely so often lacking from the conversation) that we must always be watched by them. And above this layer of ghostly, fettered, repentant, reluctant watchers there is the authority which sentenced them to this eternity of miserable voyeurism. And that authority may be divine, but it is also a manifestation of conventional Victorian middle class propriety filtered through the moralising correctives of the brain of Dickens. The Cratchits appear to deserve to not starve because they are noble and patient and humble and thoroughly convergent with middle class Victorian notions about the proper way for the poor to behave. Scrooge, meanwhile, seems to deserve to die and rot and then be consigned to Hell because he failed to meet God/Dickens’ moral standards.

Lest we think that this is a one-off, let’s look at some of the other big Christmas stories in pop-culture (we’ll leave Chekhov out of it, as I don’t believe his Christmas stories have ever been adapted by the Muppets). There’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Now, again, there’s plenty to say about this. Frank Capra - a conservative in his day - looks like Bernie Sanders surgically fused to Michael Moore in today’s world of a GOP playing top Trumps while Rome burns, with this folksy parable about how greed is a form of morbid sickness and the banker/monopolist fuckheads who suffer from it manage to keep themselves in gilt-edged toilet paper by systematically screwing up the working man’s chances of having a roof over his head. Conversely, there are the seeds of the now-rampant fallacy of relative privation, in which Heaven itself seems to sanction the idea that relative privilege invalidates any complaints one might have about the world being unfair. But, again, for my purposes here I want to zero in on one thing: the fact that George Bailey’s entire life is watched, from start to finish, in minute detail, from above, by totally unseen and unaccountable powers and authorities which proceed to judge his value, his morals, his decisions, his priorities, his failures, his choices, his very right to decide whether or not he goes on living. (And that’s without getting into the matter of his wife’s life being similarly watched, but as a by-product!)

There are two wrinkles here that are quite interesting, I think. Firstly, there is the fact that, this being a movie rather than a book, it is structured so that we the film audience get to watch George’s life from above too, as if we are sat in space alongside Clarence and the pulsating constellations during their heavenly board-meeting-cum-spying-session. The second interesting wrinkle is the one I just hinted at: the way the film depicts Heaven as being run like a corporation, with decisions made by an unnamed entity who is clearly the chairman of the board, advised by ‘Joseph’, in conversations about staff aptitudes and promotions. That’s clearly what ‘getting your wings’ means: climbing the departmental greasy pole of the afterlife, which implicitly works like Madison Avenue, with the angels as status-obsessed Junior Level Mid-Management Corporate Sales & Marketing Executives. Glowing Danny Husks and harp-playing Don Drapers, all vying for an office closer to St. Peter, or scheming their paths upwards to Cherubim or Seraphim via a year-or-two making a name for themselves in Powers or Principalities.

Aside from taking the opportunity to be snarky, I mention this because it works according to a startlingly similar logic to A Christmas Carol: the sensible bourgeois standards of morality, efficiency, decency, and proper behaviour, are employed by authoritarian voyeurs - simultaneously middle class and divine - who then judge the moral value of a person’s life. At Christmas.

It also leads nicely into another famous Christmas film released the year after George Bailey got his life dissected and mended for him by his supernatural CEOs: The Bishop’s Wife starring Cary Grant as Dudley, another interventionist professional Angel who is practically indistinguishable from the Madison Avenue executive Grant would later play in North by Northwest (and not just for the usual reason that Cary Grant characters are indistinguishable from each other). Like Clarence, the sharply-besuited Dudley is sent down from Head Office on a Christmas mission to sort out the problems at one of the branch offices. He reports back on his progress at regular intervals and then goes on his next assignment like the well-travelled corporate fixer of souls (Human Spiritual Resources, we could call it) that he is. Dudley’s assignment - David Niven’s Bishop Broughm - has, like Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey before him, had his entire life watched, evaluated and judged from above by utterly invisible and unaccountable powers and authorities who take it as their right to spy upon his every thought, deed and choice.

The Bishop’s Wife is, if anything, even more disturbing than It’s a Wonderful Life, because not only does Dudley represent such a prying and spying divine corporate autocracy, but he also exercises both physical and emotional manipulation, direct mind control, and memory wipes, violating his victims’ psychological privacy and autonomy in ways that make him look positively Kilgravian. And, like Kilgrave, he gets away with it because he’s a handsome, charming, smiling, well-spoken white man in a smart suit. Indeed, he doesn’t just get away with it: the film drools all over him as an inspiring example to us all of elevated heavenly morality, even as he treats everyone around him as a puppet.

The peculiar connection between Christmas and surveillance even finds its way into Doctor Who. Remember “and incidentally, a happy Christmas to all of you at home!”? (You should, Jane just wrote a great thing about it.) Well, what’s that but an acknowledgement that, at Christmas, even as you watch the Doctor, the Doctor watches you? Indeed, he can peer out of the television at you, and see you and your mince pies and sherry. The connection is fairly innocuous in that moment, though there is something potentially queasy in the fact that it happens in the middle of a story about the Solar System being run by a totalitarian police state which keeps perfect records of every person alive, and is overseen by a megalomaniac who delivers the most fatuous of bromides about “peace, progress and prosperity” to newsreaders who respond with “I’m sure all the people in the Solar System echo your thoughts Sir” in a tone that would make Andrew Marr look radically iconoclastic… However, by the time we get to Doctor Who’s own ‘A Christmas Carol’, we’re back in the old festive territory of stories about lives being comprehensively watched and picked over - and meddled with - by unaccountable, moralising voyeurs who impose their bourgeois standards of propriety on people without troubling to live by those same standards themselves.

But then, as Neil Faulkner said, every society creates Christmas in its own image.

During the recent Eruditorum Christmas Party Shabcast, I learned for the first time of a truly horrifying American custom: the Elf on the Shelf, a sort-of festive Annabelle-out-of-The-Conjuring, who is slyly moved around the house by parents when Jnr isn’t looking, to give Jnr the impression that he or she is being followed around and supernaturally monitored by one of Santa’s paid-spies, like a worker being scrutineered on CCTV by a boss’s busybody foreman… but with the cameras set into glassy elven eyes. Again, I’m prepared (as a non-parent) to be sceptical about how much actual stock actual children actually put into the idea that the Elf is actually watching them… but still, this whole thing makes my blood run cold.

Of course, it’s really just an admission - strangely both literal and metaphorical at once - of an everyday fact of childhood: that children are treated as powerless subjects of petty dictators both domestic and institutional who are, if the kids in question are lucky, benevolent. The idea that Santa (or Jesus, for that matter) watches us from above, with divine panopticonic peering-rights into every aspect of our physical and emotional lives, is horrific enough once taken literally and seriously pondered for a second… but, like many such naked lunch moments, the vertiginous and epiphanic instant of realising that this-or-that idea harbours interior horror is only an invitation down a rabbit hole of more such realisations, until what is being realised is no longer that this-or-that idea harbours interior horror but rather that, in the world as it currently exists, interior horror is simply what ideas in general are there to harbour.

The interior horror being harboured here is essentially that we must pay for our prosperity (assuming we have some) with personal subjection to the moralistic dictats, the ideological platitudes, the hegemonic ideological assumptions, the harboured horrors, the conventional quotidian tyrannies, of life in bourgeois society.  Children are, after all, simply those being relentlessly prepared by adults for the miseries of adulthood.  What is school but a preparation for a lifetime of turning up on time, five days a week, and doing as you're told?

Those who look long into Christmas must realise that Christmas also looks long into them.



David Brain 5 years ago

Superb thought-provoking piece, thank you.

On one point: the comedian Jason Manford does a routine about telling his kids that whenever the red light went on in his household alarm "movement detector" system in the living room, that was Santa watching them. He said that it worked brilliantly for a couple of years, and then he came in one day to find them holding a toy catalogue up to it and saying "...and I'd like this one, and this one..."

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Jane Campbell 5 years ago

Lest anyone forget, remember that you are always being watched by your subconscious. Yes, even your own eyes are a part of the Panoptican. And they will judge you when you face the ultimate mirror.

Merry Christmas.

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Jack Graham 5 years ago

My work here is done.

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Aylwin 5 years ago

It's a bit metaphysical, I know, but it's the only fair way.

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Citizen_Alan 5 years ago

I just gave myself a migraine from rolling my eyes at this.

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Jack Graham 5 years ago

My work here is done.

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Shannon 5 years ago

Actually, the Elf on the Shelf is just as terrifying as it sounds. I wrote a whole essay about why there is no way in hell I am ever getting it for my kid, with the surveillance aspect only being one part of the awfulness:

Most kids just seem shrug it off, but some parents have said their kids have truly started acting out-of-character and developed anxiety over the thing. Smart kids.

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Shannon 5 years ago

Actually, the Elf on the Shelf is just as terrifying as it sounds. I wrote a whole essay about why there is no way in hell I am ever getting it for my kid, with the surveillance aspect only being one part of the awfulness: There are some kids that just shrug it off, but some parents have said their kids have truly started acting out-of-character and developed anxiety over the thing. Smart kids.

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Anthony Herrera 5 years ago

A Kids In The Hall reference and a promise of a series about Lee and Herring?! Yes, I consider it a promise.

Also, there's another movie like the two you talk about called One Magic Christmas where Harry Dean Stanton plays an angel trying to get Mary Steenburgen in to the Christmas spirit and does this by creating a scenario where her grinchiness basically leads to the murder of her entire family which is exactly what you would expect an angel played by Harry Dean Stanton to do. Reading that back it sounds like I'm making it up but no that's what happens in that movie.

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