By Jim Miller
Every holiday season one of my favorite tasks is collecting and delivering all the toys donated by my union brothers and sisters in the American Federation of Teachers to the Labor Council office for the annual toy drive. My union, along with many other San Diego locals who participate in this annual ritual, do so in order to help out the families of unemployed workers struggling during the holiday season.
This year, just a few days after I made my usual delivery, a friend shared an article with me from Dangerous Minds on another, way cooler but little known solidarity effort from the Golden Age of punk rock: “When the Sex Pistols Saved Christmas.” It was on Christmas of 1977 that the notorious Pistols played their last gig in the United Kingdom in Huddersfield as a benefit for striking firefighters who were in the ninth week of their struggle and were down to next to nothing. The Fire Brigade Union was striking because, as the piece notes, the cost of living was skyrocketing and “the pay in the pocket of the average worker was worthless.”
Then, just as things seemed grimmest, the reviled Sex Pistols (who had been banned across the UK) came to the rescue by secretly organizing a gig at the Ivanhoe’s club for the firefighters’ children in the daytime and the grown-ups in the evening. At the children’s show, they gave away food and gifts and Johnny Rotten jumped into the cake.
The Christmas party turned into a food fight and great fun was had by all. “It was heaven,” remembers John Lydon, “There was a lot of love in the house.” As Paul Cook puts it, “It was like our Christmas party really. We remember everyone being really relaxed that day, everyone was getting on really well, everyone was in such a great mood because it was a benefit for the kids of firemen who were on strike at that time, who had been on strike for a long time.”
A fireman interviewed in one of the clips at the end of the Dangerous Minds post made another interesting observation, noting that before this extraordinary Christmas, all he’d ever really done on his holiday was have “dinner and a couple beers.” It was, as he said, “boring.” Christmas with the Sex Pistols was anything but. It shattered the taken for granted.
Thus ended the Sex Pistols’ last show in England before they went to the United States and the band split up and Sid and Nancy’s sordid tale unfolded. And soon in England, the malaise of the late seventies led to the Thatcher era there and the Reagan regime in the United States, and we have been treated to decades of neoliberal economic policy, union-busting, and savage inequality ever since.
Despite this there is something worth remembering about this momentary marriage of working class political rebellion to cultural revolution on a lost Christmas over three decades ago: the subversive nature of solidarity and the spirit of potlatch. In our own era, where far too often the ethos of dragging the other guy down into the hole that you’re in wins the day, whether we are talking about busting unions, demonizing low wage workers, or not loving our neighbors in some other way, it’s worth remembering that it’s a lot more joyful to pick each other up.
In this spirit, some folks in the local progressive and union community decided to help out the family of a Walmart worker who lost her job after participating in the Our Walmart campaign to improve her life and the lives of her fellow low-wage workers. In this small way, we wanted to give the gift of solidarity to someone struggling to get by during a season whose promise of hope and joy can seem cruel to those left on the outside.
And this alienation is becoming all too familiar to large numbers of American workers as the costs of our deepening economic inequality are becoming starkly apparent as more people grapple with the costs of food, housing, and other basic necessities while others bask in growing abundance.
So instead of heading to Walmart to buy your rebellious loved one an Occupy Wall Street poster save this Christmas like the Sex Pistols did: help somebody who really needs it, stand by someone taking a risk by fighting to better their life—make it Christmas on earth for real.