A Boxing Day Musing on the Meaning of Christmas.
I am not a fan of Christmas. In the company of friends and family, I often like to voice support for the position of the Grinch or (pre-epiphany) Ebeneezer Scrooge. Bah, humbug indeed. But after giving things more thought, the truth is that while I don’t adore Christmas, I’ve decided I don’t actually hate it either – or at least I don’t hate the idea of Christmas. My feelings about the holiday depend largely on what aspect of it you are talking about. It’s a complicated question.
Christmas (along with Easter) is one of those odd hodgepodges of Western culture. It is a fundamentally pagan festival, focused on the Northern Hemisphere winter solstice and owing much to the Roman Saturnalia, that over time has picked up an overlay of Christian associations – hence the name. Since the nineteenth century, it has picked up further associations: Christmas Trees, Santa Claus, Dickensian paraphernalia, et cetera, to the point where it has become impossible to pinpoint what Christmas “is”. People regard it as a celebration of gift-giving and presents, which would suggest a focus on material things – yet in my country, it is one of a handful of days where standard commercial activity (including television advertising) is prohibited by statutory law. Christmas is a festival simultaneously material and immaterial: a bizarre and loathsome orgy of crass commercialism followed by the sudden implicit repudiation of all that has come before.
Leaving aside the religious element, which as an agnostic atheist I won’t touch, Christmas is basically a holiday at war with itself.
The funny (or depressing) thing is that were Ebeneezer Scrooge around today, it is incredibly easy to see his old selfish self embracing what Christmas has become. In 2016, he wouldn’t be a slumlord, he’d be a CEO seeking the cheapest possible labour force for the production of plastic model reindeer and imitation Santa hats. There is far more money to be made out of Christmas than out of opposing it: the only difference is that these days some Third World Tiny Tim gets to make the presents that Westerners cheerfully give each other. Because while it’s all about generosity and giving, someone still needs to make the stuff, right?
Against that must be set the platonic idea of Christmas: a lonely stand for shared community in a world where commercial concerns rule most of the other 364 days. When the New Zealand Parliament passed a law against trading and advertising on Christmas Day, it implicitly endorsed a set of social and cultural values over profit concerns, setting aside a day for family, recreation, and inter-human bonding. A watered-down memory of Noblesse Oblige, it might be – a celebration out of medieval Yule – but it’s all we have (and at least Good King Wenceslas isn’t charging the peasant for firewood!). Pleasure is not derived solely from mere presents anyway*. Pleasure in a Christmas context is derived as much from reaffirming that man is a social animal.
This is why I remain conflicted on Christmas – an often loathsome reality intertwined with a noble ideal. Does it matter that the market has co-opted altruism, so that one almost feels guilt-tripped into an annual ceremony of mass-consumption and waste? Of course it matters. It provokes me into cheering for the Grinch. But the underlying altruism ought not to be thrown out with the cheap tinsel: it is a rare reminder, however imperfect, of the social in the age of the individual. Presents can be dispensed with, but humanity remains.
*If it were, it would be far more logical to simply give each other money every December, so we could choose our presents for ourselves – I even recall reading one economist’s article on the so-called deadweight of Christmas presents: an illustration of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.