Christmas and Consumption

Let's be honest about the true spirit of Christmas

Posted Dec 17, 2009

Christmas is a ritual, and like all rituals it reflects the social and even political circumstances of the people that practice it. For hundreds of years after Christianity began, the holiday of Christmas did not exist, so in this sense if we want to get back to the original spirit of Christmas we should not celebrate it at all (which, by the way, is what the Puritans did).

Christmas was first established as a church holiday in the fourth century. Conveniently enough it was scheduled on the calendar right at the time of the pagan Roman ceremonies that Christianity was beginning to displace. And even today several of our Christmas traditions are based on the winter solstice rituals practiced by European peoples before their conversion to Christianity. So in this sense, if we want to find the true spirit of Christmas we have to look to pagan ceremonies.

However, what I particularly want to look at here are the changes that occurred in America and Great Britain during the 19th century. At this time, Christmas became a much more important and universal holiday than it had been before, and this was not because churches wanted to put more emphasis on the birth of Jesus Christ. Historians stress that it was a combination of commercial forces and ideas about sentimentality and domesticity-encapsulated in the growing fascination with the new image of Santa Claus-that managed to turn Christmas into a major occasion for gift-giving.

In short, without consumerism we would not have Christmas as we know it. This illustrates a point I have tried to make a number of times before: We live in a culture with two somewhat contradictory sets of values. The first set is the official one, and includes such ideas as responsibility, hard work, religious faith, integrity, etc. The second set is what I have called "shadow values," and includes such ideas as the pursuit of pleasure, self-indulgence, leisure, and sexual desire. In general, the first set of values is associated with work and production, the second set with leisure time and consumption.

We need these two sets of values because our society and economy require us to be highly productive workers and frenetic consumers at the same time. If we did not play both these roles, how could continual economic expansion be ensured? Christmas is simultaneously about both sets of values. Christians give homage to the deity who stands behind our highest values at the same time as almost everyone gives enthusiastic homage the values that remain in the shadows. That's the true spirit of Christmas.

To learn more, visit Peter G. Stromberg's website. Photo by Matti Mattila.