Christmas in denial
What's this holiday all about?
Christians have long frowned upon the celebratory aspect of Christmas. Having co-opted the Pagan festival of Saturn for the date of Christ’s birth, the church has often tried to dampen down traditional displays of revelry.
Today there is a new brand of Christmas miserablism. Rather than asking us to remember the son of God, or concentrate on the deeper, spiritual meaning of the day, contemporary anti-Christmas spirit is just plain miserable. Avoid Christmas, seems to be the idea – avoid presents, avoid people, and avoid offending anyone.
Of course, you’ll still find the odd Christian trying to bring Jesus back in. One vicar lamented: ‘It is when we forget that Christ is central to Christmas that we risk turning the celebration into a winter festival of spectacular indulgence. I am not sure that that is good for the soul.’ (1) An American newspaper columnist complained that ‘the secular celebration of Christmas is really a celebration of the family, of ourselves…. Celebration of the family is yet another form of idolatry, the worship of something other than God.’ (2) Last year, the American Pro-Christkind Association mounted a campaign against commercial Santa, distributing stickers of Santa with a slash mark across his face (3).
Others call for Christmas to less materialistic. They say it should be a time of generosity and thinking of others, rather than thinking only of the presents in your sack. This complaint has a long history – in 1904, the American journalist Jacob Riis called gift-giving ‘a barbaric cult … a nightmare to the shopper and the clerks in the big stores’. In its place, he touted events that focused on the spiritual side of the holiday – such as community trees, dinners for the poor and carol singing with neighbours (4).
These long-running criticisms of Christmas may be misplaced – but at least there is a desire for something perceived as more spiritual, or more genuine.
Some of the soul seems to have gone out of the anti-Christmas spirit. All that revelry and consumption is seen as distasteful, and those hours with family members as tiresome. ‘It is traditional at this time of year to feel a kind of self-disgust’, opened an editorial in the Spectator magazine (5). The response is simply to get away from the thing.
BBC News recently ran a guide to ‘how to avoid Christmas’ (6). As well as suggesting that you could get put in jail (since prisoners aren’t allowed to exchange presents), it also proposed travelling to Iran, celebrating a different festival, or simply working on 25 December. Although in jest, the piece reflected a growing view – an increasing number of people are choosing to work on Christmas day. Reed Employment agency has conducted extensive research on staff attitudes to Christmas, and has found that almost half of the British public ‘enjoys Christmas less than they did five years ago’, and a third feel less likely to have a traditional get-together (7).
In the Spectator, Digby Anderson, director of the conservative think-tank the Social Affairs Unit, concluded that: ‘It is time to give up Christmas. It is now utterly overrun by the combined forces of sentimentality, irreligion, bad manners and worst taste.’ He calls for the celebration of Epiphany instead, on 6 January. ‘We need a day, or two, to have proper religion and a good blowout with like-minded chums; more important without the noise, trash and stench of Blair’s disgusting, shopaholic, football-, youth- and sex-obsessed Britons all “moving forward” all over the place.’ Anderson’s main aim seems to be to escape from celebrating with the rest of the British public, and have something more cultured with his ‘like-minded chums’. He favours Epiphany because ‘none of Them has even heard of it’ (8).
Environmentalists, meanwhile, suggest that we should limit the material impact of Christmas celebrations – which amounts to the somewhat soulless aim of merely spending and wasting less. Some have suggested recycling those piles of wrapping paper, decorations and cards. Dundee City Council set up a special recycling facility for Christmas cards. ‘Christmas tends to be the time when most households go through enormous amounts of paper and card’, said one councillor (9).
Others encourage a return to the nature-worshipping Pagan element of Christmas. In the New Statesman, Mark Lynas made a call to ‘let nature back in’. He pointed out that trees were originally decorated and taken into houses in order to maintain tree-dwelling spirits, which had deserted the forest during the winter. These rituals have been lost, he says, ‘because of our disconnection from the land and the disastrous Christian notion that humankind was given “dominion” over nature’ (10). Rather than enjoy time with friends and family (or even consider Jesus stuff), Lynas would have us commune with our Christmas tree.
We’ve also seen a lot of post-Christian tiptoeing around, which puts a bit of a dampener on the festive season. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) sent out a ‘Seasons Greetings’ card ‘dominated by the word “Goal” in bright yellow images’; it carried ‘pictures of a steam train, two ethnic dancers and a bicycle race…. a cardboard cut-out of a rock star, a small colour television and a piece of modern art’ (11). It’s understandable that government departments don’t send out the adoration of the Magi (after all, few people do nowadays), but what’s wrong with robins and snow?
As the DCMS head of communications explained, the department had been tying themselves in knots about how not to offend. ‘We asked all sorts of questions. Do we do something new? Do we go down the Christmas route? Whichever way you go the balance is difficult. In the end we decided to go for something that reflected the different sectors we are involved in. We put our hands up and acknowledge that what we have produced will not be right for everyone.’ A simple, seasonal well-wishing became a contorted exercise – of little pleasure for either the giver or the receiver.
In America many people reportedly wish each other ‘happy holidays’ rather than mention the C-word. Last year one prominent columnist criticised this bland convention: ‘Heaven forbid that anyone mentions specifically that what is being celebrated is called Christmas, out of fear that somewhere someone might somehow be offended.’ (12)
In the face of this miserablism, a jolly good blowout seems alluring. At the end of the day, Christmas is a time for making merry and spending time with friends and family. It’s a time for shared indulgence, and a break from routine. All those symbols – both pagan and Christian – don’t mean much anymore, but they’re a nice tradition.
And as for the complaint that Christmas is only about selfish consumerism – if it were, surely everybody would buy presents for themselves rather than bothering with cumbersome exchanges. Consumerist self-interest can’t explain the pleasure of giving gifts to others – or of receiving gifts from loved ones that, frankly, are far from ‘what you’ve always wanted’.
’Tis the season to be jolly… frightened?, by Brendan O’Neill
Nöel, no faith, no fun, by Mick Hume
(1) Are we Christians? The answer’s on a card, Daily Telegraph, 7 December 2003
(2) A secular Christmas is hollow and therefore brings no lasting joy, Online opinion, 1 December 2003
(3) This is Santa’s big scene, Greenville online, 13 December 2003
(4) Is Excessive Giving Taking Away our Christmas Spirit?, Scranton Times.com, 14 December 2003
(5) One world, Spectator, 13 December 2003
(6) How to avoid Christmas (without being Scrooge), Spectator, 19 December 2003
(7) Look what you’re missing, Guardian, 15 December 2003
(8) Go to work on Christmas Day…, Spectator, 13 December 2003
(9) Dreaming of a green Christmas, Evening Telegraph and Post, 18 December 2003
(10) New Statesman, 15-30 December 2003
(11) Are we Christians? The answer’s on a card, Daily Telegraph, 7 December 2003
(12) Christmas reflections, BBC News, 30 December 2002
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