‘Tis the season to be sneering

Don't let anti-consumerists kill your Christmas spirit.

Kristian Niemietz

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Topics Politics

When we talk about ‘Christmas traditions’, we are really talking about a hodgepodge of traditions from different cultures and different eras. The Ancient Romans and Greeks already celebrated pre-Christian winter festivals, into which the Biblical nativity was later projected. As Christianity spread north-westwards, it merged with the Yule feast of the Germanic tribes, which involved some form of tree-worship. Today’s Santa Claus, meanwhile, is a fusion of a historic bishop, later promoted to a semi-mythical figure, with the allegorical ‘Father Christmas’.

We often think of traditions as finished products that we just passively inherit from the past, but, without realising it, we make our own additions. The tradition that we have added to the bundle in recent years is the collective moaning about the commercialisation of Christmas. It starts every year, reliably, around late November, and then stays with us throughout the festive season. This anti-consumerist Christmas carol goes like this: Once upon a time, Christmas was a time of solemnity, quiet enjoyment and reflection. But, at some point, it has been taken over by the corrupting forces of materialism. Today, Christmas has been reduced to a vulgar, mindless orgy of binge-shopping, devoid of any spiritual meaning. Mass consumerism has robbed Christmas of its soul and authenticity, a vacuum that people try to fill, vainly, by buying more and more stuff.

Moaning about the shallowness of Western consumer culture is, of course, itself part and parcel of Western culture. But anti-consumerist pre-Christmas moaning is more widespread and more focused. In one survey conducted in Germany (under the achingly zeitgeisty title ‘Sustainable Christmas’), 73 per cent of respondents said they were not keen on the ‘consumerist terror of Christmas’. In a similar survey in Hamburg, 54 per cent agreed that Christmas was ‘consumerist terror’, and that it was ‘all just about commerce’.

As is usually the case, those who condemn consumerism in the abstract do not seem to draw the obvious conclusion of adopting more austere consumption habits for themselves. In the same survey, only 13 per cent said they spent less than €20 on Christmas presents, with a solid majority spending over €50. True figures are almost certainly higher, because the polling methodology is just terrible: if you set up a survey with a strong anti-consumerist undertone (and the term ‘terror’ is not exactly subtle), people will feel obliged to underreport how much they really spend. And, of course, the figures do not include spending on food, decorations, etc.

Most of us are not Scrooges. We like to spend money on nice things for Christmas. But we also like to moan about, and sneer at, other people doing the same. Why?

For what it’s worth, my guess is that most of us are convinced that we are less materialistic than most other people. This is, of course, logically impossible: I can be less materialistic than you, or you can be less materialistic than me, but we cannot both be less materialistic than each other. However, for several reasons, we are notoriously bad at assessing where we stand relative to our peers.

Surveys show that almost everybody believes that they are more intelligent than the majority of the population; that they give more to charity than most of their fellow citizens, and that they work harder than most of their colleagues. Ninety-three per cent of car drivers rate their driving skills as ‘above average’. When a recent YouGov poll in the UK asked, ‘Would you say that you are, morally speaking, more of a good person, less of a good person or about as good as the average British person?’, only three per cent classified themselves as ‘less of a good person’.

Needless to say, most people’s self-assessment is self-evidently incorrect. We cannot all be better than average for any given quality. But we can all believe ourselves to be better than average.

The conclusion from this mismatch is not that we are generally incapable of realistic self-assessment. If you asked people to assess, for example, their singing skills, or their physical strength, self-assessment would probably be quite accurate (which is why most of us do not make fools of ourselves at the X Factor or at sports competitions). No, the everybody-above-average illusion seems to be limited to areas where abilities are, firstly, hard to measure, and secondly, highly variable. This gives us wiggle room, which we use to cherry-pick what we notice and remember, in order to maintain a positive self-image. You are convinced that you work much harder than your colleague? Chances are that your colleague is equally convinced that that he works much harder than you. The reason is that you selectively remember occasions when you were toiling away while your colleague was slacking, whereas your colleague selectively remembers occasions when it was the other way round.

And what could be more amenable to this type of selective filtering than perceptions of materialism? We can easily think of products that we consider frivolous and unnecessary, but we cannot so easily think of products that we enjoy that would seem frivolous and unnecessary to other people. This is why self-proclaimed anti-consumerists get genuinely upset when faced with the inevitable accusations of hypocrisy. ‘Consumerism’ is always the stuff that other people buy.

Take a survey by the Hardwood Group, in which Americans were asked about their own values, and about what they believe to be the values of American society in general. On the one hand, 95 per cent of respondents believed that most Americans are materialistic (with a majority picking the option ‘very materialistic’). Eighty-two per cent also agreed that most Americans buy and consume far more than they ‘need’.

But when people are asked about their own values and aspirations, non-material ones consistently outranked material ones by large margins. Almost no one thinks that material aspirations are important to them, but almost everyone thinks that they are hugely important to almost every one else. Obviously, these assessments cannot both simultaneously be right. We cannot all be Tibetan monks surrounded by consumerist sheeple. But we can all cultivate that self-image, sneering at the sheeple as we buy our Christmas presents, without realising that they are sneering back at us, believing themselves to be the Tibetan monks and us to be the sheeple.

For what it’s worth, I happen to think that Christmas is the best time of the year to ignore the anti-consumerist sensitivities of our age, and to celebrate prosperity, material comfort and human achievement instead. The anti-consumerists’ unstated assumption that the material aspects of Christmas must necessarily be in conflict with the non-material ones is patent nonsense. How exactly does a bottle of nice wine and a big portion of roast meat stop you from enjoying the company of your family? And while that Christmas-themed jumper with its battery-powered blinking lights may not be quite as hilarious as the giver thought it was, neither does it conflict with your ability to enjoy Christmas carols, or a walk through a snow-covered landscape.

Even if you are a staunch traditionalist, you need not feel guilty about celebrating Christmas in relative opulence, because that, too, is part of an honourable tradition. Take this description here: ‘The impulse to spend seizes everyone. He who, the whole year through, has taken pleasure in saving and piling up his pence, becomes suddenly extravagant. He… at this feast enjoys himself as much as his means will allow… A stream of presents pours itself out on all sides.’

It is from 4th-century Greece, and it is a contemporary observer’s description of one of the winter festivals that form the root of Christmas. One could easily mistake it for a contemporary text, were it not for the absence of anti-materialistic sneering.

Kristian Niemietz is head of health and welfare at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). Follow him on Twitter: @K_Niemietz

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