I wrote this last year as a formal debate for a political forum I was then moderator for. I quite enjoyed writing it and I had a real itch to write some essays (this was before I started the discussion pieces on this blog). Some cursory editing for those who have seen it before and I will put it up on red room soon. Incidentally, Angel’s Mass is on that site (I will get around to taking it off of Elfwood).
It is that time of year again when we eat, drink and be merry and in some cases, spend more than we can afford. This jovial season usually comes with a stark warning from the sort of people who run institutions that have more money and liquid wealth than a whole country of Christmas shoppers could hope to spend in a single lifetime. They warn us that Christmas is being attacked by the impious secularists (all Richard Dawkins’ fault of course, the scoundrel), transformed by the PC brigade into “Winterval” in order not to offend “The Muslims” and oppressed by anti-Christian hate-mongers who apparently feel offended at carol singers and nativity scenes. Charities and card shops are “banning” religious themed cards too.
The biggest tonguelashing though is reserved for “rampant commercialism”, the notion that there is too much focus on what we spend on ourselves and on each other and not on those that need it. Of course, there is always something to be said for not living beyond our means, and the economic problems of the last few years have certainly shown the dangers of the acquisition of too much debt.
There are several issues here. Every year many charities set up specific Christmas drives and appeals. The Salvation Army have brass bands in every major town and city and collect change from shoppers, the BBC annual charity fundraiser “Children in Need” which is just one month before Christmas always raises a lot of money. Last year I went to meet a friend in the city of Bath and on the drive out, I was quite surprised to see a soup kitchen just off of one of the main squares. Even the “adopt a…(animal of choice)” is a popular Christmas present with the charities that offer them such as WWF. In these economically fragile times, it is encouraging that charity has not suffered at Christmas. What is clear is that people are still conscious of the needy in society at a time of seemingly limitless spending.
The second is the bizarre notion that the focus on indulgence excludes charitable giving. Why must this be so black and white? If we are buying mince pies in November do we automatically sacrifice the money we would have given to the poppy appeal? It is a fact that people give to charity at Christmas, the time of year that they are most active.
The third issue is that we are forgetting the “true” meaning of Christmas in our indulgence. This “true” meaning, apparently, means giving thanks and praise to a man who even Theologians acknowledge was in all likelihood not born on 25th December (the same date as the ancient Roman Saturnalia). Many also acknowledge that this repackaging of an ancient festival was a device used to ease the transition of conversion from Pagan to Christian, a fact acknowledged by Christian groups that do no mark Christmas (such as Jehovah’s Witnesses) but that is another debate entirely. What is clear when we look to the past is that Christmas has always been about indulgence and celebration at the gloomiest time of the year.
One of the symbols of this apparent “commercialism” is the chocolate filled advent calendar. It may come as a great surprise to some that this was invented in Tudor England, as was the concealing of luxuries behind successive doors. Each day leading to Christmas Day would bring another treat, and what is chocolate today if not the most indulgent of treats?
The decorated tree, the bringing of evergreens into the house such as holly, ivy and mistletoe, the Christmas feast all go back even further than Christianity and were invented by Germanic pagans as a way of marking the new year (21st December, the shortest day after which daylight hours get longer) and bringing a bit of colour to the cold and darkness. There may be a spiritual meaning here, perhaps an encouragement of the arrival of spring in as soon a time as possible, but what we do know is that this celebration was marked in many ways as we do today.
Nor should we ever underestimate the meaning of giving. This is no better demonstrated in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The greatest emphasis of Scrooge’s redemption in the narrative is on that which he gives to those he has wronged directly, especially his long-suffering employee Bob Cratchit. The much-needed pay rise is beaten only in size by the enormous prize-winning Turkey that Scrooge sends him anonymously. We also never learn the value of the donation to the men collecting charity money for the poor because the actual value does not matter. The emphasis is on the thought of giving, the thought behind the giving in this case is the inclusion of “a great many back payments”.
But there is more to the commercial aspect of Christmas, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. In recent years, many towns and cities have gone to great effort to encourage an overall experience to the Christmas period against the endless advertising that hits us from the end of August. Christmas events are everywhere these days and they are as popular as ever. This fact can be attested by the success of festivals such as those at Ludlow and Portsmouth, markets at Lincoln, Bath and Winchester and many other historic cities. In the UK we now have a newfound love affair for Germany and have imported their traditional markets with enthusiasm; Birmingham’s annual event is now considered one of the biggest in the world. Of course, none of these events would go ahead if there wasn’t money to be made but their success can be put down to the balance they strike between commercial interest and providing an enjoyable experience. Who can begrudge these events if people enjoy them enough to return year after year?
It is true that the western world is becoming less religious but it is disingenuous – not to mention arrogant – to suggest that this is leading to selfishness and destructive commercialism.
So from my perspective, the commercial aspect of Christmas is merely a modern capitalist extension of something far more ancient than Christianity. It is the celebration of midwinter and brings some light and colour in the gloomiest, darkest, coldest time of the year. So, if you’re not against celebrating ancient pagan traditions that have survived the belief system itself, then decorate your house however you please, enjoy as much food as you can manage, spend what you can afford, ignore the Christmas adverts in August and raise a glass of sherry to the most wonderful and ancient celebration in history!