The big idea: could we make Christmas differently? | Books
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The Puritan MPs who banned Christmas in 17th-century England were right. They believed that the holy days should involve contemplation rather than waste, extravagance, disorder, sin and immorality, therefore prohibited not only Christmas, but also Easter and Pentecost. “Tide of Christ” (renamed to eliminate Roman Catholic associations with the Mass) was to be marked, where appropriate, by fasting and prayer.
Hard not to sympathize with those who seek, if not to ban Christmas and then do otherwise, to prevent it from being the season of merriment followed relentlessly by debt consolidation, buyers’ remorse and the atonement of our excesses. Granted, we don’t all spend madly on Christmas (and many, of course, don’t celebrate it) – but we’re all being pushed in that direction.
What nonsense, you might reply: the proverbially joyless Puritans have nothing to teach us. Now more than ever, after 18 months of the pandemic and when the lockdown ruined last year’s holiday season, we need to celebrate with our friends and family. Most of us are perfectly happy to have a commercial Christmas. Either way, the last thing an increasingly less Christian Britain needs to do in December is to re-Christianize what is now a mostly secular festival.
But think of it this way. Even the unholy pessimist Schopenhauer invoked the Judeo-Christian idea of a Sabbath day of rest in his excoriating account of how humans are tormented and degraded by the eternal work of desiring things. Granted, he was writing before Black Friday effectively replaced the celebration of the Redeemer’s birth with obedience to the Dark Lord of White Goods, and he wasn’t explicitly blaming those who want this year’s must-have Christmas presents ( which, according to the Telegraphs are a Serge Bambino coffee machine and Liberty cotton pajamas). And yet, much of what he argued relates to why and how we get it wrong with Christmas right now.
“To want everything”, as he writes in Le Monde as will and representation, “is born from lack, from lack and therefore from suffering”. Even when you have the coffee machine you want on Christmas morning, the satisfaction will be fleeting. “The granted wish gives way to a new one: the first is a known delirium, the second a still unknown delirium. Christmas does not bring joy to the world but a mass materialistic illusion.
Here’s an experiment: think about everything you don’t want from Christmas. Sprouts, Secret Santas, Dickensian schmaltz, Roy Wood of Wizzard, Amazon Prime, the Queen’s Speech, the look in your child’s eyes when they tell you on Christmas morning that they already have one. We behave as if we are ruled by the fear of missing something, when, perhaps, we would do well to cultivate a new Christmas experience – the joy of missing something. Comedian Bill Bailey once told me about his favorite Christmas. He and his family traveled to a sunny island where on Christmas Day they ate jam sandwiches and played on the beach. But withdrawing from the social norms that produce our festive Seasonal Affective Disorder is not enough; changing them is what matters.
For Schopenhauer, peace and well-being are impossible when the subject of wanting “is constantly lying on the spinning wheel of Ixion, always draws water from the sieve of the Danaids and is the Tantalus who thirsts inwardly”. It is only by suspending desire that we, as he puts it, “celebrate the Sabbath of penal servitude of will; the wheel of Ixion stops ”. Christmas gives us the opportunity to step off the hedonic treadmill; but instead, we made it the annual highlight of buying, giving, receiving, being disappointed, and standing in line to return things. When you give your children Christmas presents, in a sense, you are leading them into a lifelong spiritual bondage of desire that will only end with their death. Which, the last time I looked, isn’t good parenting.
Instead of celebrating Christmas as a respite from the Sabbath from consumerism, we made it the epitome of what we do over the other 364 days: satisfy our desires and then feel remorse. Capitalism is an amoral virus that thrives as Black Friday becomes not a day but a week, when Christmas items are not made by Santa’s elves but by satan’s nudge units who like the writes Rick Ross, Michigan behavioral economist, have made the birth of Our Lord the occasion for the biggest sucker deal in retail. “A lot of what we buy is just a lead product to pull you in and get you to buy high margin products.”
Economist Joel Waldfogel, author of Scroogenomics, argues that Christmas is a machine for effectively destroying value and wasting utility. He estimates that we value the items we receive as gifts 20% less, per pound or dollar spent, than the items we buy for ourselves. If aunt had given you money instead of that horrible sweater, you could have bought whatever you wanted. Even the alien charmed by the gift the little boy gives her in John Lewis’ Christmas commercial will be bound to be disappointed when she unwraps it on her home planet. The answer? Ban Christmas for economic reasons.
But such economic Christmas critiques only underscore the ugly truth that we are inclined to think of everything, even future lovers, in terms of the cost-benefit. Or, as philosopher Michael Sandel puts it, the most fateful thing that has happened to humans in the past 30 years is the expansion of markets into areas of life they don’t belong to. What we did at Christmas is just a paradigmatic example.
At Christmas, we might aim to escape what Iris Murdoch called the “Big Relentless Ego.” Murdoch repeatedly advised “selflessness,” a crypto-Buddhist notion she saw as the key to virtue. It involves turning the attention outward and seeing the world as something other than something to be harnessed to make us happy. How to do this, like anyone who has followed the characters’ spiritual journeys in their novels, is hard work. But the idea is to step off the hedonic treadmill and do something like the Center for Effective Altruism recommends, which is to think seriously about how best to help others. Imagine if, one day, you save a small child from a burning building. Imagine that this happened to you every two years and thus saved dozens of lives during your career. If you earn the equivalent of the typical income in the United States and donate 10% of your income each year to the Against Malaria Foundation, this is exactly what you will be doing.
Maybe religion can help us prevent Christmas from being just another stop on the Wheel of Ixion. In Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton examines the Catholic Mass, the early Christian rituals of agape or feasts of love, and Jewish Passover rituals to explore how religions encourage us to overcome fear of strangers and create communities. In the age of siled thinking, social media echo chambers, closed domains, inhuman disregard for refugees, overcoming fear of the other seems more important than ever. De Botton envisions an “agape restaurant” where, instead of dining with like-minded friends and family, you are invited to eat with strangers. This is just one example of what Christmas, let alone Easter, Pentecost, Eid, Passover, Diwali, and any other religious holiday, could become in the 21st century.
We need spurts, argues De Botton, to “produce the benevolence, charity, curiosity and goodwill which is in each of us but which we cannot let go”. Christmas could be such a catalyst. Ten million Britons volunteered during the pandemic. Christmas could catch the wave of this goodwill and make real altruism latent in many selfish hearts. The NHS uses volunteer responders to help, by making friendly phone calls, picking up medication or arranging doctor’s appointments; Christmas Crisis takes time and money to help end homelessness. Not that we didn’t want new coffee machines and Liberty pajamas for Christmas, but how much better if we wanted something more.
The Joy of Missing: The Art of Self-Control in the Age of Excess by Sven Brinkmann (Polity, £ 40)
Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Holiday Gifts by Joel Waldfogel (Princeton, £ 18.99)
Sovereignty of Good by Iris Murdoch (Routledge, £ 11.99)
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