Christmas first became controversial in the 17th century, when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans banned the whole thing. The festival, deemed ‘unbiblical’ in origin, was banned by the Long Parliament as a wasteful and immoral time. For the Puritans, the festival of ‘Christ-tide’ (best to avoid the Catholic implication of ‘Christ-mass’) as intended by Christ was to be a simple day of fasting and prayer. As one would expect, a lot of ordinary English people did not take kindly to this attempt, and responded with rioting, royalism and presumably aggressive gift-giving.
Controversy over one of the world’s most celebrated festivals remains to this day, though the few Christians who don’t celebrate it – Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular – would make no attempt to ban it. Christmas has evolved far beyond its Christian roots, with celebrators as irreligious as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Along the way, the festival has picked up enough pagan elements to make every Puritan turn in their grave; from trees to yule logs, Christmas today celebrates Christ by appropriating from the belief systems he largely replaced. As the sitcom Community described in 2010, contemporary Christmas is, for many, almost wholly about ‘music, cookies, presents, family and trees.’
Against the backdrop of ever advancing secularisation, Christmas has courted controversy as a conduit for consumerism. The anti-consumerist magazine AdBusters told its readers that should they buy almost nothing over Christmas, they ‘might just experience the most joyous holiday season ever’ even as evangelical Christians preach on the ‘reason for the season.’ Concerns about resource depletion have led environmentalists to open fire at the festival’s ‘wasteful’ nature. Affluent hipsters across the globe are signing up to a ‘Buy Nothing Christmas’ to try to escape the ‘treadmill’ of consumerism.
These objections touch on some valid concerns about society and our planet’s future. Demand for new smartphones and tablets each Christmas is placing enormous strain on rare earth metal stocks in Africa and China, and there are valid criticisms of the ‘instant gratification’ culture of economic materialism that Christmas arguably sustains. In general, however, distaste for the consumerist nature of Christmas has become another thinly veiled attempt to attack capitalist ideals.
The consumerism which surrounds us this time of year is not malicious; from Coca-Cola’s ‘Taste Christmas’ campaign to John Lewis’ ‘Man on the Moon,’ Christmas advertising seeks to liberate the season from its narrow roots and present it as a festival of mutual trust and friendship. These adverts are trying to sell you something, and you mustn’t forget it, but they’re also trying to perpetuate one of humanity’s greatest shared delusions – the idea that the coldest and darkest days of the years can actually be the warmest and brightest.
Strangely, for many of us, this almost nonsensical notion becomes true every single year. Ordinary people are momentarily freed of some of the stresses and pressures of modern life; the almost mythical essence of Christmas allows us to enjoy the simple things in life – companionship, baked goods and free time. For some, consumerism is a distraction from these pleasures. In reality, it is a catalyst. Many without Christian faith or Western origins are caught in the myth of Christmas when they see the first adverts on television; likewise, the desire to give back – for Christmas season is Britain’s peak donations season –arises not from an inner altruism but from a recognition of the mass material wealth consumerism has created.
With the problems of capitalism obvious, from rising inequality to world poverty, it’s easy to forget the pivotal role liberal capitalism has played in making people better off. Since industrialisation, the share of people living in extreme poverty has steadily fallen even as the population of the world increased sevenfold. As recently as 1981, more than 51% of the world population lived in absolute poverty, a figure which is now as low as 14%. Consumerism and consumer culture, as irritating as it might be to some, plays a necessary role in a moral mission which frankly even Oliver Cromwell might have been on-board with.
So as much as the Christians complain and the environmentalists preach, Christmas – a time of consumerism like no other – stands as a remarkable shrine to a socioeconomic system that has transformed this world. It is not a perfect system and there is much to do to ensure it works for the benefit of all, but at Christmas time its strengths and its weaknesses become acutely clear. Weaknesses such as inequality become hugely distressing just as strengths – like historically unfathomable levels of wealth and progress – become things to reflect upon. Whether you love or hate capitalism, and whether you think it is conducive to a better world, there is no denying that Christmas is in many ways a microcosm of capitalism in general.
This is a much derided fact, and it reflects on its critics. Christians hate the consumerisation of Christmas because it runs contrary to biblical statements on wealth; environmentalists may prefer a world unblemished by cities, factories, and technology. Ultimately, however, these critics are targeting the wrong enemy. Taking the consumer out of Christmas will not end capitalism in the world – only the development of a working alternative economic system can do that. Attacks on contemporary Christmas miss the mark, because they target the wrong enemy. Christmas brings people together in an almost exaggerated imitation of how consumerism brings people together; whether you think the flaws of capitalism outweigh this critical benefit or not, it is truly this which makes Christmas the one-of-a-kind festival it is.