Christmas and Capitalism

Jeramy Townsley

Jan 2003

Christmas originally was not “Christmas”, at least not as celebrated and taught by contemporary Westerners. First, Jesus was probably not born in the December. The week in which we now celebrate Christmas was originally an extremely popular and raucous celebration of Roman gods that was taken over by the “Christianized” citizens post-Constantine. According to the now scandalized historian Frazer, this pagan holiday was quite similar to many of the current Christmas traditions. The primary correlate is a virgin birth by the goddess Cybele, of a demi-god, Attis. At Attis’ death, a fir tree covered with red berries sprung up from the ground from the blood that mixed with the earth, blood that could give eternal life. The followers of this religion would celebrate the virgin birth and decorate fir trees to honor the memory of Attis. The politicized Christians decided that pagan cults shouldn’t be national celebrations so infused the holiday with Christian symbols, much as some Christians today are attempting to infuse Halloween with Christian symbols.

Second, the night of Jesus’ birth probably did not look anything like the popular Nativity scene, with a pristine barn, the shepherds, the angels and the three wise-men gathered round a freshly cleaned and laundered Mary, Joseph and baby. The night of Jesus’ birth was much more rugged, unclean and less well documented than Christmas Eve mythology likes to portray. We don’t know how many wise men they were, or even who they were, though most scholars believe they were Zoroastrian astrologers, probably showing up well after Jesus was born. Joseph and Mary were forced to make the journey to Bethlehem by an oppressive and often violent foreign army implementing Roman law on a conquered Jewish people. Mary, apparently late in her third trimester, not only had to make this trip across a rocky desert, but also had to face the prospect of having her baby without the help of her family, a midwife and local support systems. The birth of Joseph’s son in a barn probably wasn’t the highlight of his life up to that point as he pondered the blood, the barn, the pagan Roman invaders, the questionable circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy and how he was going to make up for the weeks of lost work due to the census. Maybe the precarious nature of Joseph’s interiority is the reason his part in the story is barely mentioned in the Gospels.

Regardless, the setting is hardly the model of middle-class America’s ideal family, location for an obstetric event or the appropriate context for an un-mythologized holiday. The adornment and sanitization of Christ’s birth for modern celebrants points to an underlying cultural pathology that will be explored in this essay. Several contemporary Christmas traditions seem quite contrary to the remembrance and spirit of Christ’s birth, life and teachings. Each of these contrary traditions appear to be rooted in various specific hedonisms.

The first hedonism is the propagation of an eros of visual stimulation, which manifests in many ways in US culture, from flashing neon signs, to beauty pageants, from action-packed movies, to half-naked women draped across the multitude of items such displays are designed to sell. As for Christmas, this hedonism expresses itself in the destruction of the forests for the sake of having Christmas trees, and the energy-consuming light displays that desecrate trees, homes, commercial establishments and even government property. None of which resemble the original setting of Jesus’ birth, pay homage to the spirit of his life of dedication to the outcasts of society and as an itinerant preacher, or bear witness to his message of sacrifice, salvation and purity.

The second and most obvious of these hedonisms is that pursued and encouraged by capitalistic urgings: the mass marketing of Christ’s birth to spur sales in an economy that requires continued expansion. Today’s Christmas, far from being a remembrance of the birth of a child to an indigent and outcast family, has become the center of an elongating and intensifying cycle of advertising and non-essential purchases. Christmas has become the expectation, for most retail businesses, of a significant percentage of their annual income. Due to the necessity of capitalism’s survival on never remaining static, combined with the desire of many Americans to make the most money they can legally make, businesses launch massive advertising campaigns immediately following Thanksgiving, reminding shoppers that they need to start spending as soon as possible if they want to be virtuous citizens, loved by their peers and families.

This hedonism is firmly engrained in Western society. Tradition and cultural location are primary players. As a “Christian” nation, many consider it our moral and religious duty to celebrate the birth of God’s child, whether or not we would ordinarily consider ourselves followers of Jesus’ teachings. Another player is economics, which leads to the encouragement and support of spending traditions by communities and government. A third factor is the issue of self-worth. Since the celebration of Christmas is such an important factor in United State’s culture, there is strong pressure to celebrate it, inculcated into children by the media and the educational system. Further, because of these factors, opting out of buying presents for family and colleagues is often perceived as a sign of poverty, either of money or of soul. All of these produce strong cultural and psychological reasons to conform to the purchasing mimesis.

This form of hedonism is a brutal aggrandizement of the materialism that pervades capitalism. Assuming the best, most people don’t desire money and property for the sake of simply having. The issues mentioned above are all important factors. Plus there are other costly factors that, to Westerners, seem self-evidently essential, such as health maintenance, protection from other members of the community, financial security for retirement, vacations to compensate for stressful jobs and lives, children’s college, transportation to and from different places in the community, comfortable housing, and the cost of purchasing the symbolism of each of these that locates one in a particular social class.

It isn’t that there is an inherent evil in any of these, and probably each is important to community happiness, safety and efficiency, except perhaps for the last item--symbolism. The worst aspect of capitalism, and of all other human systems, revolves around the cult of symbolisms that develop within each particular system that eventually serves to mythologize that culture and sustain hidden mechanisms of oppression found within every power structure. Within capitalism one of these mechanisms is expressed in the desire to be perceived as having these symbols of happiness, safety and efficiency. Often the items that we so aggressively pursue are not simply what we need, but symbols of the things that we need, purchased at the level of our maximum financial capacity for the sake of the symbol itself—take, for example, our obsession with brand named items and celebrity endorsement. So instead of having a vehicle simply for transportation, we have a vehicle that symbolizes our importance in the community, our personal happiness, our power or our success to those we want to impress or put in their place.

Because this particular obsession with symbols has such power to captivate entire societies and transform them into tools of propagation for a particular political and economic system, Christmas no longer refers back to the religious origin of the symbol for many people. Rather, the holiday has become an end in itself and the outworking of the symbol of Christmas is thereby degraded into a mechanism of hegemony that defines many symbols in popular use. Thus, Jesus life, teachings and death have little transforming power in society, except as the parameters of capitalism allows—altruistic giving of money or gifts. However, even most of this giving is ultimately self-serving, since gifts are exchanged with people in expectation of reciprocation, buying of gifts stimulates the economy, giving of certain types of gifts are evidence of status, and corporate donations and employee bonuses are often encouraged by tax incentives rather than pure altruism. Thus, even though the symbol of giving is practiced during Christmas, the symbol is simply a mask for hidden mechanisms of capitalistic hegemony.

That Christmas in the West is characterized by materialism and indulgence is only a symptom of the larger cultural pathology. The rampage of Christmas shoppers has been described ubiquitously by retailers and shoppers alike. That Christmas produces this paradoxical duality of altruism and selfishness is only further evidence of the hidden mechanisms in the power structures that ultimately support Christmas. Power is not about altruism unless it functions to deceive the population into conforming to the mechanisms of power. Deception is similarly evidenced in admittedly deceptive Christmas traditions, like Santa Claus and in the self-deception involved with the perceived need for the tranquility and beauty of a snow-covered Christmas day, when such conditions directly produce the hazardous conditions that lead to many deaths each year. Snow, Santa Claus and shopping, like most contemporary Christmas traditions, has no clear or even metaphorically accurate link to the things associated with Jesus. They are degradations of symbols of Christ used to perpetuate capitalistic hegemony.

A return to the original symbol of Christmas (as if, historically speaking, there ever was once a pure symbol of the Western idealization of “Christmas”) would mean a fresh exegesis of the Gospels and the application of that exegesis to American life. Whatever this would look like, it would certainly involve the reversal of many Christmas traditions. Rather than engaging in circular giving of superfluous and hedonistic gifts to friends, it might involve sacrificially giving items of survival to the homeless. Rather than spending exorbitant amounts of money on one’s children, usually bought with the price of a time-intensive parental career, it might involve organizing and giving lengthy times of family renewal and restoration, or modeling and practicing, as a family unit, community service to the elderly, to state-managed children or to AIDS patients. Rather than putting up Christmas trees and creating visual displays of lights that exacerbate the inequitable distribution of world resources and contribute to the degradation of the environment, it might involve an intensive time of fasting and praying for those who are starving and oppressed in other countries.

There are many options for transforming and redeeming Christmas for the Christian. Few involve shopping or sanitization of culture. Most involve a return to the life of Christ. Such a return does nothing for capitalism, and in fact undermines many of the worst aspects of exaggerated capitalism, primarily greed, competition and degradation of those without symbols of power. Rather than sanitizing culture, the redemption of the Christmas symbol will require the exposing of and repentance from cultural and economic inequalities by rediscovering true sacrifice and dedicated commitment to all members of the community.


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"Open your eyes. Don't let your mind tell the story here." Tonic, 1996

"Our lies have made us angry with the truth." Five O'Clock People, 1997