The spirit of Christmas presents
By Edward Hadas
The opinions expressed are his own.
Ah, the curse of materialism. The true spirit of Christmas has been obliterated by a landslide of gifts. The crass commercialism which surrounds the experience of holiday shopping, not to mention the returns and post-Christmas sales, has turned this joyous holiday into little more than an exaltation of the worst aspects of our modern consumerist economy.
Or so it is often said. But is the complaint fair? It’s certainly true that the exchange of gifts on a large scale is a relatively new feature of Christmas festivities. In the 1840s, Charles Dickens has the Spirit of Christmas Present take the miser Ebenezer Scrooge to witness joyous celebrations of the feast. Food, drink and good cheer are in abundant supply, but there are no presents.
In the 1880s, hand-made gifts were making the day special for many American children. By the 1920s, a more commercial spirit had triumphed in the land of mass production and the factory-made Christmas was already causing complaints about inappropriate gifts. According to historian William Waits, some businessmen felt a little queasy about advertisements for such supposedly ideal Christmas gifts as a can of paint, a cooperative apartment, potatoes and floor wax.
Waits notes that Santa Claus had starred in many seasonal advertisements. He plausibly interprets this as a sign of discomfort with the invasion of the cash nexus into a holiday which was then still considered predominantly religious. The desire to make people buy things and the search for profit seemed to fit poorly with the poor infant of Bethlehem. But the reworked Saint Nicolas took gifts out of the marketplace. In Waits’ words, Santa “did not use money and was not engaged in making profit…. His gargantuan giveaway was antithetical to pecuniary self-interest and its only reward was the satisfaction of making recipients happy.”
The jovial generosity in the North Pole workshop can certainly be interpreted as no more than a feeble attempt to escape the dark reality of “pecuniary self-interest” (aka greed). There is no question that Christmas is now a big business. Holiday presents account for about 0.6 percent of U.S. GDP, based on spending intentions reported in a Gallup survey. Producers and retailers alike cannot easily separate the spirit of the season from the call of the cash register.
Not that Christmas greed can always be measured in dollars and cents. Few people are as bold as the British girl who threatened Santa that a failure to deliver on her wish-list would drive her to “hunt down your reindeer, cook them and serve their meat to homeless people on Christmas day”. But parents and other gift-givers will recognise the sentiment. Recipients’ high expectations can turn the exchange of presents into something like extortion.
Some families have been so repulsed by the grasping and the commercial spirit that they have vowed to boycott the holiday completely. Others try to simplify. I know one which has reduced the exchange of gifts to the barest minimum — each family member gives $100 in cash to every other.
Such Scrooge-like approaches miss the good side of Christmas giving. The holiday can be considered the annual highlight of an industrial version of what anthropologists call a gift-culture. Gifts are useful and easily understood tokens of emotional and social life. The obligatory nature of many gifts (“I have to get something nice for auntie”) does not necessarily make the offering insincere (“That’s so kind of you to think of me”). On the contrary, when the gift-culture works well, love and duty reinforce one another.
At its best, the contemporary Christmas gift-culture does have something of a Santa-effect. The harsh logic of prices and markets gives way to the generous logic of love and the anonymous products of mass assembly lines are transformed into personalised tokens of affection and esteem. Even the seasonal excesses spring from good intentions. Christmas presents can show that there is a spirit more powerful than the mean techniques of monetary calculation.
The Christmas culture deserves neither condemnation nor enthusiastic endorsement, for it is both a generous celebration of abundance and a distasteful materialist greed-fest. The noble and the base are inextricably mixed. Christmas makes shopping close to something like holiness, but it also brings out some of the worst aspects of consumerism — the blind desire for ever more stuff, the desperate search for bargains and the restless ambition to show status through nice things.
The best aspects of Christmas are undermined–and the worst are amplified — by the weakness of any gift-culture, the limited ability of material things to represent the immaterial. No quantity of generosity can prove that the gift-giver is truly socially superior to the recipient. And nothing found in a shopping mall or on a retailer’s website will truly show the extent of our love.
Photo: A visitor lights a candle at the Church of the Nativity, the site revered as the birthplace of Jesus, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem December 19, 2011, ahead of Christmas. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside