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The big idea: could we do Christmas differently? | Books

The puritan MPs who banned Christmas in 17th-century England had a point. They thought holy days should involve contemplation rather than waste, extravagance, disorder, sin and immorality, so outlawed not just Christmas, but Easter and Whitsun too. “Christ-tide” (renamed to eliminate Roman Catholic associations with the mass) was to be marked, if at all, with fasting and prayer.

It’s hard not to empathise with those who seek, if not to ban Christmas, then to do it differently, to stop it from being the season of gorging followed implacably by debt consolidation, buyer’s remorse and atonement for our excesses. True, not all of us spend madly at Christmas (and many of course, do not celebrate it) – but all of us are nudged in that direction.

What nonsense, you might reply: proverbially joyless Puritans have nothing to teach us. Now more than ever, after 18 months of pandemic and when lockdown ruined last year’s festive season, we need to celebrate with friends and family. Most of us are perfectly happy having a commercialist Christmas. In any case, the last thing increasingly un-Christian Britain needs to do this December is to re-Christianise what is now an overwhelmingly secular festival.

But think of it this way. Even godless 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 labour of desiring stuff. True, he was writing before Black Friday effectively replaced the celebration of the birth of the Redeemer with the obeisance to the Dark Lord of White Goods, and he wasn’t explicitly indicting those who want this year’s must-have Christmas presents (which according to the Telegraph are a Serge Bambino coffee machine and a Liberty cotton pyjama set). And yet what he argued pertains very much to why and how we currently get Christmas wrong.

“All willing,” as he wrote in The World as Will and Representation, “springs from lack, from deficiency and thus from suffering.” Even when you get that coffee machine you want on Christmas morning, satisfaction will be fleeting. “The wish fulfilled at once makes way for a new one: the former is a known delusion, the latter a delusion not as yet known.” Christmas doesn’t bring joy to the world but materialistic mass delusion.

Here’s an experiment: think of 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 they’ve already got one of those. We behave as though governed by the fear of missing out, when, just maybe, we’d do well to cultivate a new Christmas experience – the joy of missing out. Comedian Bill Bailey once told me about his favourite Christmas. He and his family headed off to a sunny island where, on Christmas Day, they ate jam sandwiches and played on the beach. But opting out of the social norms that produce our festive seasonal affective disorder isn’t enough; changing them is what matters.

For Schopenhauer, peace and wellbeing are impossible when the subject of willing “is constantly lying on the revolving wheel of Ixion, is always drawing water in the sieve off Danaids, and is the internally thirsting Tantalus”. Only by suspending desire do we, as he put it, “celebrate the Sabbath of the penal servitude of willing; the wheel of Ixion stands still”. Christmas gives us a chance to step off the hedonic treadmill; but instead we have made it the annual culmination of buying, giving, receiving, being disappointed and queuing to return things. When you give your children Christmas presents, in a sense, you are inducting them into a life-long spiritual slavery to desire that will only end in their deaths. Which, last time I looked, isn’t good parenting.

Instead of celebrating Christmas as a sabbath respite from consumerism, we have made it into the epitome of what we do in the other 364 days: gratify 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 goods are not made by Santa’s elves but by satan’s nudge units who, as Michigan behaviour economist Rick Ross writes, have made the birth of our Lord the occasion for the biggest sucker deal in retailing. “A lot of what we buy is just a loss leader to bait you inside and get you to buy high-margin stuff”.

Economist Joel Waldfogel, author of Scroogenomics, argues that Christmas is a machine to efficiently destroy value and squander utility. He reckons we value items we receive as gifts 20% less, per pound or dollar spent, than items we buy for ourselves. If auntie gave you cash instead of that horrible jumper, you could have bought what you wanted. Even the alien charmed by the gift the little boy gives her in the John Lewis Christmas ad is bound to be disappointed when she unwraps it on her home planet. The answer? Ban Christmas on economic grounds.

But such economic critiques of Christmas only highlight the hideous truth that we are prone to think of everything, even prospective lovers, in cost-benefit terms. Or, as philosopher Michael Sandel puts it, the most fateful thing that has happened to humans in the last 30 years is the expansion of markets into spheres of life where they don’t belong. What we’ve done to Christmas is just the paradigmatic example of that.

At Christmas we might aim to escape what Iris Murdoch called the “fat relentless ego”. Murdoch repeatedly counselled “unselfing”, a kind crypto-Buddhist notion she thought key to being virtuous. It involves turning attention outward and seeing the world as something other than a thing to be exploited to make us happy. How to do that, as anyone who has followed the characters’ spiritual journeys in her novels, is the hard work. But the idea is to get off the hedonic treadmill, and do something like the Centre for Effective Altruism recommends, namely thinking hard about how best to help other people. Imagine if, one day, you rescue a small child from a burning building. Imagine this happened to you every two years and as a result you saved dozens of lives during your career. If you earn the equivalent of the typical income in the US, and donate 10% of your earnings each year to the Against Malaria Foundation, you will do just that.

Perhaps religion can help us save Christmas from being merely another way station on the Wheel of Ixion. In Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton considers the Catholic mass, early Christianity’s ritual of agape or love feasts, and Jewish Passover rituals to explore how religions encourage us to overcome fear of strangers and create communities. In our age of siloed thinking, social media echo chambers., gated estates, inhumane scorn for refugees, overcoming the fear of the other seems more important than ever. De Botton imagines a so-called “agape restaurant” where, instead of dining with like-minded friends and family, you would be invited to eat with strangers. It is just an example of what Christmas, not to mention Easter, Whitsun, Eid, Passover, Diwali and any other religious festival might become in the 21st century.

We need spurs, De Botton argues, to “produce the benevolence, charity, curiosity and goodwill that are in all of us but we can’t let out”. Christmas could be just such a catalyst. Ten million Britons volunteered during the pandemic. Christmas could catch the wave of that goodwill and make the selflessness that lies latent in many selfish hearts real. The NHS is calling for volunteer responders to help, through making friendly phone calls, picking up medicines or arranging doctors’ appointments; Crisis at Christmas asks for time and money to help end homelessness. Not that we don’t want new coffee machines and Liberty pyjamas for Christmas, but how much better if we wanted something more.

Further reading

The Joy of Missing Out: The Art of Self-Restraint in an Age of Excess by Sven Brinkmann (Polity, £40)

Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays by Joel Waldfogel (Princeton, £18.99)

The Sovereignty of Good by Iris Murdoch (Routledge, £11.99)



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