18 December 2018

Is Christmas really ‘too commercial’ these days?


It is a traditional time of the year when one misery guts pundit after another complains that Christmas has lost its meaning ever since it became “commercial.” The implication is that at some stage there was a non-commercial Christmas.

Really? Matthew tells us that when the Wise Men reached Bethlehem “they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.” We are not told where the Wise Men got the goods. I suppose King Herod, who was cunningly trying to ingratiate himself, might have provided them.

But the most plausible explanation is that the Wise Men bought them. Perhaps with some shopping around to ensure they were up to scratch. And a bit of haggling about price to avoid being overcharged.

Charles Dickens’, A Christmas Carol, was published in December 1843. This is often said to have “invented” Christmas. Other historians suggest that it was more of a revival. There had been a bit of decline under the Puritan miserabalism of Oliver Cromwell a couple of centuries earlier. The communal feasting the squire gave to the serfs was not restored.

But instead ordinary families started to make their own efforts. Save up their own money to have a celebration. William Makepeace Thackeray said that the publication of A Christmas Carol “occasioned immense hospitality throughout England; was the means of lighting up hundreds of kind fires at Christmas time; caused a wonderful outpouring of Christmas good feeling; of Christmas punch-brewing; an awful slaughter of Christmas turkeys; and roasting and basting of Christmas beef.” Sounds pretty commercial to me.

Christmas is still about eating and drinking, giving and receiving, buying and selling. It might be frugal one year, lavish another. Goose might take over from turkey. Department stores might lose out to internet shopping. But a commercial element is integral to the festivities.

Any sense of the spirit of Christmas, religious or secular, includes generosity. That generosity is certainly not purely financial. Children tend to dominate Christmas in any households they happen to populate. They benefit not merely from being showered with gifts, but also indulged, by adults who are “too busy” to sit cross-legged playing Perudo at other times. Yet the Perudo set also needs to have been purchased.

Financial generosity can include charitable donations. It’s no great surprise that the Charities Aid Foundation reports that more money goes to good causes in December than any other month of the year. My hunch is this would include plenty of atheists and agnostics who find themselves feeling a bit more sentimental at this time of year than they do in February.

There is scant factual back-up for any claim that we have become less charitable and more commercial. Last year we gave away £10.3 billion, a record sum. It is routine each year to hear of Christmas appeals hitting record highs. Is that because we are morally better people than 150 years ago? I would not make that claim. But it is easier to be generous when our society is so much richer.

Margaret Thatcher was vilified when she said: “No-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.” It is merely a statement of the obvious. Earning money, then being charitable in giving the stuff away, have a rather necessary connection.

The critics do have a point when it comes to jumping the gun. No mention of Christmas should take place before December 1st. Even then there should be the period of anticipation, what Christians call Advent. It spoils it when too great a binge has already got underway
before Christmas Day.

There is also a paradox that, if I reflect on my own childhood, the process of the free market and the spreading of wealth it entails has
resulted in means the excess of Christmas is less of a novelty than for previous generations.

I grew up before video recorders. An important part of Christmas Day for me was that a James Bond film was on the television. It would come on after The Queen’s Christmas Day Message. These days, my children have the full box set of Bond films available whenever they can be bothered.

In this age of abundance it is also harder to be excited about food as a treat. The local supermarket groans with the most exotic and luxurious produce that as a child, I had never even heard of. Turkey and bread sauce find it harder to compete.

If the indulgence goes on all through the year what is the point of Christmas? That is a challenge – but the Grinch’s approach of stealing it should not be contemplated. Part of the answer is to pace ourselves.

And if you do want to have something to look forward to aside from gifts and grub, I would suggest a festive visit to church. It could be “cultural” – for the music, the architecture, the music, the tradition – or for religious reasons. At any rate, if you decide that, thanks to capitalism, your material wants are already fulfilled, then you might consider a visit.

Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist