Monday, December 21, 2009

What's wrong with Christmas?

by Daphne Liddle

WHAT IS IT about the traditional commercial Christmas that really annoys us communists and atheists? We do not subscribe to the sentimental legends about the sweet little baby Jesus nor are we tree-worshipping druids. We know that capitalism survives by selling as many commodities as it can. So why do we feel so offended by the excess of sales pressure at this time of year? Why do we feel that some deep internal sensibility inside us is being exploited; expectations aroused and then disappointed and betrayed?
The Victorians, and especially Charles Dickens, must take a lot of the blame for creating the myth of a golden age of Christmas – a time of families coming together for a great merry feast in some vast warm indoors, where the cold and snow are shut out and where children are wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the sudden splendour of the decorations. It always snows exactly on Christmas Eve, like an extra decoration/plaything sent from above to transform dingy cities into a sparkling paradise and provide the materials for shaping snowmen and snowballs. There is carol-singing, holly and ivy everywhere and endless mountains of food and drink.
For most working class Victorians this was very far from reality. They would be lucky to get the whole day off work and lucky to have any kind of roast meat for dinner.
But it was during the Victorian era that Christmas cards and Christmas trees were introduced and the possibility of making profits out of selling stuff that people would not otherwise buy.
In northern latitudes there has always been some sort of festival in midwinter around the solstice – a celebration because days had stopped getting shorter and darker and had started to get longer and lighter. Warmer would have to wait for some time around March or April but that was a different festival.
And there is something innate in human beings that needs regular cultural feasts and festivals. Human beings – like bees, ants, starlings, herd animals, chimpanzees and many other species – cannot survive as solitary individuals. We may get the odd Ray Mears or Behr Grylls who can survive alone in the wilderness but hermits and anchorites do not found dynasties. Passing your genes on to the next generation requires living in a social context. Human children require a lot of bringing up and it takes a group/tribe/village environment to give them a reasonable chance of survival. So we are all descended from long generations of people who were part of society – who contributed and received from the collective.
And deep inside us all there is a need to take part in the traditions and rituals that bond society together. This is the essence of culture. We need to belong.
The sellers of trinkets, baubles, Barbie dolls, useless gizmos and gadgets know this and their advertising campaigns tap into this deep need inside us and then betray.
Their message is that if we do not spend every available penny on the rights cards, a big enough tree, enough lights to festoon the entire house and garden, we will not be a proper part of the group – and our children will be disappointed and feel left out.
We are pressured into buying mountains of food that cannot possibly eaten and dozens of “must-have” presents for distant relatives and friends to prove we have really thought of them, albeit fleetingly. The gift they really need and want is a proper slice of our time and attention but modern pressures of work make this the rarest and most precious commodity of all.
Wage slavery and debt slavery cut our cultural bonds with family and friends as working hours expand to take up all our time and our only bonds are with our employers and banks/credit card providers. And even at work our opportunities to make a cultural bond with fellow workers are taken away with the demise of tea breaks and lunch-hours.
And the excess spending of Christmas pushes us further into debt bondage every year, keeping our noses firmly fixed to the grindstone and our shoulders to the wheel more effectively than any Roman slave-master’s whip. We feel guilty about debt; put it down to our own foolishness and worry about it alone in the night. We don’t want to admit that the sales pressures have worked on us and we have spent more that a sensible person should.
We have so little time left for family social bonding that when we do get together with them at Christmas we hardly know them and we feel awkward and guilty for neglecting them. We feel alienated and alone – and increasingly cynical.
Thus ultimately the sales pressure of Christmas, instead of satisfying our need for belonging to the group/family/tribe actually isolates and alienates us from this and turns us into millions of lonely individuals. And we wonder why our society is becoming dysfunctional!
The advertisers particularly target children. They come into this world ready primed to absorb and bond with the culture of the society in which they find themselves. If their friends have a particular toy or brand of trainers their need to be part of the group – and the advertisers – tell them they must have the same and that urge is very strong. It can exert enormous pressure on parents, especially those feeling guilty because work pressures have not allowed them enough time to spend with their children.
Commercial pressures turn Christmas buying into a competition, pitting one household against another in the amount they can spend on their children at Christmas. Failing to satisfy your child’s demands is a crime against their youth and innocence. Parents are expected make sacrifices – of their money and their reason – to try to satisfy the insatiable. Thus people are in reality further alienated from each other by this competitiveness and parents are alienated from their children.
The satisfaction the presents bring to the children is shallow and fleeting. Too soon they become as cynical and disillusioned as their parents.
Women are under enormous pressure to provide a proper Christmas feast, even though they know a lot of it will end up in the bin.
The capitalist Christmas ends abruptly on Christmas Day with the declaration of the start of the January sales. And once the whole thing is over – with all its pressures, extra work and social disappointments – most working people heave a sigh of relief and hurry back to their workplace and the mind-numbing routine monotony.
Just occasionally at Christmas we catch a glimpse of the real thing. I remember a few years ago in Woolwich main shopping centre – a very run-down area with high unemployment and a high proportion of locals on benefits, by-passed by the worst commercialism – a drama group staged a bit of street theatre in fantastic costumes with music and dancing. It was not hot stuff to the adults but the children running about were too young to have seen anything like it before. They were genuinely entranced and captivated by it and gleefully joined in; because of this their parents were smiling too. It was quite unexpected and no money was involved. It was real.
When workers and their families get together a relax a little, when the joking and laughing break out, that is real; that is the sort of happiness that capitalism can never provide; it involves no money and no profits.
What would the ideal socialist mid-winter festival involve? That is hard to prescribe; it is the sort of thing that will happen spontaneously given the right conditions and circumstances.
But those conditions must include an end to huge commercial pressures; it must cost very little to stage. It must allow workers a lot more time to relax and unwind. It is impossible to find joy if you are exhausted. It must allow all generations to come together to give each other time and attention. And it must involve genuine fun – though that it a quality impossible to define or command. All we can do is to give it the right soil to grow in.