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Merry Christmas, Capitalists!

December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas indeed. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, but also to think of those less fortunate, right? I mean the two major figures associated with this festival really demonstrate the flaws in a hierarchy without social welfare schemes, emphasize the disparities between economic classes, and demonstrate the transformative potential of individual action to alleviate inequality. Or do they? Perhaps they’re merely patriarchal constructions which are used to maintain the status quo.

The Nativity includes such elements as displaced teenage mothers, incompetent central government policy, oppressive regimes, the problems of insufficient healthcare provision, a focus on sidelined members of society (shepherds) and an inversion of social structures. It does, however, also include enough metaphysics and conservative elements that Christmas sermons very rarely feel the need to engage with these questions in any way more meaningful than ‘Oh, and poverty is bad, donate to the church, or give to charity…money can make everything better’. (With apologies for the generalisation)

The original story of St Nicholas is similarly concerned with the alleviation of social inequality and allowing life chances to those who otherwise may be prevented from having them.

The truth-claims made by Christianity are not really the issue here, rather the ways in which the narratives surrounding Christmas have, in the 21st century West, been used as a way to create a festival which now serves the purpose of turning children into good little consumers. The winter festival has been traditionally something to look forward to in midwinter, something which makes life worth living when people are freezing to death, the sun’s hardly ever out, and you’re subsisting of whatever you’ve been able to store from the harvest.

So, how does Christmas make capitalists? This could be a nice piece of prose, but instead I’m going to state the obvious in a few bullet points, through sheer laziness.

1) Take a figure who is known for secret charity, and deck him out in the colours of a famous soft drinks company. Make an advertisement for said soft drink the ‘start of Christmas’ through repeated showing.

2) Make this figure an omnipotent judge of young behaviour. Drum the idea that if you love your parents, you will be good. If you’re good, a fat man will give you toys. If you don’t get toys, you’re bad. In this way, consumerism is associated with good behaviour from an early age.

3) The idea that ‘Santa’ brings presents rather than your parents displaces the central motivation of a winter celebration from a celebration of community and family relationships (enjoying company), to one of consumption (enjoying things).

4) Although small children often do not care about what toys they play with (I much preferred making forts out of cardboard boxes!), over the course of their childhood a combination of advertising during childrens’ television and peer-pressure transforms Christmas into a kind of social competition. With the decline in belief in ‘Santa’, Christmas becomes a time when parents must prove their love through (often impossible) purchasing power. To fail to provide your child with the correctly shaped piece of plastic for a given year will condemn them to a year of social ostracism.

5) Having been socialised through this process, throughout the teenage years, the value of ALL social relationships becomes measured through the translation of purchasing power into items which reflect the value of the relationship – and woe betide you if you don’t have enough purchasing power to correspond to the number of friends you have!

6) The new adult is fully socialised into a pattern where Christmas, instead of a winter festival celebrating the fact that you’re still alive and your friends are still alive, or the birth of Christ, or Hanukkah, or Diwali , becomes a time of financial worry, increased suicide, increased spending and consumption, a time of arguments, and a time of twee songs telling us that it doesn’t snow in Africa, but we can make it snow by giving money to a hairy Irish bloke (I think I’ve found Santa!)

So, Merry Christmas, capitalists. Enjoy your consumption, don’t think too hard about people who are less well off, and for Christ’s sake don’t actually try to do anything about it – because if you do that, you might not be able to afford to buy things for your friends – and that’ll prove that you don’t love them.

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