In the culture to which I was born, this time of year is for reflection, and for wishing peace and goodwill to all. Or this time of year is for excessive indulgence, and mindless materialism. Or this time year is for being with family and loved ones. Or this time of year is for rituals, the origins of which are unknown to most; rituals that are pleasurable to some, tedious to others. Or this time of year is for spiritual renewal. Or this time of year is for giving and receiving gifts. I am talking about Christmas, of course. Or rather, I am talking about the ‘festive season’, a distinction I will make because Christmas is essentially a Christian holiday, yet its trappings have been absorbed into a cultural juggernaut that transcends religion. I will start where I began, from the position that Christmas is for reflection, peace and goodwill to all. I may not be Queen Elizabeth II, who this year gave her fifty-sixth Christmas broadcast since 1952 (she had the day off on Christmas Day 1969). Nor am I President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, who gave this year’s ‘alternative’ Christmas message on the UK’s Channel 4, causing some to get so upset with the fact that he was allowed to speak that they completely failed to listen to what he said. As this is a time for goodwill, I beg your forbearance as I offer a further Christmas message of my own.
There is no such thing as Christmas, of course. I do not mean to dispute that there was a Jesus and that he was born a man on a given day. Scholars believe that the man existed, though you will forgive me if I, like most of them, avoid stating a conclusion on whether Jesus was God incarnate. I mean that Christmas is no longer one story, one festival. It is a convenient coming-together of many disparate themes into a symphony of celebration. Christmas is a melting pot, or better still a party where everybody brings a dish that they made themselves. As far as Christmas is concerned, people put in and take out what they like. That means there are as many Christmases as there are ways to celebrate it.
Scholars do not believe that December 25th is the literal birth date of Jesus. However, if Christmas is meant to celebrate the arrival of Jesus on this Earth, you could be forgiven for forgetting that fact. Most Christmas ceremony is as reliable a guide to Jesus’ birth, life and message as Errol Flynn and Kevin Costner are faithful purveyors of the story of Robin Hood. Christmas, like Jesus himself, is the kernel. Around it we find layer upon layer of shiny wrapping. Much of the season is as insubstantial and transitory as gift paper, and destined for the dustbin the day the season is over.
Over the ages, Christians have been no less susceptible to mixing Christmas with other rituals. German pagans left carrots or straw in their shoes, a gift of food for the horse of the god Odin. After his horse had eaten, Odin would repay their kindness by refilling the shoes with gifts or sweets. There are no more offerings of carrots or straw, but people still leave out their stockings today. In Britain, the puritanical government of Cromwell had such a dim view of the heritage of Christmas as a Christian festival that they banned it outright. What we understand as Christmas is really a mangling and merging of traditions and inventions. For example, the character known as Father Christmas in English-speaking countries, and as Père Noël amongst Francophiles, is historically distinct from Santa Claus. The British Father Christmas used to wear a green cloak, not a red suit. Some Czech advertising professionals, keen to maintain their own traditions have even resorted to running their own anti-Santa campaign. To their minds, Santa is a corporate invader from the US and UK, not a giver of gifts from the North Pole. They see Santa as a threat to local traditions that even the Soviets could not suppress.
For the first time in the history, near enough anyone can acquire the capability to share their Christmas message with near enough everyone who wants to listen to it. This era’s investment in electronic communications is possibly the greatest gift that mankind has ever enjoyed. Messages of peace and goodwill are no longer the preserve of royalty and the rich. That said, capability is only a starting point for communication. To communicate, you also need a shared context, a common outlook, and content that is meaningful to the recipient as well as to the sender. At this time, when the world is confronted by problems that are ever more global in both cause and effect, the need for communication has never been more apparent. Having attained the technological prowess, we still lack the language to talk to one another. Babel’s cacophony is a nuisance, but the obstacle posed by the many languages of the world is surmountable. Every day English is evolving into the de facto standard for anyone wanting to make themselves understood beyond their nation’s borders. The real shortfall lies not in words, but in metaphors and stories. We lack the shared references that permit words to convey more than immediate and mundane desires. Ethics and spirituality cannot be described in terms of bread and stone. Christmas is a case in point. This holiday can be used to signify the desire to realize the brotherhood of man. Yet, as often as not, it is promulgated for more prosaic ends. Its message of unity can alternatively be read as divisive, depending on whether it is used to emphasize tolerance or religious hegemony. Stripped of religious overtones, and the problem is made worse, not better. Without its moral firmament, Christmas becomes a proxy for good things, leaving us no wiser as to what really is good for us.
Left to wander outside its Christian stable, Christmas morphs into a chameleon. The festive season is a license to do anything that makes us happy. If that is sugar fizzy water, then you can drink Coca-Cola until your mouth rots. If happiness lies in sex, then you can carry your mistletoe and stalk your prey at drunken parties. If food is the source of joy, then ’tis the season for gluttony. It is no wonder that the Czech advertising executives see Santa’s sleigh as a vehicle for commercialism. Not that they object to the commercialism, they just object to the way it can digest all humanity and regurgitate it as the same tasteless pulp. Perhaps fighting Christmas materialism misses the point. Materialism is what people have in common, more than anything else. It is little wonder that typing christmas.com into your web browser takes you to a splog – a spam blog containing many links and used to generate click-throughs to retail websites. The US is the global standard-bearer for materialism, so it should be no surprise if Santa Claus speaks to the world with an American accent. Saint Nick is easily appreciated by all, because everyone can see the advantages of knowing somebody who gives but expects nothing in return. He ends up looking the same all over the world because that is the path of least resistance. Why go to the trouble of getting Father Christmas a green cloak, when you can simply buy in the same red-suited Santa Claus as the rest of the world? And if those Santa Clauses come from the same Chinese factory or Hollywood studio, so much the better, as economies of scale will keep the costs down, meaning you get more Christmas for your money. Though if Christmas is about getting what you want, then how does it differ from the rest of the year?
The festive season has not just consumed Christmas and spewed it up as a sickly goo. The goo coats everything that coincides with it, giving them all the same flavour. Hanukkah is not meant to be happy just because it is convenient to send Jews a greeting card at the same time as everyone else. China is a country of Buddhists supposedly run by Communists, but in the Northern city of Harbin this year they built ‘the world’s largest ice santa’. Why the organizers of this ice festival would make effigies of Saint Nick should be a mystery, but you will have already guessed at the reason: to make money, in this case from increased tourism. This is Christmas as photo backdrop, stripped of any other significance. Perhaps this is what we should be hoping for from the season. Perhaps the festive season really is the perfect combination of trade and peace, even at a time of financial despondency. Maybe if we are all too dependent on buying and selling from each other, we will have too much to lose and will never resort to fighting each other again. However, I doubt it. Alongside the insipid well-wishing, people need to work together if the world is to be a harmonious place. The world’s population continues to grow, non-renewable resources are inevitably diminishing, and it is a rare person who, like Santa, puts the needs of humanity ahead of their own. If we needed a reminder that making, buying and selling stuff is not a formula for lasting happiness, you need only read the story of Harbin’s ice santa as reported in the China Daily. Alongside the various headlines bemoaning the global downturn and reduced exports from Chinese factories, the story tells us that the ice sculptors in Harbin faced an especially difficult and dangerous task this year. Global warming has forced the sculptors in the northerly city to resort to using manufactured ice. Without irony, we are informed that the warmer temperatures mean that the ice is prone to melting, causing it to become slippery, and making the sculptor’s job especially hazardous.
It is not enough to have a message. Somebody needs to be motivated to circulate that message. Others must want to listen. The accessibility of modern communication technology does not greatly change that. The balance has shifted from the few previously able to send to message to the many now deciding which of countless messages they choose to listen to, but the number of messages that get listened to remains finite. Not many people have the time to handle the volume of correspondence that Santa receives. There can be fewer messages that are so readily conveyed and understood than the one which says people should get things they want. That is why the retailers and manufacturers will always be keen to give the Christmas message, and consumers will always want to receive it. Even small children can relate to it. At this time each year, I find writing my annual seasonal letter, and selecting and sending greeting cards (both those made of actual card and the oxymoronic e-cards) to be a challenge in diplomacy. Messages that wish a ‘Merry Christmas’ miss the mark when sent to people that happen to believe in something different to the Christmas sermon-cum-confection. The messages proffered by the oddball crew of Christians, atheists and opportunists that board the yuletide bandwagon each year may be disparate, but they still resonate with Christian overtones. ‘Season’s Greetings’ is hardly an improvement on ‘Merry Christmas’, as we all know why the season centres on December 25th. Try as I might, I will never combine the sensitivity and knowledge to articulate a message that would be meaningful and appreciated right around the world. As my seasonal letter-writing struggles demonstrate, I am barely adroit enough to communicate to the people that I know. Whilst I have the capability, thanks to the advance of technology and engineering, I do not have the content to talk to an entire planet. I cannot empathize with all points of view around the world. Zoroastrians of the world will need to accept my sincere apology when I say I do not have time to learn about their religious practices (though I am reluctant to be too hard on myself, as I am still someway ahead of anyone who thinks Zoroastrians dress in black and uses swords to cut Z’s into the seat of their opponents’ trousers). The only truly universal messages I can think of tend to be as bland as the ones I want to rail against. Although I would like to do better, the global majority possibly have it right. If Christmas means buying-and-selling, giving-and-taking, and comes wrapped in a vaguely American packaging, that may be the best we can all hope for, collectively, as a race. Even with the internet, for all its democratizing potential, the sheer dominance of American, and commercial, participation skews its usefulness as a medium for other important messages. Modern communications is still prone to reinforcing what is already considered mainstream – especially if it is mainstream in North America. Using the internet to deliver an anti-commercial Christmas message may be barely more popular than a message of goodwill from the President of Iran.
Setting aside the Czech admen for a moment, this season does revolve around ideas that most of us can agree are good, at least at a personal level. Beyond the personal, it is not so clear that Christmas is good. We are consuming the Earth’s resources, and not replenishing them. We have no clear view on how to bring this back into balance. In some senses consumption has become essential, and along with it the kind of ebullient outlook encouraged by Christmas. If people stop buying we may get depressed about the future and, in turn, fear for our jobs. On the other hand, perhaps losing those jobs would be a real Christmas blessing. They may not have been very good jobs to have, if they depend on the capacity to consume way beyond actual needs. How badly did we need those jobs anyway? If the purpose is to earn income in order to consume to excess, then perhaps we can do without those jobs.
In practice, the distribution of the world’s wealth is not based on merit. Saint Nick keeps a list of all the good boys and girls, and visits them all, at least according to Google and the air traffic controllers at North America’s Norad who claim to track Santa’s progress in real-time. In contrast, our global economy is not based on such a simple premise of rewards for merit. It tends to bestow too many gifts on some, too few on others. Now we are nearing the capability of universal communication, thoughts should turn to global conversations, about the topics the world needs to talk about. I cannot think of a topic more apposite for this Christmas than how we distribute the wealth of the world. I am not just talking about the many remaining and severe injustices around the planet, where people starve, die of curable diseases or are left homeless by no fault of their own, though that is a very important element of it. I am also talking about how we find better, fairer ways to reward people for the real value of what they contribute to the world. We need to find better ways to motivate people to address people’s needs, and fewer ways to placate greed. Charity is no solution. The largesse of individuals like Bill Gates should not obscure the disadvantages of living in a world that permits such obscene wealth to be accumulated. Wealth is a corrupting influence, as can be attested to by the many hard-working competitors who were unfairly crushed by Microsoft’s business tactics. Confronting and dealing with the problem of disparate wealth will require willing collaboration from people around the world. The default mode of world governance – waiting for the Americans to take the lead – is not a suitable approach. America is the cheerleader for consumption, and its power depends on it. Doing nothing is not much of an alternative, as evidenced by the scientists that monitor the impact our profligacy has on the environment. If ordinary folks will not take the reigns, then we might ultimately need rescuing through the imposition of dictators (benign or otherwise). As dictators are always a risky solution to any problem, the morality of wealth and reward is something we all need to talk about now, whether we are Christian or Muslim, non-believer or undecided, Zoroastrian or other. Many will be reluctant to do so. The technological capability to communicate with anyone on the planet is the wonder of our time. Disparate wealth and the corrupting influence of endless consumption is its evil. Managing consumption is the essential challenge of the era, with human suffering and environmental devastation as the consequences if we fail. We will not set the world to rights in time for next Christmas, but like the ice sculptors of Harbin, we need to chip away at our goal. If we can use our technology to pursue this noble enterprise, and not just for opening more lines of communication dedicated to selling and reinforcing our old selfish prejudices, we may one day achieve the dream of a brotherhood of man. This season, I cannot think of a better wish.