‘Margaret… felt the grotesque impact of the unseen on the seen, and saw issuing from a forgotten manger in Bethlehem this torrent of coins and toys. Vulgarity reigned.’ So wrote EM Forster in 1910, parodying the familiar pop-cultural refrain about the dissolution of the Christian meaning of Christmas within a gloop of sentimental consumerism.
Such complaints are at least as old as the modern ‘festive season’, with Charles Dickens, WH Auden and John Lewis being singled out for specific opprobrium at various junctures.
This strain of bah-humbug moralism appeals as much to secular leftists who don’t much like consumer culture (and suspect religion of propping it up) as to cultural pessimists who don’t like modernity full stop. Yet it has precious little grounding in reality. It is not as if the exploitation of the Christian mythos for commercial gain only started with Britain’s transformation into a nation of shopkeepers. The Catholic Church’s selling of remissions from purgatorial punishment was, after all, the direct trigger of the Protestant Reformation. Nor are more modern strands of Christianity innocent in this regard. It is at least ironic that many American evangelicals wish to complain about Christmas consumerism should be adherents of the ‘prosperity gospel’ peddled by the likes of Joel Osteen and the aptly named Creflo Dollar. The vast quantities of Virgin Mary kitsch sold within walking distance of Catholic shrines across Europe speak for themselves.
The idea that Christmas has been contaminated by money and schmaltz presupposes the historic existence of an untainted, ‘proper’ Christmas.
It’s unclear when in the British past this actually took place, let alone when the rot set in. Most Christmas traditions (one resists the impulse to reapply sarcastic quotations marks) have their origins in Yul, Saturnalia and other pagan festivals, or, alternatively, in the imaginations of Victorian antiquarians. Even before Christmas involved a precarious nexus of obligatory gift-giving, it was a celebration of childhood innocence, which is itself a product of modernity. To the extent that modern Christmas is about making little children happy, it is certainly more successful as a cultural arrangement than the tales of eternal damnation told in the solidly Christian Britain of old.
As such, one wonders what all the fuss is about. There is nothing stopping those who think Christmas should be a procession of midnight masses and virtue-mongering from observing the festive period in that way. They would certainly have an easier time of it in today’s Britain than in Cromwell’s Puritan England or contemporary Brunei, Tajikistan or Somalia, places where public celebration of the holiday is banned.
Digging beneath the rhetorical surface of the annual calls to put Christ back into Christmas, it would appear that believers’ superficial focus on the ‘commercialisation’ of the feast is just an inhibited expression of what the impious can say without compunction: that Christmas can be a bit in-your-face.
Rarely do citizens of the postmodern West come as close to experiencing life in a one-party dictatorship than in the month-long barrage of empty slogans, gaudy insignias and compulsory emotion which precedes Christmas Day itself. Making out that all this amounts to consumerist gunk accruing about the lovely core of Christmas rather than a feature of the core itself allows Christians, and cultural traditionalists more generally, to unleash their inner Scrooge.
Harmless enough. But the idea of Christmas under siege feeds only too easily into a broader political and cultural narrative of Christianity under siege. Few have been as consistent and as consistently loud in their calls for the restoration of an authentic and uncorrupted Christmas as Donald Trump, who has during his Presidency made a point of saying ‘Merry Christmas’ rather than the insipidly inclusive ‘Happy Holidays’ in official communications. It’s a way of registering hostility to religious difference and defining America as a Christian nation rather than a novus ordo seclorum.
More to the point, pretending that real Christmas is being corrupted by secular modernity lends cultural credibility to the wave of reactionary political theology currently engulfing democracies from Budapest to Bolivia.
A commercialised Christmas is surely better than a politicised one.
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