Thursday, December 25, 2008

"What's Christmas but a time for finding yourself a year older and not a day richer?"

I'm with my in-laws for Christmas, and last night I got raked over the yule log for suggesting that children should be taught not to care about getting presents for Christmas. I was arguing that Christians especially should be brought up to reject consumeristic celebration of the secular holiday (call it Festivus, if you wish, though I'm not referring to the Seinfeld holiday) on which American children worship the false god named Santa Claus. Though not in so many words, I was more or less accused of being a Scrooge.

Tonight we're watching Scrooge (Neame, 1970), the best musical version of A Christmas Carol, and it struck me that it's the American consumer culture that is Scrooge, not me. Modern Christmas is the triumph of the Scrooges over the Dickensian sentiment.
I don't know how I missed it before, but A Christmas Carol is obviously an anti-corporate screed. It is a critique of Scrooge, a capitalist who refuses to give his employees fair working conditions: no living wage, no eight hour working day, no five day work week, no vacation days, no day off for Christmas, etc. Scrooge hates Christmas, not because he hates people in general (as the musical version would have it), but because Christmas is bad for business. He is being asked to give Bob Cratchit a day off with pay and to give money to various charities. He thinks the whole holiday is a scam by lazy poor people to get money out of hard working rich people. But in the 20th Century, Scrooge got his revenge. He managed to turn Christmas into a money-making business. Even if he has to give people a day off from work, he still makes a profit because he has made their celebration of the holiday all about getting and spending.

I don't have it in for celebration of what Dickens calls the spirit of Christmas. In fact, Dickens's point seems to be that the spirit of Christmas is to be generous to those less fortunate than yourself. (The ghost of dead businessman Jacob Marley tells Scrooge that "'Tis mankind should be our business, though we [capitalists] rarely attend to it.") And I don't even have it in for making merry -- decorating trees, dancing, driking, exchanging gifts. I've written on this blog about my theory of Christian art as redemption of secular culture, and that's what most of our Christmas traditions are about: baptizing pagan rites for Christian purposes. But there are some things that can't be redeemed. Violence is one of them. Consumerism is another. When you try to sell Christmas, the pagan (in this case, American capitalist) element wins, and the Christian attempt at redemption is overwhelmed.

So I say a hearty "Humbug!" on Scroogified gift-centered capitalist Christmas. And wish you instead a truly Dickensian semi-socialist merry Christ-Mass.

5 comments:

The Common Loon said...

A clever take on a familiar tale.

We are clearly a nation of consumer-driven Scrooges, but this doesn't mean that a Christ-centered, counter-cultural celebration of Christmas cannot withstand the forces of capitalism. We can begin by recovering a deeper and more Scriptural understanding of gifts, generosity and the wondrous Incarnation, the gift against which all others are measured.

The Film Philosopher said...

Thanks for your comments, Common Loon. I agree that "a Christ-centered, counter-cultural celebration of Christmas cannot withstand the forces of capitalism". The problem is how to recontextualize pagan Festivus celebrations (in the original post I mentioned "decorating trees, dancing, driking, exchanging gifts", but these are just a few examples) without succumbing to Consumerism. Like you, I would want to center the season around the gift of Christ (although perhaps Epiphany is a better liturgical season in which to celebrate Christ as "gift" -- Advent is about the longing for the justice which God has brought/is bringing/will bring about by redeeming the world in Christ, and Christmas is about the incarnation of God in human form thereby revealing the true dignity, purpose, and potential of humanity). But I would argue that in order to celebrate Christ as gift, then we ought to give gifts to others with no expectation of receiving gifts from them. A Christ-centered Christmas ought to be about giving, not receiving. And I think that was the point Dickens was after in "A Christmas Carol". The Dickensian Scrooge learned to be generous to those less fortunate than himself. Unfortunately the American Scrooge has convinced us that the reason for the season is getting and spending.

The Common Loon said...

I fully agree with the principles of what you're saying (resist consumerism, give without expecting to receive, refocus the season on a longing for Christ's peace and justice, both earthly and eternal).

The challenge for me has to do with the practical application of these objectives and how broadly and thoroughly to "de-paganize" the season for my family. To borrow a concept from the convoluted realm of "Christian" self-help bestsellers, my wife's "love language" is gifts, which would present a real quandary if I told her not to expect anything.

And what about the kids? Is it possible to give my children Christmas gifts every year without at least indirectly implying they can expect to receive presents that time of year? If not, should we forgo this practice in order to keep the holiday's original intent? To what extent is it unhealthy for children to expect Christmas presents from their parents? Or for spouses to expect them from each other?

Is it enough to change our expectations regarding the nature of the gifts I give or should I strive as a parent to remove the expectation of Christmas presents altogether, since it is rooted in pagan consumerism?

At least I have 11 months to figure this out!

The Film Philosopher said...

I think we're on the same page, Loon. I'm asking the same questions you are, and I don't claim to have any good answers.

My in-laws, however, were offended that I would even raise these questions. Interestingly they, like you, appealed to the concept of "love languages". The objection is that if we don't give gifts to our children, then they won't know that we love them.

Now, I have to admit that I've never read the original book by Gary Chapman, but I am familiar with the general idea. There are a few things that bother me about the love language hypothesis.

First, it seems overly deterministic. I don't know if Chapman puts it this way, but most people assume that you are born with a certain love language and there is nothing you can do to change it. (I find this strange, by the way, comming from the very same set of Evangelicals who rejet the concept of an unchangeable sexual orientation.) I tend to assume (admittedly with no more empirical support than the love language theorists) that if there is such a thing as a love language it is learned from one's culture and is not innate.

This brings me to my second problem with the love language hypothesis. If it were true, then people living in extreme poverty would be incapable of expressing or experiencing love. If parents can't afford to buy gifts, then how could their children feel loved? Even granting the dubious assumption that the concept of love itself is the same across cultures, I suspect that different cultures have different ways of expressing and experiencing love.

At this point, let me re-iterate my point that it is not gift-giving per se that I see as problematic. Rather, it is the American assimilation of gift-giving and consumerism. I reject the assumption that gifts must be consumer products. We are constantly told by corporate marketing that the only things of value are those things that can be bought and sold.

Moreover, we are told that the more expensive something is, the better it is. Even the movie "Scrooge" falls into this trap. Bob Cratchit buys his children some inexpensive toys, but what they REALLY want is the expensive stuff in the toystore window that only Scrooge can afford. Strangely, what Tiny Tim wants is a moving model carousel. But since this toy is entirely spectator-based ("playing" with it involves simply WATCHING it), he could get as much pleasure from it by watching it in the toystore window as he could from actually owning it -- unless, of course, his pleasure comes from the (sinful) pride and status of owning something other poor children cannot afford.

So my third problem with the love language categories is that they seem to assume a consumerist system. Like I said, I haven't read the original book, but I don't see how Chapman can distinguish "gifts" from things like "affirmation", "service", "time", and "touch" without assuming that a gift has to be a tangible object of the kind that could be purchased in a store. Why couldn't speaking, acting, and touching count as gifts? And why wouldn't these count as BETTER gifts than something that could be bought in a store?

These questions are especially urgent if we are attempting to model Christmas gift-giving on the "gift" of Jesus since his love was expressed in action (feeding, healing, laying down his life) not in giving objects.

The Common Loon said...

You nuanced it well when you said "it is not gift-giving per se that I see as problematic. Rather, it is the American assimilation of gift-giving and consumerism. I reject the assumption that gifts must be consumer products."

As far as Chapman's book is concerned, I would agree that his theories probably don't hold up to rigorous intellectual scrutiny outside the realm of pop psychology in the affluent West. The point I was making was that an affinity for tangible objects as gifts is not inherently consumeristic, especially if those objects are handmade or thoughtfully crafted and selected by the giver.

A jar of homemade jam and a Nintendo DS might take up the same amount of space under the tree, but they are very different gifts. Tangible gift-giving does not always perpetuate the vicious cycle of materialism, as evidenced by organizations like Heifer, Habitat, World Vision etc. who provide sustainable Christmas gifts including cattle, goats, seeds, school supplies and musical instruments to families less fortunate around the world.

So I think the debate over tangible vs. intangible gifts is a false dichotomy. The mission and message of Christ can be communicated in many ways. The key is that we remain true to his example of sacrificial love, which stands in direct contrast to America's consumption-centered approach to the season.