Christmas: a capitalist wet dream?

Originally published in Palatinate Comment – December 2014.

Christmas is a time of joy and festivity for most, although for some this time of year will of course be more challenging. For the estimated 27% of children in the UK who currently are in poverty, Christmas may not be such a happy time of year. The largely capitalistic nature of the holiday cannot be denied, especially not with the average spending on Christmas presents in recent years estimated at £312 per child. Despite this, the issue of whether this gift-giving has become the main function of Christmas — and what it would mean if this was the case — is debatable.

Turn on the television at this time of year and you will be bombarded with ‘helpful’ reminders that Christmas is on its way. From the John Lewis advert featuring a very cute penguin to a Tesco advert that informs of the possible wine choices for the big day, it is clear that all supermarket chains have invested highly in ensuring the best possible return from Christmas.

There is, however, one example which stands out for all the wrong reasons. The Sainsbury’s Christmas advert, while moving, features the 1914 Christmas Day truce as a way to demonstrate that “Christmas is for sharing”. This displays how abhorrent Christmas can be as a commercial construct, because it places rose-tinted glasses over whole periods of time. While Christmas is an exciting time of year, life carries on around it (and after the truce ended fighting resumed) and this must be considered. The spending which such adverts encourage is unsettling and makes the holiday season more and more about consumption.

Of course while there are so many negatives to the consumerism that has come to enter each home alongside the Christmas tree in early December, everyone must make a living. This includes those market stall holders who painstakingly construct Christmas wreaths or baubles and also the often faraway toys producers who rely on us for their incomes. For some, Christmas provides the basis of their business for the year round. If Christmas has become the home of excess to a degree that is truly unacceptable, this is something which would be challenging to overcome.

Speaking of the festive period in such mercenary terms is disheartening. The smile on young children’s faces when they see Santa Claus for the first time, or unwrap a gift they have been hoping for, is wonderful to behold. A family meal at Christmas, with crackers and those thin paper party hats, provides memories that can be cherished all year round. Perhaps it is not an issue of saying ‘Bah Humbug’ to Christmas but instead simply understanding the limits which affect what we can spend at this time and all year round.

The commercial application of Christmas as a time to be spent wildly trying to purchase the contents of department stores’ perfume counters appears to be strictly divided from its role as a time of thanksgiving and prayer. Perhaps, just as the lines between secular and religious celebration of Christmas have blurred, we should also not dwell on the way in which it can also be a time of gluttony. Eat, drink and be merry. After all, after a busy term at university and another one on the way, it is the perfect excuse to spend time with our families and friends back home.

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