The revelries of the December holiday season inevitably are accompanied by sober inquiries about the “true” meaning of Christmas and, too often, somber pronouncements that kill our buzz when a’buzzing we should go.
Before you throw down this article for fear that it will burst your festive mood like a Christmas tree ornament flung against a fireplace, let me assure you that I come to celebrate the holiday, not to bury it under ponderous pomposity.
Holidays are made by humans and thus are what we make them. They mark important times of the season, historical events, or values a country or culture wants affirmed. And they are marked by whole communities of people; you, your family, and a few friends might celebrate birthdays, but public holidays are marked society-wide.
Love versus commerce is a false dichotomy.
Further, holidays aren’t cast in stone. They evolve over time in both their meaning and how they are marked—Friedrich Hayek’s insights into social evolution don’t just apply to laws and economies! Christmas is a good example.
For Christians, Christmas marks the birth of Jesus, of course. But from Biblical descriptions, Jesus was probably actually born in the spring, when shepherds were in the fields, not in late December.
One reason early Christians might have chosen to mark the event at the time they did was that Romans were celebrating the Saturnalia, a festival during the darkest part of the year, ushering in the new year and its lengthening days. Christians in the early centuries faced persecution. Thus, if their religious commemoration coincided with an already existing festival, they could blend in and not arouse the suspicions of state authorities.
Perhaps causality also worked the other way. After Christians came to politically dominate a Roman Empire still steeped in paganism, they might have decided that marking Christ’s mass at the time of the Saturnalia would help replace the long-standing pagan holiday with the newer, Jesus-centered one.
Whatever the truth, we also see that all cultures have festivals to mark the winter season and the promise of the return of daylight. In the Northern hemisphere late-December festivities are widespread. And many of the accoutrements of Christmas—the yule log, the wreath, the tree—have pagan, Germanic origins.
Until the nineteenth century Christmas was not the big deal it has become. For Catholics it was a day to go to mass. But several centuries ago some Protestants, often to distinguish themselves from Catholics, began to ignore the day. Christmas was not a national holiday at the start of the American republic. The Christmas we know in the United States today really emerged in the 1800s, arising from the cultures of both Victorian England and America.
In any case, though we are now in the twenty-first century, the media still insist on filling airtime and print space with debates over the “true” meaning of Christmas. Given the dynamic nature of this holiday, I offer four strands that you, dear readers, can mix and match and weave together into a tapestry that best meets your personal preferences. I call these strands the four “Cs” of Christmas. They are commerce, color, community, and contemplation.
Each year the Grinches come out, bent on stealing the commercial side of the Christmas holiday. For instance, Pope Benedict said a few years ago that “Children and adolescents are being deceived by false models of happiness pushed by adults who lead them down the dead-end streets of consumerism.” Of course, in the famous Dr. Seuss story of that name, the Grinch begins by stealing presents, but the theme is anti-material. Seuss's message is that gifts and material things aren’t what is important about the holiday. Love is! Yet still, the Grinch does carve the roast beast in the end. The truth is: love versus commerce is a false dichotomy. We don't have to choose between one and the other.
In the twentieth century, Christmas grew into a commercial holiday. No wonder. The preceding century saw the Industrial Revolution produce new inventions, industries, and products. It saw an unprecedented growth in prosperity and the creation of a middle class unimagined in millennia past. Material goods and services that make our lives more comfortable were made available to all. They were the manifestations and rewards for the virtue of productivity in a free-market system.
Here the Grinches might have a valid debating point, but not a valid moral point. Christmas has become secularized thanks to the prosperity afforded by capitalism. Individuals can focus on the fact that life on this Earth need not be a mere vale of tears to be endured as we await a better life in another realm. Objective values—which include material well-being—can be found in this world. This is a good thing, something to be appreciated and celebrated, as it is at Christmastime.
In America, department stores and malls—great capitalist creations—not only facilitated the distribution of the bounty of capitalism; they also helped create Christmas as we know it. It became part of the holiday tradition for kids to visit shopping-center Santas with their lists of goodies they hope to find under the Christmas tree.
Today during the Christmas season we party, we go to restaurants, we look for the coolest stocking-stuffer, and we watch for the latest cutting-edge consumer electronics.
Gifts for kids are an especially fun part of the season. As a first-grader I received my first set of hard-plastic dinosaurs, which fed my young interest in paleontology. A year or two later on Christmas morning I opened up my rocket-astronaut-moonscape set that got me into a life-long interest in the Final Frontier! Thanks, Mom and Dad! (That seed planted so long ago bore fruit in my book Space: The Free-Market Frontier. Feel free to order a copy. It makes a great stocking stuffer!)
Over the decades I’ve loved the challenge and joy of picking out just the right gift for the loved ones in my life, based on intimate knowledge about what might bring them joy, and especially for the children, whose imaginations I wish to fire. As I love to relate, one year I gave my then-elementary-school-age nephew a rock for Christmas.It was a piece of sandstone from a science store, embedded with fossils, shells, and other little surprises. He couldn’t just take a hammer, smash it to pieces, and extract his prizes. The rock came with little scraping and brushing tools, and, like a paleontologist, he had to slowly and methodically scrape away the rock. Over the next few weeks, it was exciting for me to get my nephew's excited phone calls telling me that he thought he could see a little white piece of bone sticking out and that he would keep me informed on his progress.
Now I have my own baby daughters, and I can’t wait to fire their minds and imaginations with the commercial bounty of the season!
Those who grouse about Christmas becoming too commercial must understand that markets offer us opportunities. During the holiday season we each make of them what is best for us and the loved ones in our own lives.
Christmas season is colorful in many ways. Most obvious are the beautiful lights and decorations. Dioramas both religious and secular grace the lawns of homes, the windows of stores, and the center courts of malls. Many make it a holiday tradition to walk down the streets of their city or drive through their suburban neighborhood at night to treat their eyes to a blaze of colors.
We can extend the “color” metaphor to the aural. ’Tis the season for music and carols, also both sacred and secular! You don’t have to be religious to appreciate a lovely rendering of “Silent Night”; may I recommend the recording in the original German performed by opera singer Elisabeth Schwarzkopf? And “Oh Holy Night” by the great Pavarotti is unsurpassed!
If we stretch the “color” metaphor still further—sorry if I almost break it!—we can appreciate the rich palette of flavors offered us by holiday cooking. Special cookies, cakes, candies, pies and every kind of sweet treat tickle our taste buds. And family recipes produce the feast of food under which dinner tables groan.
And there’s a philosophical point here too. We are creatures with senses that can give us pleasure. So let’s let ’em!
For some, Christmas is about others—family, friends, and all of humanity. For them, Christmas is about celebrating community. There is truth to this perspective as well.
In our own lives there are individuals whom we love deeply. That group can include mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, cousins, friends, and, of course, children. Our lives are made more meaningful because we share them with these individuals.
The most important of these relationships are the ones we ourselves choose—for example, spouses and friends. They manifest the virtues and interests that we value. We want to spend time with them during the holiday season and share with them its joys. And it is only proper—indeed, it is inevitable—that we will want to express our love for these individuals. We can do so every day and year-round, but Christmas is a special time for us to make such expressions, not just in words but with gifts.
At Christmastime we can also give a little “thank you” to others whom, while not as important in our lives as our nearest and dearest, are still of value to and, perhaps, admired by us. These might be work colleagues, tradesmen, neighbors, and others who we deal with. These individuals each have their own close family and friends, so when we wish them “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” we are in a sense saying, “I hope you, like me, can partake of the joys in life.”
At Christmastime we also find on the lips of many the phrase “goodwill toward men” and the idea that the season is about giving to others and helping others outside of one’s own circle of family, friends, and associates. But here some discrimination is necessary.
Goodwill means having a positive disposition toward others, assuming that they, like you, are worthy of happiness, and wanting to see them pursue and achieve that goal; envy is no part of this attitude. It means assuming others also have goodwill unless one has reasons to believe otherwise.
It is goodwill to want to live in a society in which individuals prosper and flourish through their own efforts. And we will be saddened to see individuals fail and suffer, whether through no fault of their own, through their own mistakes, or perhaps through a moral transgression that they regretted. But we don’t have a duty to turn our backs on our own joys to help such individuals. And we should not let the fact that there is suffering in the world make us sufferers as well; in that case our lives will be nothing but suffering, since suffering, sadly, will always be with us.
If you should decide, in the spirit of the season, to help others, discrimination is in order. For example, it is one thing to help others (at any time of the year) who suffer because of causes relatively beyond their control—earthquakes, illness, unemployment in a government-devastated economy. It’s another thing to help those who live to mooch off of others, or who cause their suffering and refuse to change their ways. Still, generosity does normally flow like a good wine or tasty eggnog during the Christmas season.
Such generosity is an act of benevolence. This virtue involves seeing others as potential values to us and to the society in which we want to live, as trading partners, as associates, as friends. In the words of philosopher David Kelley, it means “recognizing their humanity, independence, and individuality, and the harmony between their interests and ours.”
In a benevolent society we will be sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others and treat others with civility. And we will, on occasion, act with generosity toward others without expecting direct reciprocity for our act. The goal in this case is to help create a certain kind of society, and more specifically to help another over some misfortune.
During the Christmas season especially, we will be pained to see others suffer as we celebrate. We want to live in a society in which all flourish. Thus we can understand the impulse to give to charities and help others at this time of year.
But we should prioritize. First, keep in mind those you value most and put them first. Don’t sink your joy in the sorrow of others. Second, remember that while you are glad that poor individuals not be hungry and alone at Christmas, the long-term goal is to have as little charity and as few soup kitchens as possible. We want most individuals simply not to need charity because they are succeeding in life for themselves.
The oft-intended answer to the “true” meaning of Christmas question is, “It’s the birthday of Jesus Christ. So act accordingly.” Of course, that is why it’s called “Christmas.” But as we’ve seen, the elevation of Christmas to the major holiday in America and the West had both religious and secular origins.
We need not accept any particular religious theology to appreciate that the Christmas season can also be a time for reflection and contemplation. Sometimes the contemplation does contain a sad note as we think of those we loved who are no longer with us; hopefully it will be with a smile at the memories of the joys that they were to us at Christmases past.
It also can be a time to contemplate the blessings we have in life or, more to the point, the blessings that we ourselves have created in our own moral characters, in our work, our careers, and our relations with others.
Spirituality involves human consciousness. Personal contemplation or self-reflection is an essential aspect of the spiritual experience. Christmas is as good a time as any to reflect on the fact that we can reflect on ourselves, to appreciate our capacity to control our own consciousness and so experience the joy of our own being.
Christmas can be a time to contemplate how beautiful life is in general and, hence, another reason for a season of celebration.
The holiday can be a time to contemplate what the world could and should be, not just at Christmastime but at all times. Many people might picture the conclusion of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, with Scrooge acting with happy charity toward Bob Cratchit and family. We might think of Scrooge not acting out of an indiscriminate altruism but, rather, out of a just appreciation of his valued employee and, yes, out of a benevolent concern for Cratchit and his family.
But imagine another vision. It’s not hard to do because many of you already live it to a greater or lesser extent in your own lives. Imagine that it’s been a year in which you worked hard and were productive. Imagine that you faced up to life and its challenges with honesty. Imagine that you’ve lived consistently with your understanding of what’s best for you. Imagine that you’ve acted justly and, yes, with benevolence toward others. And imagine that you’ve been committed to living the most joyous and fulfilling life you could. Perhaps you didn’t succeed fully. But still, life has been worth living.
Now you can sit before the fireplace lost in your own thoughts, or in the living room, or around a dinner table with family and friends with a smile on your face and affirm that life should be a celebration!
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.