A Noel Wonders About, Well, Noël

Friday, January 8, 2016

  • "My own dog, gone commercial!"

    "My own dog, gone commercial!"

Written by Noel Mano

One of the things that fascinates young students is personal symbolism: the tendency to seeing meaning in the connections between our own lives and the broader social environment we inhabit. It is, I think, why websites like ancestry.org or services like 23andMe have an appreciable following among under 35s. This year, as someone born on Christmas day and named for the holiday, I found myself wondering about the significance of Christmas as a holiday in a world where fewer and fewer people identify as Christian.

On the one hand, Christmas has truly taken off to become a Western cultural phenomenon instead of simply a religious one. Of course, the retail industry is a big part of this: if you’d like to entice as many people as possible to spend money on stuff of questionable necessity, it is in your best interests to gloss over the potentially exclusionary details. This portrayed inclusiveness is important to making this holiday season work; to my knowledge, it’s never been said that Santa Claus only brings gifts to good Christian kids. Christmas ends up being celebrated in places like Dubai and China because there’s an appealing lightness to its tone and content. Its few distinct cultural features- a turkey dinner, a Christmas tree- are enthusiastically replicated because they are seen as proper traditions of the West, which in much of the rest of the world is typically thought not to have much in the way of true culture at all.

But from the outside coming in, one eventually realizes the religious and often exclusionary tone of the celebration. A religious Christmas is very different from a nonreligious one, partly because of an enduring sense of being chosen, but also because of the subtle upturned nose at those who are merely reveling. I can think of no other explanation for why the argument over symbolism gets shriller year after year. ‘Starbucks cups don’t recognize the season enough!’ ‘Damned if I’m expected to say something other than ‘Merry Christmas’!’ and on, and on, and on. Why else would these ‘controversies’ arise if people weren’t determined to stake a claim on the day, to let others know how different and supposedly more meaningful the 25th is for them compared to for everybody else?

Which brings us back to the original question: What will happen to Christmas?

On the one hand, probably nothing at all. Even while the proportion of Westerners identifying as non-Christian or non-religious has declined, the public observation of Christmas has become, well, more public. Even if one leaves out the crass commercialization of the holidays, Christmas is still sufficiently interwoven into public life- holidays, family time, the onset of winter- that this time of year will certainly remain a time of revelry for society at large, and tradition alone may ensure that the focus of this revelry remains, however nominal, Christmas. It’s also important to note that whatever ails it in the West, Christianity is on the up and up in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and South America. Perhaps a sort of cultural feedback effect from these regions, catalyzed by the usual forces of globalization, will ensure Christmas’s longevity in an increasingly secular West.

Musing on Christmas’s demise, on the other hand, is a considerably gloomier affair, and not just in the way one might think. Let’s start with the standard reasoning. Yes, Western society is becoming more and more diverse and secular. Eventually, this may simply mean that people don’t see much of a point in this crazy holiday rush, keeping a week or so off at the end of the year for a simple break from work. Festivities like Christmas require, I think, some germ of bigger significance for people as a whole to buy into the kind of hype that comes along with them. I believe this is the case even for people who don’t observe Christmas per se; the notion that this is a ‘big deal’ has to come from somewhere, and absent that, I think it’s conceivable that Christmas could die off.

There is, however, a rather scarier reason to think about the death of Christmas. If I may be permitted some drama, let me put it this way: Did not the Greeks, Romans, Mauryas, Aztecs and Tang all have big annual festivities of their own? Would they not have been big commercial affairs observed throughout these empires’ cultural reach, and with some degree of religious significance? It is, I think, impossible to ignore the imperial shades of Christmas; its global spread is due in large part to the Pax Britannica turned Pax Americana. We don’t celebrate the Romans’ Robigalia today because that civilization lost almost all its geographic reach, and what remained ended up subject to radical cultural reorganization. Such a scenario is probably unlikely today, but there are many self-inflicted fault lines on the West¾compassionless capitalism, stagnating social mobility, ethnocultural tensions, security fears¾that suggest caution. It does seem rather hyperbolic to suggest an imminent overhaul of human society, and the losses of such a reorganization would make Christmas seem the least of anyone’s worries, but this has been the character of fundamental religious and social change many times over, and so, bears keeping in mind.

For the first time, this year I found myself thinking most of the holiday fuss rather silly. If anything, the preceding paragraphs probably indicate that society as a whole isn’t going to come around to that opinion anytime soon. I do hope we might, a little, if only because all this wealth being pointlessly thrown around seems rather obscene. 

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