Before the three wise men went to visit Jesus at his birth, they first had to visit the gold, frankincense and myrrh traders. Retailers have been cashing in on Christmas since, well, before Christmas. Nevertheless, a chorus of commentators each year decries its commercialisation. The retailers who market their holiday stock in October become the targets of droll cynicism about how the holiday season arrives earlier and earlier.
According to these critics, between the Santa-themed lingerie and the mechanised excess of the Myer windows, the true meaning of Christmas has been lost somewhere on the Bourke Street Mall. Certainly Jingle Bells piped over the cheap speakers in supermarkets might be irritating, but presumably some people like it. Businesses that go out of their way to annoy their customers don’t stay in business very long. And the excruciating kitchiness of so much holiday decoration just proves the old saying “there’s no accounting for taste” is never more insightful than at Christmas time.
But there is more to Christmas than just bad taste. The opponents of a commercial Christmas have always had a distinctly political message. George Bernard Shaw, a fervent anti-capitalist and apologist for Stalin, put his case against the holiday merchandising half a century ago: “Christmas is forced upon a reluctant and disgusted nation by the shopkeepers and the press; on its own merits, it would wither and shrivel in the fiery breath of universal hatred.” Shaw was a great playwright, but was probably not very good at small talk.
The anti-commercialism message ties neatly into the common belief that we, as a society, are over-consuming. Cheap political paperbacks and moralising opinion pieces drearily list the possible consequences of buying one too many trinkets – clinical depression, environmental catastrophe, spiralling levels of personal debt, the loss of social cohesion, child obesity, economic turmoil and big houses.
The critics of the consumer society have coined an evocative new word – “affluenza”. Capitalism, they imply, is some sort of psychotic mass hysteria. And the Christmas period is a massive annual epidemic; a deranged orgy of consumption and spending.
But what’s wrong with a commercial Christmas? It really does seem like a strange complaint, even for those ideologically opposed to excessive consumption. After all, Christmas is the one time of the year that we go shopping not for ourselves, but for others.
Exchanging gifts has always been a central part of building social relationships. When world leaders exchange gifts at diplomatic meetings, it isn’t because they were conned by shiny advertisements.
And as every parent who has received a handmade present from their child is well aware, gift-giving has more symbolic importance than practical importance.
Amusingly, some biblical scholars have suggested that the gold, frankincense and myrrh given to the infant Jesus were more like gifts of much-needed medicine for a new mother. This would make the three wise men the spiritual ancestors of that uncle who always buys you “useful” presents like socks and underwear, rather than things you actually want, like an Xbox.
Nevertheless, a good gift at Christmas is one that strengthens a relationship; a bad gift is one that reveals that relationship to be shallow. Giving presents to friends and family members, even if those presents are extravagant, hardly fits into the affluenza theory.
Most of the criticism of commercialism seems to stem from a dislike of commercial activity intruding upon the “non-commercial” parts of society. How dare businesses drag their filthy profit-making into our nice clean holiday? But these critics vastly overemphasise the distinction between activities we might class as commercial and those we might class as social. The difference isn’t so great.
Commercial society is much more warm and fuzzy than is depicted by anti-capitalists. Interaction in the marketplace is inherently co-operative. Certainly, businesses do compete against each other, and this competition sounds like it is very aggressive, impersonal and distasteful. But they only compete in order to co-operate – that is, trade with their customers.
And on a practical level, the celebration of Christmas benefits from the introduction of commercial values. Vigorous competition during the holiday season keeps the prices of gifts low, allowing us to give more gifts to more people who are important to us.
We continue to agonise over the “true meaning” of the holiday. But whether Christmas is religious or secular, there’s little reason to fear that its personal significance will drown in a sea of holiday jingles and advertising.