by Liv Barnett
Christmas is rightfully criticised as an event of extreme consumerism and financially the most challenging time of the year for many, especially as satisfying the desires of children come with an increasingly steep price tag. But it is also a time where everyone celebrating it demonstrates the capacity for generosity, self-sacrifice and thought for others. No doubt, the 20th and 21st century history of Christmas is one where people consume as much as possible, with little care for waste or the environment. Articles circulate annually telling us of ‘Christmas towns’ in China where the whole town is populated by families painting little plastic trinkets red, only to be sent to Europe and America for temporary use during this festive season. It is also the time when people accumulate most of their debt, the time when drunk and disorderly behaviour in the UK sky rockets and domestic violence increases dramatically.
However, let’s not feel too glum, even for the those who resent the un-unionised Amazon workers standing in for “Santa’s Little Helpers”, or the fact that Father Christmas is supposedly an old white dude with a beard who delivers gifts, meanwhile a less old white dude with a less impressive beard is remembered for his anthem aiming ‘to save Africa’. There’s still something positive we can focus on.
Christmas is a time where people in the western world also mark a moment in time and space with togetherness
It is one of the only times of year where everyone is encouraged to spend time and feast with loved ones. Feasts traditionally bring people together, for better or worse, and contribute to how people make and maintain different forms of social relationships. Rather than thinking of Christmas as a time where we are forced to be with family, we can think of it as a time where family is made. The sharing of particular ritual foods, meats and special vegetables puts Christmas in a similar category to feasts that take place throughout the world during significant moments in life, and just like in societies idealised for their collective way of life, Christmas is a time where people in the western world also mark a moment in time and space with togetherness.
Alongside feasting and sharing of particular foods, there is also gifting. Within the academic discipline of anthropology, gifting is not understood merely as a one way transaction of an object for the sake of demonstrating love or kindness, but rather a social practice that establishes ongoing social relationships. These may not always be benign. Gifts can draw people into obligations to others, or begin the process of competitive gifting where people out-gift each other in value or substance and establish their own prestige. Nonetheless, gifting is the antithesis to alienation – it is a moment we give something of ourselves to another person – it might be time taken to find the gift, money spent purchasing it, or thought gone in to choosing it. The gift is far more than the object that is exchanged, it is a material representation of both the social relationship that exists between the participants of the exchange, and also a symbol of the amount of effort and sacrifice someone is willing to make for another without any direct or immediate material gain. Such sacrifice and thought for others is increasingly more rare and is not a virtue promoted in the current neoliberal climate – where we are expected to exercise individual choice and freedom without regard of our impact on others or the environment.. Thinking of others before ourselves is one aspect of Christmas that exists alongside the otherwise alienating aspects of it, where those producing the objects later purchased and exchanged are never to use the object or meet the people who do so (an aspect of what Marx termed as estrangement).
Therefore, this Christmas (and in the lead up to the New Year) try to remember and remind your loved ones, that what has made this period significant to our communities
Christmas, for those fortunate enough to have the resources to celebrate it, and loved ones to celebrate it with can be a time of closeness. It can also be a time of intense stress with an increase in domestic violence and family conflicts. It puts a huge strain on women in particular, who often carry a large proportion of the invisible material and affective labour of Christmas on their shoulders (cooking, choosing presents, decorating, organising guests, placing presents in stockings and cleaning in preparation for hosting). Therefore, it is certainly not a time of ease. But we should nonetheless remember that it is a time where we reforge and maintain our most significant social relationships. This, paradoxically done through immense consumption – is nonetheless a moment where many of us make time and effort to reconnect with family and friends. Christmas is one of the few rituals left that brings people together in time and space through feasting, gifting and even singing the odd carol. Therefore, this Christmas (and in the lead up to the New Year) try to remember and remind your loved ones, that what has made this period significant to our communities is not just the birth of a religious figure, the reincarnation of earlier pagan rituals, the royal’s taste for German trees or Coca Cola’s branding skills but our relationships of care that are made and maintained. Through the acts of gifting and sharing at Christmas we emphasise the ways we are all connected and affected by one another, as opposed to prioritising the individual that is otherwise pervasive in contemporary political and economic ideologies.
Featured image : Christian C (no changes made, under CC 2.0)
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