BY PAMELA COURTENAY-HALL
The cultural contradictions built into western societies run deep … and they confront us at Christmas time with a force that is hard to ignore.
The problem with Christmas is not just its commercialization. It is the tension it brings out between the supposed moral foundations of our culture, and the economic system we have come to pay homage to instead.
Our political systems and dominant moral codes are premised on the fundamental equality of all human beings. But the economic system we have come to accept is premised on inequality as the path to increasing material wealth for all. It enriches the few through wage slavery for the many. It condemns thousands of people to structural unemployment for the sake of large-scale stability. It creates billionaires while many of its citizens live in poverty. No healthy caring sustainable community was ever like this.
What does this have to do with Christmas?
Around the world, throughout history, most Indigenous nations took care of their citizens in need through communally organized gift giving, done in ritualized reciprocal ways so as not to be simple charity that leaves the receiver publicly indebted.
Ceremonial gift exchange was a way of celebrating abundance, sharing wealth, helping others, establishing social position, and nourishing bonds within the community - not just one’s immediate family and friends.
The power of these traditions to sustain and strengthen a community is one of the reasons they were made illegal by colonizing nations in the 1800s, Canada included. It was part of the nation-state agenda of extinguishing Indigenous cultures – so that Christian traditions, economic dependence, and cultural individualism could move in to fill the void.
It is thus more than coincidence, if less than planned, that in the late 1800s, Christmas was the first religious day to be made a legal holiday in many western countries … Canada included.
Christmas involves gift giving of a sort very different from Indigenous reciprocal communal gift-exchange. Most people celebrate Christmas by loading gifts onto family members and friends, not to those in need. Children are promised presents no matter how wealthy your family may already be … if you are good. These lessons in conformity, entitlement, and blaming the victim, learned at the age of 5, can be hard to undo later in life. In the process, our great instincts for communal care, sharing and celebration are stunted and diverted into insular family celebrations, and our society becomes ever more fractured and individualistic.
Acquiring the means to accumulate wealth has become a primary goal for most students as they enter and as they emerge from our schools and universities. These young people aren’t lacking in moral capacity and care for others. They are simply hostages in a heartless economic system that leaves most of them vulnerable and placeless when they graduate, competing for contract work that is tragically harder to find every year.
from church dinners and food banks, our most organized form of Christmas giving is turkey drives for poor families. This is not a criticism of the wonderful spirit that motivates turkey drives; only of the limits of our giving.
In short, we are raised in a society that pretends to be based on moral equality while cultivating inequality on a grand scale. This contradiction is enshrined in Christmas, when we celebrate with great display of abundance – shared only with family and friends – the birth of the great teacher of equality, neighbourly love, and material simplicity.
There is a way beyond these contradictions. It involves working for social-economic-political reform in whatever ways we can, moved by the spirit of equality and care for the less fortunate whatever our religious background. And at Christmas time, it involves celebrating not just the birth of Jesus, but also his teachings.
It means expanding the focus of our gift giving and our celebrations to include those in need. It means building our way to communal traditions that bring us together and give children more to believe in than just a jolly old elf bringing presents on a sleigh pulled by reindeer.
- Pamela Courtenay-Hall, Ph.D. is chair, Philosophy Department, Associate Professor, University of Prince Edward Island