Christmas lights in Carnaby Street, London, 2022 | Photo: The wub – Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0 | cropped from original Christmas lights in Carnaby Street, London, 2022 | Photo: The wub – Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0 | cropped from original

Consumerism, Christianity or just humbug? Dominic Alexander looks at the reasons why we celebrate this festival

It is a remarkable indication of public anger over austerity and the economic crisis that a major supermarket should make its flagship Christmas advert all about that very subject. Tesco’s ‘Christmas Party’ promises that all it will cut will be prices, that rather than an NHS crisis, it is bedtimes that will be scrapped, and the ‘cuts for all’ will be generous helpings of roast meat. This could be read as a somewhat anxious attempt to point the blame for the cost-of-living crisis at the government, to salvage the supermarket’s ability to associate itself with all things snug and festive. It could also be meant to say, we’re not the capitalist Scrooge character here, we’re the kindly, avuncular figure who looks after its clients the best it can at Christmas time.

Paternalism is a very entrenched part of Christmas symbolism, reaching well back into pre-capitalist times when wassailers importuned gentry households for their share of meat and drink at festival time. The other side of that relationship was that the people should be grateful year round to the generous lord who provided for his tenants and servants. The Victorian reinvention of Christmas leant heavily on the paternalistic theme, and hence one poet repurposed a medieval saint, the martyred King Wenceslaus of 10th-century Bohemia, for a carol about a rich man bringing food and Christmas cheer to a poor man.

The audience for this theme wasn’t necessarily the exploited, but rather the elite. The last verse makes it plain:

“Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye, who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.”

This is the point of Dickens’s character Scrooge in his A Christmas Carol as well. The capitalist may have leave to exploit his workers relentlessly year round, but for his own salvation, he needs to imitate the imagined feudal lord. Aristocratic patronage of underlings at festival time, certain Victorians dreamt, underwrote their grateful obedience the rest of the year. Dickens was a radical reformer in some respects, but the limits to that come out clearly here. His concern was for the stability of the existing class hierarchy, and for that to be secure, the bourgeois ruling class needed to learn something from its predecessor.

Seasons and rulers

Capitalists, however, have never really been able to provide a convincing replacement for the medieval relations which underpinned the paternalism of public holy days like Christmas. The charges of hypocrisy and empty sentimentality, and the loss of a ‘genuine’ spiritual element have in fact been around since the 19th century. The seasonal rhythms of the year, however removed most of us are from agricultural time, remain meaningful, and traditions rooted in subsistence can still echo into our urban working year.

Everyone knows that the Christian part of Europe’s mid-winter festival was an artificial imposition on various existing traditions, and it is commonly thought that Jesus’s birth date was assigned to 25 December by the Roman Pope during the 4th century. Having a feast day on particular dates of religious significance was not itself alien to Christian practice. Early Christians would gather at the tombs of martyrs on the anniversaries of their deaths to eat together, and this became part of their religious calendar. Eating together is a central act in creating a community, after all.

Adding a ‘feast of the Nativity’ to the cycle of observances was, perhaps, a natural evolution as Christianity spread beyond a small sect. Once the religion became the single, official religion of the Roman Empire, then a different dynamic came into play. That wouldn’t reach fruition until long after the end of the Empire, when the Church was the ruling institution that knitted together the patchwork of kingdoms and principalities that made up feudal Europe.

Thus a Christian calendar eventually came to dominate the year, but the basic agricultural imperatives of seasonal celebrations remained, and the mid-winter festival combined the ruling religion with other customs. At many points, the Church deliberately inserted itself into the patterns of agricultural life, precisely in order to exercise control of labour and resources. Beyond secular aristocrats’ lavish spectacles of conspicuous consumption (wealthy monasteries did this too), not much is known about the common people’s mid-winter traditions.

It’s hard to say how old were any of the popular customs that appear, or sometimes were reinvented, in modern times. However, the general shape of northern European practices has an obvious relationship to agrarian imperatives. Slaughtering livestock and feasting at mid-winter is a rational subsistence strategy, since there may not be enough feed to keep all the animals alive until spring. There is good evidence of such feasting around Stonehenge all the way back in the third millennium BCE.

Various kinds of pudding made of nuts and preserved berries gathered in the autumn provide high-calorie sustenance when there is little else to be gathered. Bringing evergreen boughs, holly and so on into the home not only has symbolic meaning in anticipating the return of spring growth, but provides some last-ditch fodder for livestock at the winter nadir of resources. Hence, at least in some areas into the 19th century, it was tradition to leave up these Christmas decorations until Candlemas on 2 February.

In a society dominated by feudal landowners, who controlled the social surplus, there was good reason for lords, ecclesiastical or lay, to act generously at mid-winter particularly. Not just the loyalty but the survival of their tenants might depend upon it. In their competition with each other, as well, lords needed to be able to distribute patronage to followers.

The Church was in some ways caught in a contradictory position within all this. It was itself a collection of feudal institutions, whose leading members needed to act in much the same way as secular lords. However, an ascetic ethic made up a key part of the Church’s legitimacy, as did a rejection of worldly customs and behaviours. This contradiction was inescapable, and hence a disavowal of the carnal and secular side to the festival, in favour of solemnities of prayer and fasting, was a constant impulse. The opposition between consumption and spirituality at the mid-winter festival is not entirely a creation of capitalism. It does, however, always have something to do with the exigencies of rulers and ruled, exploiters and exploited.

The Puritan moment

The ascetic and biblically literalist strain in medieval Christianity was inherited and repurposed by the Protestant rigorists called Puritans, as the growth of capitalism undermined feudal social relations in the 17th century. Much has been made in subsequent centuries of the Puritan banning of Christmas festivities during the Civil War and the republican period. Yet, this does need to be understood in the context of dismantling Church control over the rhythms of labour and life in order to break feudal social power. A wholesale rejection of the public ceremony and ritual of the Church calendar, in favour of a private, household piety was in keeping with the logic of social revolution.

For the poorer artisans among the Puritans, the rejection of the relations of conspicuous consumption, display and patronage was a natural accompaniment of their social radicalism, and of the necessity of economic self-reliance and prudence in the growing market economy. For wealthier Puritans, masters and gentry, this rejection of the old ways, however, also meant cutting the ties of community social obligations. Hence the counter-revolutionaries made much of the joyless and mean appearance of Puritanism in these respects, and the return of the monarchy in 1660 could mean the return of festive traditions, and aristocratic largesse. Scrooge had a long ideological pre-history, before Dickens finally crystalised him into a memorable character.

The consumer capitalist reinvention of Christmas

A truly bourgeois Christmas had to wait for the Victorian era, when capitalism had triumphed to the point that Britain had a bourgeois monarchy and a bourgeois aristocracy. It is fitting that Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert, then, is supposed to have introduced the custom of the decorated Christmas tree. And so, many other such traditions were invented or repurposed, rent from their older social contexts and meanings.

The model for the festival became the sanctified and sentimentalised private home, now the centre for consumption, while production was wholly in the public sphere. Public celebration of Christmas became an attenuated carapace of display, which was to be increasingly focused on the opportunity for commerce into the 20th century. The sentimental Victorian Christmas was given a sheen of romantic nostalgia for a supposed organic society of the feudal past, in which the conflicts of industrial society were meant to be forgotten in a haze of hollow paternalism.

If much about Christmas can give even an enthusiast for festival a decided feeling of humbug, that is a fair reaction to the emptiness of commercialised spectacle. The atomised nature of capitalist society means that there is no reality behind any pretence at communal celebration. The particular imperative towards charity during the season only underlines, if it is thought about for a moment, how the bourgeoisie as a ruling class has abandoned the few social obligations that pre-modern ruling classes did acknowledge.

What is left of the mid-winter festival, then? Well, plenty, if you’re of a mind. For northern urban societies it is still the darkest and coldest part of the year, so we are not entirely separated from the natural rhythms of seasons. There is also, in the frantic pace of capitalist working life, a need for there to be a hiatus of some kind, even if it tends to produce private work, which often falls mostly upon women. Nevertheless, despite all our atomisation, for many it does remain a valuable time to renew bonds of family and friends. There will always, however, be something missing in a society where the public sphere is almost wholly captured by the logic of capital accumulation, and where any obligations of collective provision have to be fought for tenaciously. It is still possible, even so, to honour the mid-winter festival with a determination to create a society without exploitation, where new traditions could be invented to reinvigorate the old collective celebration

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Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).

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