In purging Christmas of any social meaning, capitalism creates its own gravediggers, argues Dominic Alexander
To complain about the commercialisation of Christmas increasingly smacks of a fuss about negligence in respect of stable doors. It doesn’t stop with commercialisation, however. Increasingly, the festival of consumption involves an acceleration of the pressures capitalism brings to bear on daily life, rather than bringing any easement of labour, in the way we expect a holiday to do.
Now it seems that workers have an obligation to work dangerous shifts, according to punishing schedules, just to keep the wheels of seasonal profit-making spinning as rapidly as commercial interests demand that they must. Delivery drivers must work extra Sunday shifts, with the threat of losing their jobs if they do not comply. Postal workers must maintain an ever faster march to complete their routes on time. All this, apparently, because everyone is shopping online. Austerity driven capitalism results in ever longer hours and an intensification of work, leaving less and less time and energy for our seasonal work of consumption, which the system nevertheless requires. There is here a dialectic between internet shopping and the low-wage economy, which produces an increasing tempo in the capitalist accumulation cycle.
The traditional religious appeal to recall the ‘true meaning of Christmas’ rings hollow for two related reasons. Firstly, as an alternative to the commercial celebration, it posits a merely abstract spirituality amounting to no more than a denial of present material wants and desires. Secondly, where any practical response, say in charitable volunteering, is envisaged, it involves further self-abnegation of the kind that is required all year long for most people in subjecting themselves to the discipline of labour under capitalism. This kind of response to the commercialisation of Christmas is more easily contemplated by those who gain considerable status and remuneration in their working lives, rather than those who are threatened with the sack if they do not work those extra hours on a Sunday. Without besmirching the efforts of those who really do go out of their way to help other people, the pious alternative to commercial Christmas simply reinforces the wealthy’s own sense of their moral superiority over materially focused proletarians.
The ‘true meaning of Christmas’ carries with it the assumption that this festival was once something more exalted and spiritual than it is now. It was, however, always about certain material things. A seventeenth-century Irish carol declares that ‘Christmas day is come, let’s all prepare for mirth’.1 The mirth that is, in practice, envisaged is well encapsulated by the traditional Gloucestershire Wassail:
Pray God send our master a good Christmas pie
And a good Christmas pie that may we all see;
With our wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee.
May God send our master a good crop of corn,
And a good crop of corn that may we all see;
With our wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee.2
The mid-winter festival was always about food and drink, and a lightening of the spirit in the barren part of the year. A promise of‘twelve days in the year much mirth and cheer’3 was particularly necessary when, for many,resources were meagre enough that they may not last until the spring. It was understood, therefore, that the wealthy had a certain social obligation:
And now the tide is nigh at hand,
In which our Saviour came;
Let us rejoice and merry be
In keeping of the same;
Let’s feed the poor and hungry souls,
And such as do it crave;
Then when we die, in heaven we
Our sure reward shall have.4
Religion, in this carol, entailed a degree of self-discipline for the wealthy, in contrast to contemporary demands for yet more labour, or the shaming of ordinary material enjoyment. This is not to wax nostalgic, sentimentally, for a more generous ruling class than our present capitalist masters. The traditional carols actually suggest something more interesting about the nature of the mid-winter festival.
Wassail songs, in particular, carry some strong hints about the how the obligations upon a community’s wealthier members were imposed. The singers of this song from the north of England, early in the seventeenth century, could have been from families of labourers, or small tenants, directly or indirectly subordinated to a wealthier household:
Our wassail cup is made
Of the rosemary tree
And so is your beer
Of the best barley
We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door
But we are neighbours’ children
Whom you have seen before
Call up the butler of this house
Put on the golden ring
Let him bring us up a glass of beer
And better shall we sing:
We have got a little purse
Of stretching leather skin
We want a little of your money
To line it well within:
Bring us out a table
And spread it with a cloth
Bring us out a mouldy cheese
And some of your Christmas loaf:
God Bless the master of this house
Likewise the mistress too
And all the little children
That round the table go:
Good master and good mistress
While you are sitting by the fire
Pray think of us poor children
Who are wandering in the mire.5
Children could perhaps make importunate demands more easily than adults, but the point is clear, that the wealthy household has a duty to provide for those known to them, and carol singing is a means of enforcing that obligation. Wassail singing was not the preserve of children, and similar demands turn up in the songs apparently sung by adults: ‘God send our master a good piece of beef/ And a good piece of beef that may we all see’.6 The wealthy did not automatically accept their seasonal debts, as is revealed by hints that they hide from carol singers:
O master and missus are you all within?
Pray open the door and let us come in
O master and missus asitting by the fire
Pray think upon poor travellers, atravelling in the mire.7
This same wassail, from Somerset, takes a peculiar turn towards the end:
There was an old man, and he had an old cow.
And how for to keep her he didn’t know how.
He built a barn for to keep his cow warm.
And a drop or two of cider will do us no harm:
No harm boys, harm: no harm, boys, harm;
And a drop or two of cider will do us no harm.
The girt dog of Langport he burnt his long tail,
And this is the night we go singing wassail;
O master and missus, now we must be gone;
God bless all in this house till we do come again.
For all that the wassail songs preserve social hierarchy in their formal respect to the masters and mistresses of the great household, there is very often a shadow of threat involved. The appeal is not simply a pathetic plea to think of those wandering in the mire, but to the ‘harm’ or misfortunes that might occur to those who do not observe their festive obligations. The last line is particularly direct, since the master and missus will be blessed, having provided for the carollers, until they come again.
Older carols and traditional wassails reveal an assertion of the right to a redistribution of resources at times of festival. A share of the community’s surplus is enforced with what is a kind of positive curse; the conditional blessing. Again, while there is no sense of any challenge to the social order here, the redistributive dimension of the mid-winter holy days would have eased resentments built up by the exploitative relations that prevailed throughout much of the rest of the year.
The wassailers’ blessings have a resonance with another festival that bears obvious signs of a historic redistributive function; Halloween trick or treating. To the British this may seem like a commercialised American custom, but it is a case of an ancient custom lost in the Old World but preserved in the New.8 The Halloween threat, in regard to a refusal to engage in the requirements of community solidary, is rather more overt than the wassail blessing, but the function is clearly of the same kind. The two festivals come at the time of year where many would be concerned whether they had sufficient stores to last out the winter, and therefore it fell upon more fortunate households to share their surplus with those in need. The Church may have wanted to insist on certain spiritual meanings for the holy days involved, but it is notable how incidental the theology of the Nativity is to the wassail songs.
It would be valid to suppose that carols and wassails point to egalitarian customs of pre-Christian societies. All over the world, redistributive festivals and traditions can be found in pre-class societies, even those with incipient social hierarchies. For example, the ‘big men’ of Melanesian and Polynesian societies are known to have enhanced their status with great feasts. The egalitarian First Nations of British Columbia famously celebrated potlaches in which people competed to give away the most to their neighbours. In the less generous context of a class society structured by the Christian Church, wassailers and trick-or-treaters had to insist more forcefully upon their ancient redistributive rights.
Exploiting classes are never glad to have to give back any of the surplus they have squeezed out of the labour of subordinated social groups, but redistributive customs endured for long periods of time because they contributed to social stability. The kind of social contract involved in these traditionsin Western Europe began to break down most markedly in the seventeenth century, as capitalist relations of production became increasingly dominant, particularly in England. The village elite began to withdraw from practices of community solidarity, which appeared more and more as a burden rather than a necessity for maintaining social harmony.
This process lay at the root of the surge in the persecution of witches in this period. Trials for witchcraft were virtually unknown during the Middle Ages, when the Church was adamant that the Devil could only cause spiritual, not physical, harm. However, from the fifteenth-century onwards the elites gradually became convinced otherwise, and together with the break down in redistributive social obligations at the village level, the stage was set for the outbreaks of witch hunting. Poor old women were most often found to be witches because they were most likely to need aid from wealthier members of their communities. If help was refused, they were also more liable to have no other recourse than to resort to a curse.9 The mass trials of witches have complex causes; one argument suggests that witch trials in Scotland were an epiphenomena of state formation. Even here, the underlying problem at the community level comes back to the issue of poor women being resented for making demands on their neighbours.10
Wassailing was not witchcraft, but as pre-capitalist relations were broken up, with such violent repercussions, it would have been harder and harder to maintain redistributive customs. Carols with demands for food and drink survive for other times of the year than Christmas, from May Day and Easter for example,11 but it is likely that the specific nature of the Christmas festival made it harder to suppress wassailing than similar practices at other times of the year. One fifteenth-century carol piles on the social message with many verses contrasting the poverty of Christ’s family with the surrounding riches, from which they are excluded:
In all the lighted city
Where rich men welcome win
Will not one house for pity
Take two strangers in?12
The wassail songs, some of which survive in nineteenth-century versions, therefore represent the last remains of the social redistributive principle of the holiday. The history of class society is one of a progressive stripping away of collective social forms and egalitarian customs, until with capitalism, the last embers of pre-class social relations are extinguished.
There is an upside to this, however. We may no longer be able to make demands on the ruling class for seasonal cheer, but in turn, we are no longer obligated to them for the rest of the year. In purging Christmas of any social meaning, capitalism adds another dimension to the historical dynamic by which it creates its own gravediggers.
1 The Oxford Book of Carols, ed. Percy Dearmer, R. Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw (Oxford 1928), no. 6, p.19.
2 Ibid. no. 31, p. 63.
3 Ibid. no. 5, p. 17.
4 Ibid. no. 1, p.5.
5 Ibid. no. 15, pp.32-3.
6 Ibid. no.31, p.62.
7 Ibid, no. 32, pp.64-5.
8 See Carlo Ginzburg, Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath (London 1990), p.184.
9 See Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London 1971), chs.14-18.
10 See Christine Larner,Enemies of God: The Witch Hunt in Scotland (Baltimore 1981),pp.97-8.
11 Book of Carols, no. 49, pp.100-1, and no.94, p.204.
12 Ibid. no.91, p.195.
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 book, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018).
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