I’m with my in-laws for Christmas, and last night I got raked over the yule log for suggesting that children should be taught not to care about getting presents for Christmas. I was arguing that Christians especially should be brought up to reject consumeristic celebration of the secular holiday (call it Festivus, if you wish, though I’m not referring to the Seinfeld holiday) on which American children worship the false god named Santa Claus. Though not in so many words, I was more or less accused of being a Scrooge.
Tonight we’re watching Scrooge (Neame, 1970), the best musical version of A Christmas Carol, and it struck me that it’s the American consumer culture that is Scrooge, not me. Modern Christmas is the triumph of the Scrooges over the Dickensian sentiment.
I don’t know how I missed it before, but A Christmas Carol is obviously an anti-corporate screed. It is a critique of Scrooge, a capitalist who refuses to give his employees fair working conditions: no living wage, no eight hour working day, no five day work week, no vacation days, no day off for Christmas, etc. Scrooge hates Christmas, not because he hates people in general (as the musical version would have it), but because Christmas is bad for business. He is being asked to give Bob Cratchit a day off with pay and to give money to various charities. He thinks the whole holiday is a scam by lazy poor people to get money out of hard working rich people. But in the 20th Century, Scrooge got his revenge. He managed to turn Christmas into a money-making business. Even if he has to give people a day off from work, he still makes a profit because he has made their celebration of the holiday all about getting and spending.
I don’t have it in for celebration of what Dickens calls the spirit of Christmas. In fact, Dickens’s point seems to be that the spirit of Christmas is to be generous to those less fortunate than yourself. (The ghost of dead businessman Jacob Marley tells Scrooge that “‘Tis mankind should be our business, though we [capitalists] rarely attend to it.”) And I don’t even have it in for making merry — decorating trees, dancing, driking, exchanging gifts. I’ve written on this blog about my theory of Christian art as redemption of secular culture, and that’s what most of our Christmas traditions are about: baptizing pagan rites for Christian purposes. But there are some things that can’t be redeemed. Violence is one of them. Consumerism is another. When you try to sell Christmas, the pagan (in this case, American capitalist) element wins, and the Christian attempt at redemption is overwhelmed.
So I say a hearty “Humbug!” on Scroogified gift-centered capitalist Christmas. And wish you instead a truly Dickensian semi-socialist merry Christ-Mass.