Christmas Holds a Mirror to Modern Society, Allowing Us to See How Far its Values have Changed, and How Fast

by Andrew Alexander
The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and may not be construed as in any way representative of the views or policies of Oxford Royale Summer Schools.


It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Not just for Christians, but for sociologists also. When the history of the early part of the new millennium is noted, I suspect Christmas will offer the perfect microcosm for doing so.

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In the theistic world view, Christmas operates in a similar fashion to a window. We are able to look beyond our own circumstances and our own time. We see both backwards, to the events in a Bethlehem stable over 2,000 years ago which have shaped almost every aspect of the world in which we currently live. At the same time, we are able to look at our lives in the present and see beyond the walls which the drudgery of daily existence place in our way, being given an opportunity to appreciate a world of the spirit which the practicalities of everyday life blind us to (of necessity) for much of the remainder of the year. Finally, it acts as a window to our futures, the time when the Christian believes that he or she will be held in judgement and will ask that the Grace of God, the greatest instance of which can be found in the sending of the Son to die at the hands of man, be bestowed on them in the next life. This outline is, broadly speaking, how Christianity has been understood for most of the West’s history.

Image shows a large pile of Christmas presents next to a tree.
A modern Christmas often focuses heavily on shopping and gift-giving.

The contemporary view of Christmas, though, is somewhat different. It is more a mirror. The season sees the amplification of the secular world’s rush to consumption, it reflects back to us the hollowness of much of our national ritual given that the foundations in faith have largely disappeared. We do not use Christmas as an opportunity to understand our world by looking through it and into others, but instead as an opportunity to reflect an embossed vision of our own status. Understanding contemporary society in the West, and in the UK in particular, requires that we understand the peculiar role around which our one remaining truly national festival holds.

Identity Crisis

In the first instance, Christmas highlights what we have lost in terms of our national culture over the past century. An Oxbridge theologian once told me that the greatest obstacle to pursuing the subject which he loved at post-graduate level was that it would require him to be dishonest. His reasoning was that a doctoral candidate will only be awarded his doctorate if his thesis breaks new ground in his area of study – puts forward a new theory or a dazzling new way of conceptualising an old topic. The problem was, he argued, in theology, this required him to be heretical – if he accepted the orthodoxy of the standard narrative interpretation then he would not add anything to the discourse. This was, in his view, why the academic branch of theology was increasingly captured by fringe beliefs which pulled the narrative of the subject away from core truths.
Image is a button that reads, "Browse all Politics articles."This is, in my view, a formidable problem in contemporary academia. It is an issue apparent in history and politics no less than in theology, and it means that self-evident truths are frequently overlooked. For that reason, it is worth reminding ourselves of this truism – Britain and the United States have for the majority of their history functioned first and foremost as Protestant states and to a large extent owe both success and survival to this fact (Linda Colley’s book Britons: The forging of a nation is one of the great works of modern historical scholarship and makes this case succinctly in the British example).

Image shows William Wilberforce, as painted by Karl Anton Hickel.
William Wilberforce, one of Britain’s best-known anti-slavery campaigners, was an evangelical Christian.

While polemicists take the opportunity of the doomed Scottish independence vote to muse on the nature of Britishness – invariably bringing it down to a cursory and superfluous list involving fair play, tolerance, one article or the other of foreign cuisine – they miss both the greatness of the British experience and its contextual reliance on Protestant Christianity. The Act of Union between England & Wales and Scotland in 1707 took two countries which had been at war almost constantly since the Norman Conquest, had different legal systems, different languages in large part, and different interpretations of the Protestant state religion, and welded them into the world’s dominant power for a period spanning almost two centuries. As Colley makes clear, fostering a sense of national identity between two such disparate peoples was largely the job of religion. Britain was at war with Catholic powers, particularly France, from inception through to the defeat and final exile of Napoleon. At home it was the Protestant profit motive which spurred the Industrial Revolution, the Protestant principles of the middle class which accomplished a putative welfare state before World War One which was bitterly opposed by those it sought to protect. Abroad, it was Protestant preaching which led to the Britain’s near single-handed abolition of the slave  trade outside of America, Protestant zeal which pushed its missionaries deeper still into uncharted and unprofitable African scrub to forge the Empire. More than anything else in its history, the institutional, moral and cultural fibre of Britain has been shaped by its Protestantism, no other factor in its history comes close.

Image shows the interior of Canterbury Cathedral.
Religion has become increasingly irrelevant in British public life.

All of which appears distinctly odd when viewed from this side of the historical divide. Protestantism has disappeared from British public life as a meaningful, rather than ceremonial adjunct to national life. The Archbishop of Canterbury has roughly the same spiritual significance in contemporary Britain as Joanna Lumley, and is taken far less seriously. Why this should be is not a particularly difficult question – the British saw their national destiny as being so closely entwined as to be synonymous with the Protestant church, the endless victories under arms of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the expansion of empire, the boundless advance of living standards at home, all of this made sense to a nation which saw itself as (along with the United States) the only significant Protestant power in a Catholic world. Britain became great because it assumed it was its destiny to do so. With the advent of Two World Wars and the devastating, bankrupting victories which came with them, the over-shadowing of the regimes of national religion by the regimes of national political persuasion, came a loss of belief in national destiny. As the project of a great Britain was abandoned, so too was its national religion.

The Consumption Function

The annual appearance of Christmas on the calendar reminds us that we have lost the glue which bound us together as a nation. Because of this, it has been necessary to create a secular and alternative rationale for festivities. We celebrate a Christian festival, but no longer from a Christian perspective – the narrative of the nation first amongst many and chosen by God has succumbed to the modern idea that consumption is the true and proper function of both human beings and also human societies.
We have seen that in the days before the two great wars of the last century, Britain defined itself in opposition to the Catholic nations of the continent. Following victory in the two world wars, it was forced to define itself against a political doctrine which opposed the right of the individual to have autonomy over their consumption decisions. This occurred at a fortuitous moment. While the Christian moral authority required to hold the Empire together had waned, Britain was able to substitute an internal political narrative in which the state was able to transition from the protector against the Popish doctrine of transubstantiation to the shield against the Marxist notion of the equal division of the factors of production.

Image shows a nativity scene with wooden figures, and fairy lights in the background.
Nativity scenes blend in with secular decorations.

It was appropriate enough under such a system that Christmas remained as the primary expression of national unity but was transformed for this purpose. The intellectual opposite of Communism is not the free market in particular, but rather Consumerism. Communism seeks to restrict choice in order to maximise the hypothetical utility of an individual’s consumption set in the context of society. Consumerism follows no plan other than encouraging the individual to purchase whatever product set they feel would maximise their personal utility at that particular moment in time. Consumerism is a movement which is, as a point of fact if not a point of ideology, atheistic. Inherent in the theistic world view is the notion that it is impossible to purchase true satisfaction, as this arises from union with God and is conferred through Grace rather than individual merit. Consumerism holds that satisfaction arises from the purchase of physical goods and experiences (although it concedes that it is impossible for anybody to be truly happy because of the economic problem of unlimited desires). In this sense Consumerism is both a reflection of the anti-Communist orientation of the West post-1945, and also of its anti-Christian drift over the same period.
If this paradoxical assumption about Christmas – that its modern celebration is more a monument to atheism and Consumerism than a religious holiday – is correct then we would expect, paradoxically, to see Christmas celebrated more in more secular societies. In purely monetary terms, this appears to be the borne out in reality – Bloomberg have reported that the UK does even more of its shopping in November and December than the US. Moreover, in recent years, consumption has been shifted away from other months towards December, with spending up 37% on average in 2012 despite a flat market overall in Britain. In other words, the more  profound the country’s addiction to consumer spending, the greater its secularity, the greater the festishising of Christmas as a celebration of Consumerism.

The Ghosts of Christmas Future

As a consumer event, Christmas also tells us a great deal about the true nature of the economic recovery in the West. In Britain an important but little remarked upon trend has been the shift in consumer borrowing from mortgage debt (by its nature secured against an asset) towards consumer credit (which can be used for asset purchase but can equally be used for consumption expenditure), a category now expanding at 5.8% a year.

Image shows King Edward Street in Leeds with Christmas decorations up.
Cash withdrawals from ATMs on the Saturday before Christmas peaked at £27,000 per second.

Both anecdotally and statistically, those spending the most relative to their incomes at Christmas are likely to be those least able to afford it. The average British household expects to spend £820 on Christmas this year, with YouGov finding that the poorest half of households expect to spend only £63 less on presents than the richest half. Again, this is best explained in ritual terms – in the same way that the poorest are frequently the most committed adherents to religious codes which promise to elevate them from the misery of their plight through the work of the spirit, so too are the same people most drawn to a consumer code which promises that the miseries of the flesh are only a bout of online shopping away.
None of this is to denigrate the important spiritual function which Christmas continues to hold in very many lives. Quite aside from the joy which the season brings Christians, its function in bringing family together from the far-flung corners of the earth does serve to remind us that the truly important things in life are the intangible connections and bonds between people. In essence, it is a celebration with an immense value at an inter-personal level. It is at a societal level, however, that we get it wrong. The elevation of Christmas into the major celebration of Consumerism reminds us of what we are doing wrong politically – continuing to define ourselves as a society in the negative sense of what we are not rather than in the positive sense of what we are – and economically, in that the cycle of credit binge and cut backs which plagues household budgets speaks to a more general inability to manage credit. Christmas is and should be the most wonderful time of the year, but we need to be more clear-sighted about why that is, and rather less prey to the cynical advertisers’ dream of the great commercial winter festival.


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Image credits: banner; gifts; Wilberforce; cathedral; nativity; high street