Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Contradictions Of Christmas

In the essay I posted a week or so ago, I argued that modernity generates its own contradictions (e.g. religion and secularism; globalization and nationalism; representative democracy and totalitarianism; neoliberal ideology and increasing centralization of capital). Christmas, in particular the ritual of gift exchange and the figure of Santa Claus, serves as a great point of entry for examining some of these simultaneously generated contradictions.

One of the most important phenomena which shaped the modern American version of Christmas was the construction, in the early 19th century, of the concept of "childhood." Quite a bit has been written on this topic, and many have argued that it arose from the necessities of capitalism (the creation of a new demographic market and products). One may note that the construction of the "teenager" also occured during similar a period of economic expansion in the post-WW2 era. Both of these events also opened up new domains for academic and popular psychology (the Queen of the human sciences associated with governmental power). Christmas reflects the psychologizing of childhood, which emphasizes children's need for love, affection, and fantasy. Gifts, in particular, satifisy the need for love and affection, while Santa Claus indulges children's imaginations.

Of course, there is more going on here. First, there are contradictory attitudes toward the demands of capitalism. The early images of Santa Claus as a craftsman with his own workshop (to eventually be replaced by the elven sweatshop) valorized pre-capitalist forms of production. The pampering of children itself was a reaction against child labor, which was heavily used in many industries. Today, many Christmas movies feature The Prodigal Son, returning from the Big City, where s/he lived a souless/loveless existence (often employed in banking or business), to resume life in the Small Town, rekindle family bonds, and finally find love.

On the other hand, Christmas has been heavily promoted and elaborated by commercial interests - especially department stores (who are responsible for many aspects of the Santa narrative, including the story of Rudloph the Red Nose Reindeer). American Christmas was overtly commercial from the very beginning and has been serving capitalist interests for over two centuries. It is important to note that the image of Santa Clause which eventually became dominant was, in the time of its origin, a portrait of a wealthy industrialist (a sort of "robber baron" philanthropist). In this way, practices/discourses associated with Christmas embody at the same time an acquiesance to - or even embrace of - consumerism and conspicuous wealth, as well as a skepticism toward industrial labor and urban living.

Christmas also serves as a medium for indirect commentary on secularism, science, and religion, most importantly through the figure of Santa Claus. Not only does Santa Claus fulfill a perceived need for fantasy in healthy child development, but from His inception He has been one instantiation of a broader Romantic critique of modernity. For example, in a famous 19th century editorial, belief in Santa Claus was held as an antedote to the excessive skepticism of the modern era and the concomitant loss of a sense of wonder. One can see that this concern is still salient in many contemporary Christmas movies, even when not driven by any specifically relgious concerns (and thus complicating the modern binary of secular/religious). In fact, many religious Christians are more ambivalent toward the figure of Santa Claus, as they view it as a "secularization" of a Christian saint. This is a great example of how reactions against scientism (the belief that science is the only pathway to "truth") need not always be religious. One could argue that the antipathetic stance toward scientism by default imbues this treatment of Santa Claus with something of a religious nature. But only if one is to alter the definition of "religion" to contain everything opposed to scientism (which, of course, is circular reasoning), and that would entail the lumping together of very disparate phenomena, which, on the whole, always tends to obscure more than it clarifies.

American Christmas is a creation of capitalism that also expresses disastisfaction with manifestations of capitalism. And "Santa Claus" entails the "secularization" of a religious narrative (the disentanglement of morality/charity from religion), which simultaneously challenges secular attitudes toward progress and truth.

Every creation of modernity entails the creation of an oppositional force.

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