If religion is the opiate of the masses, then it’s no wonder semi-religious consumerist celebrations like Christmas incite frenzied and irrational buying and eating. We’re addicted to modern Christmas rituals involving spending madly, as much as religious iconography. Christmas celebrations these days successfully incorporate historic religious and pagan traditions, and are now well adapted to Western consumer excess. Christmas spending is next to Godliness don’t you know. Santa is the ultimate salesman encouraging ever more spending to prove love of family and friends. Consumerism is the new religious icon in the Christmas story.
To be an atheist, and anti-consumer at Christmas time is to be an alien in a hectic mass production and consumption world. There’s nothing wrong with the giving of gifts per se – in fact a gift economy could be an efficient and fair system. And it’s important to show love to those you care for. But as far as much of the gift giving goes, it would be sensible just to buy the stuff and send it directly to landfill. Cut out the middle man, the recipient of the gift, because our markets are saturated with plastic stuff made in China that is sometimes broken before we’ve finished the Christmas trifle. It’s a cynical reality that sees a booming market on Trade Me the day after Christmas for unwanted gifts. It’s even worse that shops discount their goods the day after Christmas but charge full price the day before. We’d all be better off spending time in the present with family and friends, rather than spending hard earned money on sometimes poor quality gifts that are surplus to need.
But Christmas is so much more than giving and eating, right? It’s the season of goodwill and peace to all men. Mainly men, that is, because usually women do a disproportionate amount of the stressful cooking, present buying and other responsibilities of Christmas. New Zealanders alone spend about $4.2 billion on Christmas – that’s a lot of shopping, a lot of money spent, often on credit, to meet ever increasing demands. And while kids are indoctrinated early into the Christmas culture, there is likely to be a continual stream of future shoppers to join the consumption chain too.
Around the world, Christmas is certainly no time for peace and goodwill. The bombs don’t stop nor are the children spared. Refugees in camps are likely to see out more than just one Christmas away from ‘home’, which probably no longer exists. In supposedly developed countries, homeless people, those in overcrowded accommodation, in poverty, stay homeless, poor, powerless, before Christmas, during, after.
Even the most naive Christmas tradition seems to be dwarfed by the capacity for human evil this year, especially close to the heart of where it all began. We’ve seen the destruction of ancient cities at the heart of Christianity. In the Biblical Christian birth story, there was no room at the inn for weary travelers in ancient Bethlehem that fateful night. And so today in continental Europe as well as more remote places like New Zealand, ‘there’s no room at the inn’, and refugees are rejected and resisted. There’ll be no peace in Palestine this Christmas. There’s been summary execution of civilians stranded between armies and rebels. Elsewhere, tensions are ramping up. A terrorist drives a truck into a crowded Christmas market in Berlin. The Russian ambassador to Turkey is shot in the back, at an art show, by an off-duty policeman shouting ‘Allah Akbar, Remember Allepo, Remember Syria’. More refugees drowned crossing the Mediterranean this year than ever before, but there’s much less fuss. Donald Trump tweeted support for expanding the American nuclear arsenal and Putin apparently raised to the bait. Trump’s unpredictable policy makes the whole world a less safe place but he was democratically voted to lead the ‘Free World’.
It would be comforting to be able to believe in old institutions like religion, democracy, internationalism. But 2016 reminded us that the United Nations is ineffectual at forestalling war crimes. When Russian propaganda leaflets were dropped upon Syria that said ‘The world has abandoned you’, they were right. In 2016 we learned that democracy can deliver perverse and dangerous results. That many people would prefer nationalism over transnationalism. Instability is easy to create, stability, harder to restore. Across Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and the US and Western states, we have been reminded how unstable peace can be. That there are threats to it everywhere. A suspected terror attack in Melbourne has been thwarted, which would otherwise have targeted many busy sites, including a main city church, on Christmas day. Nothing is sacred. Society is fragile. So is truth, in this post-truth, fake news, double speak age.
And so is the climate. Yet again we had another year that was the hottest on record. The Arctic is melting. Seas are warming, corals are bleaching. Predictions remind us that before too long the fish in the oceans, the elephants, polar bears and more, will be gone.
This year, as usual, there’s not much to celebrate really. We should all strive to enjoy the good weather with an existentialist’s realism more than a quasi-religious denial and consumerist distraction. The world is dreadful, confusing, absurd, meaningless and mad. People can be very bad. And that hasn’t changed since before the birth of Christ.