It's become such a Christmas tradition to look down our collective noses at people who choose to celebrate with an orgy of conspicuous consumption that I began to wonder where the sniffiness all started.
Blame the Three Wise Men
Although Christians link present-giving to the the Three Wise Men bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh, it actually dates back to Pagan and Middle Eastern custom. At Saturnalia, a feast in honour of Saturn that took place in the dark and gloomy winter months, Saturnists got absolutely legless and gave each other gifts of fruit and nuts and candles. (My Dad always made sure my Mum got a tangerine or two in her stockings every year, as it were. I always thought this came from them both being kids in WWII, when fresh fruit was as rare as a virgin birth. But perhaps Pater was a secret Saturnist.)
(For the fruit and nuts of what follows I'm grateful to The Week.)
Legalize Christmas, prithee
Those arch fun-killers and proto-propagandists the early Christians frowned on anything Pagan. They created Christmas partly to celebrate Jesus's birth - even though it's believed he was actually born in the spring - but mainly to put paid to Saturnalia. They did, of course, keep some aspects of Pagan Saturnalia like the leglessness, the fruit and nuts and the candles.
As with so much that's hugely good fun but kind of nauseating, Christmas as most of us know it is an American invention. This is despite the fact the Pilgrim Fathers banned Christmas (much in the same way as killjoys like the Jehovah's Witnesses still do - perhaps that's why Michael Jackson left). Christmas was legalized in America in the 1680s and the Industrial Revolution was responsible for a tidal wave of mass-produced toys.
In 1867, the fabled Macy's department store in New York stayed open until midnight on Christmas Eve for the first time, responding or creating demand depending on how you lean. (And have you ever noticed how much Marx looks like Father Christmas?) By the early part of the 20th century, the backlash against mass conspicuous Christmas consumption had begin.
The Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving (SPUG) included a banker's daughter and ex-president among its ranks. But this wasn't enough to stop the rise and rise of that arch-criminal Santa Claus, whose jolly twinkle has been coercing parents into buying pointless plastic crap for their children ever since. Maybe Dial-The-Truth Ministries is right.
This year, Americans will spend an average of $830 on gifts, up 15% on last year. Rightly or wrong, a rise in Christmas spending is regarded as a sign of confidence in the economy. It could also be a kind of mass whistling in the dark or an indicator of sheer stupidity. Incidentally, the European country that spends the least on Christmas is the Netherlands.
What shall we give?
I'm lucky enough to have reached a stage in my life when I really don't want anything. Apart, of course, from world peace, a cure for the common cold and, and...A man can only have so many Jack Kerouac Christmas sweaters, after all. (Sadly, this doesn't exist - yet.) But in the right on Christmas Spirit, I'd like to suggest some virtual gift ideas that won't make you feel racked with disgust at your own gullibility this year.
And I shall leave you with my Christmas gift of one of the best Christmas songs of all.