Making Christmas

Christmas is a magical time of year for those us who celebrate it, and I feel that there is a special place in heart for us Finns – everyone agrees that Santa comes from Finland, right? *wink* Even the people who don’t celebrate Christmas aren’t safe, as it’s impossible to escape it in most Western societies. Hence, for political correctness, you often hear it referred to as “the Holidays”. Now that we are half-way through our Christmas-cycle, I thought this is the perfect time to discuss it.

Christmas has a long, winding history, being a mix of deliberate decisions by religious leaders, in addition to just pure randomness of tradition formation. The third century Romans decided that Christ was born on the December 25th, possibly due to it conveniently being the date for the already existing celebration of the winter solstice [1, 2]. Before this no-one actually seemed to know the time of these legendary events. Since then a lot has happened and many different traditions have influenced the concept that we today call Christmas. Merging with with for example the pagan traditions of Saturnalia, it has evolved through the medieval rowdy drunken parties, to being this family-cantered, cozy holiday many of us are used to these days [2,3]. During the 19th and the 20th centuries, for example Charles Dickens and Washington Irving contributed to this quite a lot by their works [2,3]. Obviously, there are many ways to celebrate the holiday but overlaps with traditions are fairly clear.

As a kid, Christmas was my favourite time of year, and still holds a spot up there. The presents and treats were the initial reason, but as time time has passed, it has shifted to being mostly about slowing down, spending time with the family and eating gorgeous foods. Rarely do we get such a chance to spend time with others, when most people are free form work and other everyday hassle. Of course, the official reason for celebration is religious but I will leave it out this time, as this motive is generally getting less and less significant. What I’m concerned of is what “the invisible hand” is doing to us and our traditions, and how we may be eternally stuck in repeating them.

Christmas being what it is, it is tough to criticise – it has an aura of purity and innocence. However, spending a moment critically thinking about it, many things related to Christmas are actually a bit absurd, especially considering the fact that it was originally meant to be a Christian holiday to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus. Certain traditions started off quite organically as a way to bring light to the otherwise so dark world, but here we are today where everything seems to be driven by huge economic forces that take advantage of our sense of nostalgia and the rest of the human mind. It is amazing how the material aspect of Christmas just seems to grow year after year and many stores start preparing for the holiday earlier and earlier, months in advance.

The character of Santa Claus formed over the time, based on certain traditions and figures, such as St. Nicholas [4]. Gift-giving has a long tradition around the Christmas time, and is also associated with St. Nicholas. Once every year the old man travels around the world bringing nice things to the kids, whose parents and relatives can afford these nice things. By now we have gotten to the point where many feel socially obliged to express affection by buying things, as it is considered an integral part of Christmas.

The biggest pressure is put on the parents, as they must worry about the logistics of fulfilling wishes (fortunately often with the help of relatives) from the lists written in advance by their children, who have no clue that the presents would in fact be bought by their parents and other relatives. Personally, I remember just looking through toy magazines (that conveniently popped up in perfect time) because I couldn’t always think of things to ask for… The saddest thing is that young children can’t even truly appreciate this nice gesture, since they are in the belief that the gifts were magically crafted by elves who work for this jolly old man.

The big reveal finally happens at a certain age and the whole hoax is explained, trying not to devastate the kids. The seed has been planted. The first years of their lives children get toys and other things, that were created just for them with no consequences or an impact. Does this sounds like something that would set us up to become conscious consumers? No – a ‘good’ consumer is not a conscious consumer. This all isn’t to say that children should spend their childhoods worrying about the ‘real world problems’ but they definitely should be taught about these things early on. Furthermore, I’m all for a bit of magic in one’s life, especially for kids, but I’m sure there’s another way. I’m sure the children who are not part of the whole Christmas thing still find the magic elsewhere.

Judging from the fact that the social pressure of gift-giving extends to adult-to-adult relationships as well, the tradition seems to stick with us beyond childhood. Gift-giving has been a form of social interaction for thousands of years, most likely even longer than that. It is even pictured in the bible, where the three wise men bring gold, incense and myrrh to baby Jesus [5]. Giving a well-thought, deliberate gift truly should we a beautiful gesture, but when buying things is the standard, it takes away a lot of the intended value. When you are ‘obliged’ to get a gift, the only way you can really express your care is either putting effort into making one yourself, or even buying something more expensive.

Moving on, there’s the thing with Christmas trees. In 2000 it was estimated that globally nearly a hundred million trees are chopped down every year [6], just so they can be brought inside to die, and to be later thrown out when the holidays are over and it gets weird having them. The number today is most likely much higher. For the time the trees spend inside they are of course decorated to look nice, but to me and probably many others the special thing about having a real tree inside is the amazing smell, which takes us back to the childhood Christmases full of magic and excitement. Hence, in addition to it looking nice, the only reason for having a Christmas tree is the nostalgia. I associate the smell with Christmas only because the tree has been a tradition, not because it serves a purpose other than aesthetics. It’s not like someone unaware of Christmas, seeing a decorated tree for the first time, would shout out in amazement: “OOOH WOOOWW, this is just what my Decembers have been missing!” (although admittedly the trees often look pretty cool). There isn’t anything inherently bad about such ‘nostalgia motors’ and ornaments, but when something is as taxing as chopping down millions of trees every year and transporting them around, all just for the niceness, we should be asking questions. Nostalgia puts us into this eternal feedback loop where value is found in the weirdest things, just because of the past.

In the grand scheme of things, this 100 000 000 trees is really a small number compared to, for example, the devastation that’s happening in the Amazon, especially since the Christmas trees are often purposefully grown for the purpose. It is when you start transporting the trees to even another countries, the environmental costs start adding up. We need to be able to discuss these things, as changes will have to be made due to the ever growing population and changing conditions. We simply can not have it all anymore.

The original motive for Christmas, and the non-material aspects of it are slowly drowning in massive consumption, that is induced by equally massive emotional and social stress. Somewhere along the way it became so that we as regular people have the pressure to buy things to take part in the celebration. The big business rejoice. Traditions are abused, creating enormous economic forces to further feed these habits and the capitalist hysteria our economies and the ‘welfare’ are built upon. It’s worth mentioning that many of the original traditions were established in the 19th century or earlier, when the world’s population was less than 1 billion and people found enjoyment in much simpler things, whereas now there are seven times more of us. As with all of our consumption, we can decide to be more deliberate and conscious. The traditions haven’t always been like this either – we made them what they are and we have every right to change them.

Christmas is only an example of a set of traditions that must be reconsidered. There are plenty of more detrimental ones, but as this one has become such a culmination of consumption, I thought it should be addressed. I’m not suggesting that we must get rid of all the traditions, but asking you to critically think about our habits in this society. What do you think? Are there some other traditions you think should be changed or even abandoned?


[5] Matthew 2:1-12 (you know the book)
[6] Chastagner, G. A., and Benson, D. M. 2000. The Christmas tree: Traditions, production, and diseases. Online. Plant Health Progress doi:10.1094/PHP-2000-1013-01-RV.

I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts!