I wrote this essay for the Philippine Online Chronicles.
All too often we hear complains of the real meaning of Christmas being overshadowed by the overly commercialized air of the holidays. More than a religious festivity about sharing and harmony in celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, it has become a consumerist ritual where we are indulged to spend more than what we can.
From the moment the Halloween exhibits on the shop windows are set aside, the Christmas season begins. Shopping malls, corporate mass media, and the entire marketing and advertising machineries of big business begin to preach the spirit of giving to your loved ones. More than a Christian holiday, it has been high jacked to become a capitalist holiday.
We begin to put up Christmas trees, lights and other decors as the months ending with “ber” begin. We have become socially obligated to buy gifts to exchange with family and friends who themselves are also compelled by the occasion to buy you one. Gift-giving has become about keeping the capitalist exchange of commodities going.
Writing the Minima Moralia while he was in exile in the capitalist heartland of Los Angeles in the 1940s, Theodor Adorno comments: “Private gift-giving has degenerated into a social function, which one carries out with a reluctant will, with tight control over the pocketbook, a skeptical evaluation of the other and with the most minimal effort. . .”
This, according to the Frankfurt School cultural theorist, is mirrored with the rise of gift articles, “which are based on the fact that one no longer knows what one should give, because one no longer really wants to.” And indeed, why bother when your receiver’s desires would probably be conditioned by what Adorno disapprovingly called the “Culture Industry.”
Indeed, Christmas as we know it today here in the Philippines was introduced by the Americans in the early 20th Century as one more aspect of their domination not only of our economy and politics but also our culture. Santa Claus served to convince us to consume the surplus products exported to the country by the colonizers and to deodorize their plunder of our resources.
As it stands, even the seemingly harmless Christmas story of Santa Claus as leading a globalized gift-giving operation from the North Pole serves as a feel-good façade. It serves to conceal the real capitalist story of toys and decors being produced in sweat shops and factories in China, India, Philippines, and other parts of the world.
Unlike Santa’s merry elves, real-life workers today suffer from long hours of up to 12-14 hours, low wages, back-breaking work, lack of benefits, and the perpetual threat of unemployment hanging on their heads —inhumane conditions and exploitative relations straight out from the 19th Century as meticulously described in Marx’s first volume of Capital.
Is it right then to simply reject this Christmas story as no doubt not a few cynical souls tired of the crass materialism of its present mutation all-too-easily suggest?
In an anecdote, Aleksandra Kollontai, Russian Bolshevik and women’s liberationist, imagines an egalitarian future where Christmas Day becomes a special occasion for the elderly people to share about their struggles to overcome the old exploitative and oppressive society with the younger generations:
“We saw money in a museum. Did you have money, Grandad? Did you carry it in a little bag in your pocket? And then there were people . . . now what were they called? . . . Thieves . . . that’s right, isn’t it? And they took money out of the pockets of their comrades. How very strange it must have been.”
The problem then, perhaps, is not really Christmas itself but the socio-economic system that has made it what it is today. Yes, Christmas now ultimately comes close to what may be a utopia for greedy capitalists. And yet, it will continue to be such as long as society is organized on the basis of making profits for the few who live on the labor of the many.
To transform Christmas’ present configuration as a form of illusory happiness is impossible if we do not work for the actualization of real happiness. As Marx perceptively said, “To call on people to abandon their illusions about their condition is to call on them to abandon a condition that requires illusions.”
Indeed, contributing to the collective efforts to uplift and empower the people who Pope Francis called “the least, the last, and the lost” would be the most meaningful Christmas gift that anyone can offer today. To do so would be to follow the imperative of Jesus Christ who selflessly served the people to the point of sacrificing himself for the salvation of humanity.