1960s >> 1965 >> no-736-december-1965

Christmas —the great delusion

Christmas, we shall be told again and again during the next few weeks, is for the children. There is, of course, another side to it, represented by the flood of gaudy rubbish which fills the shops, the big campaigns to sell it, and by the tinsel of nonsense with which the whole thing is embellished. This is not so romantic a vision as that of innocent, starry-eyed kiddies hanging their stockings by the chimney—and it suggests that, whatever enjoyment children may get out of it, Christmas is for a few other people as well.

As the City columns, the advertising agencies, and the trade statistics make clear, Christmas is that thing so beloved of a section of the capitalist class—a spending spree. Millions of people save up, perhaps for the entire year, for this one great splash-out. This is the time when savings vanish, bonuses are blued, hire purchase debts cheerfully taken on. These debts have partly replaced the old loan clubs, which used to have their big pay-out at Christmas. In fact, hire-purchase does no more than the clubs—it simply moves the payment date from one part of the year to another, but this is enough to make it one more piece of evidence for those who are trying to prove that we are all so much better off nowadays.

Christmas is responsible for an amazing expansion of the retail market, lasting for about a month at a time when trade would probably otherwise be slack. For example, the sales of one suburban branch of a famous retail chain bound up to around thirty thousand pounds on Saturdays during December; the manager can almost forecast what his sales figure will be for each weekend. These sales are in the established, non-seasonal goods such as clothes, which simply become more hectic during the Christmas rush. There are plenty of other examples, as people determinedly smoke more cigarettes, eat more food, and of course drink more alcohol during the space of a couple of days than they do in a normal week.

Apart from the established trades, there are the seasonal sales, with an appeal confined exclusively to the Christmas period. Christmas crackers, for instance, are being turned out all the year round; even the men who compose those dreadful jokes and mottoes are hard at it months in advance. The result of all this is that about one hundred million crackers are sold at Christmas, some of them abroad.

We must not forget Christmas cards. The first of these was sent in 1843; the idea did not catch on for about twenty years and since then the market has steadily expanded until now something over six hundred million cards, worth about 15 million, are sent each Christmas. This is good business for the firms which make the cards (one of whose executives said a little while ago “We are in the sentiment business”) and for the Post Office, who rake in something like £8 million in postage on the cards, not to mention the extra revenue on Christmas parcels, greetings telegrams, ‘phone calls and the rest.

It is anyone’s guess, how much of the spending at Christmas goes in a genuine effort to have, or to give someone else, a good time. A lot of the drinks, presents and smokes are sent as bribes (there is no other words for it) from the directors of one firm to those of another which, they hope, will buy their products. A host of calendars, diaries, packs of cards, are produced as advertising material. Some Christmas cards are sent out by firms as reminders that they are still in business—and magnificent pieces of work some of them are.

Apart from the business world, there is no doubt that a lot of money is spent at Christmas in an effort to impress other people. We have all seen—perhaps some of us have actually received—those Christmas cards which have so obviously been selected with the motive of convincing us that the senders are more wealthy and important than they actually are. We have all read the advertisements which say that no card is really gracious unless it has the senders’ name and address printed on the inside. It is an unpleasant fact that the acquisitive nature of capitalism gives strength to this sort of appeal; for those who fall for it, sending Christmas cards is a highly competitive business, in which a defeat has to smoulder for a whole year before the chance for revenge comes round again.

The fact is that Christmas is in some ways a time for people to show their less attractive side—and for the massed forces of commercialism to cash in on the situation, ruthlessly and to the full, with the only justification they need—in the end they have more profit than if they had not played up to peoples’ snobbery, their insecurity and their distorted conception of the world in which they struggle to live.

In other ways, too, commerce turns the screw at Christmas. A walk around any department store reveals an astounding variety of junk which is being sold at equally astounding prices. There are toys which are dangerous, or which will not last from Christmas to Boxing Day in the hands of any child. There are cakes of soap and bath cubes, stuck in a fancy box and covered in cellophane, selling for much more than their usual price. There is a bewildering mass of tinsel, plastic and coloured paper—and all the time there is the drive to sell, sell, sell for a Merry Christmas.

Yes, this is an enormous, briefly inflated, market; each year the note circulation leaps up to accommodate it. (Last year it increased from £2,583 million in the first week in November to £2,766 million in Christmas week.) The firms which hope to cash in on the boom lay their plans a long time ahead. From the summer months onwards, they are discussing and deciding on their advertising campaigns, their special wrappings and what they like to call their “presentation”. There is always the temptation for them to try to get in first, which they have to resist for fear of opening their campaign too early. But none of them can afford to leave it too late—they have such an awful lot to sell. So it is not uncommon for us to be able to buy Christmas decorations, wrappings, cards and so on in October; and before Guy Fawkes night there are not a few big stores with their Father Christmas, usually an unemployed stage extra, to induce people to buy by working on their children.

Many people complain that the Christmas sales campaign starts too early. But as the market is stimulated to grow, and as it grows, so will the effort to exploit it. This might mean an even longer sales drive in the future—wasn’t there a story about a business man who said that Christmas was good business as long as they kept religion out of it?

He must have been an ungrateful fellow; religion, after all, does him many a good turn. In any case, as we point out elsewhere in this issue, Christmas has nothing to do with Christianity; the Christians simply pinched it to suit their own purposes. What more natural, then, than that the capitalist social system, which is so faithfully supported by Christianity, should itself adopt Christianity’s most important festival for its own ends?

It was the Industrial Revolution which was responsible for reducing the old twelve days’ holiday at Christmas to a single day. The rise of capitalism meant that masses of people sold their working ability to the master class by time—and time spent on holidays was time not spent producing the masters profits in the factory or the mill or the mine. Capitalism, with the help of its religious lackeys, built up a massive condemnation of what it called idleness. And among other things it destroyed the ancient Twelve Days of Christmas.

More recently, capitalism has reduced the opposition to Christmas to a handful. Nobody now holds the opinion expressed in a Puritan pamphlet of 1656, that Christmas was “. . . the old Heathen’s Feasting Day . . . the Papists’ Massing Day, the Superstitious Man’s Idol Day . . . Satan’s That Adversary’s Working Day” but until fairly recently there was a solid, articulate opposition to it. This is now all but silent, as the festival has been blown up into a vast, commercialised orgy of selling and consumption, one of the many working class Festivals of Delusion.

The great Delusion of Christmas is that dormant within us there is the Christmas Spirit—a gentle compound of benevolence, co-operation and goodwill which is roused at this time of year by the appeal of religion. When we are possessed of the Spirit we are wise and generous and loving; if only (says the Delusion) we could keep it up all the year round the problems of the world would be solved. If we would only cast out the Scrooges among us (and we all have our own idea of who Scrooge may be) and live by the Christmas Spirit there will be no more poverty, or war, or oppression.

This is no joke; the Delusion is powerful. It brought both sides out of their trenches to fraternise in No Man’s Land in 1914 (officially, that was the last time they did it). It inspires countless maudlin speeches at office parties and family gatherings. It runs through the entire Queen’s Speech on Christmas Day. It is powerful—and it is dangerous.

For the Delusion fosters the idea that the troubles of capitalism are caused by anything but the essential nature of the system. It promotes the nonsense that the world today is a fearsome, disturbed place because people are bad and that if only people were better the world would be a better place. It encourages people to think in terms of good and bad spirit, when they should be asking themselves why they behave as they do, and why the world is as it is. And as a final irony, the Christmas Delusion even encourages some people to think that there is something inconsistent in the determined way that capitalism exploits Christmas for all it is worth.

To start at the right end of this problem, we should first of all realise that there is nothing essentially wrong (or right, for that matter) with most people. It is the conditions of living and working under capitalism which largely make them what they are. Capitalism is constantly working out ways of exploiting us more efficiently, which means more intensely. It is always pushing us that bit harder, crowding us in that much more, making us into that much more of a cut-throat in the competitive scramble for the better job, the bigger house, the easier money.

In these conditions, people live at an intense pressure. Events which in themselves are trivial—a telephone which rings, a child who behaves like a child—are an intolerable strain. It is only when we relax, when we put aside the worry of making ends meet, when we try to live like human beings, that we begin to get a better perspective on it all. Perhaps this is what a lot of people do at Christmas. Some of them, for a couple of days at any rate, actually succeed, and they put it all down to the Christmas Spirit.

The big laugh about this—if anyone can stand another joke at this time of year—is that if the working class really grasped the implications of this they would take a hard, sober look at capitalism and see it for the wretched way of living that it is. That old chap Scrooge had a word which aptly describes the delusions of capitalism, its cynicism and its hypocrisy. Humbug.