1980s >> 1980 >> no-916-december-1980

How to survive Christmas

“It is”, wrote George Bernard Shaw, “an indecent subject; a cruel, gluttonous subject; a drunken, disorderly subject; a wicked, cadging, lying, filthy, blasphemous and demoralising subject”—by which time even his stock of disparaging adjectives must have been running low. He was raging against Christmas—that time of year when, in the guise of a celebration of goodwill, workers all over the world are subjected to a massively insulting confidence trick.

For Christmas is a snare-infested time region for the mentally unwary, when they can all too easily be trapped in the delusion that peace on earth and goodwill to all men is simply a matter of charitable intentions, which best flourish in the Christian celebration of the birth of someone called Jesus Christ on December 25 a long time ago. How do we survive so menacing a time, with our intellects still working efficiently, able to look forward realistically to a society of abundance and human fellowship?

Although Christmas is the principle Christian festival it is in fact a lot older than Christianity and was appropriated by the early Christians from their pagan rivals. At the time Christianity was a feeble creed and needed to promote some sort of festival to attract new adherents—rather like the Young Tories laying on dances in a recruitment drive. Their most threatening competitors—the Mithraists— not unreasonably considering their time and place, worshipped the sun which was so vital to their existence and celebrated December 25 as the winter solstice the passing of the shortest day and the awakening of the life-giving sun.

In opposition the Christians fixed on January 6 and it was not until the fourth century that they adopted December 25. By the Middle Ages the Christian takeover of Christmas was complete, along with many heathen rites and symbols like the virgin birth and decoration with seasonable greenery. For some centuries the festival was a twelve day holiday, running until Epiphany, but the Industrial Revolution finished that, for as wage slavery became the dominant mode of exploitation labour time represented riches to the employers and such lavish periods of leisure were outlawed by capitalism’s morality of employment:

“You’ll want all day tomorrow, I suppose?” said Scrooge.
“If quite convenient, sir.”
“It’s not convenient”, said Scrooge, “and it’s not fair. If I was to stop half-a-crown for it, you’d think yourself ill-used. I’ll be bound?”
The clerk smiled faintly.
“And yet”, said Scrooge, “you don’t think me ill-used, when I pay a day’s wages for no work”.

Dickens’ Christmas Carol is one of the more insidious of snares waiting for us at this time of year, for it propounds the myth that the poverty which Dickens could at times expose so effectively was not an inexorable part of capitalism but something which could be cured by a timely dose of charity:

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge”, said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

All that was needed, apparently, was a change of heart to make capitalism, like Scrooge on Christmas Day, wake up warm and benevolent and caring which was, as that famous Victorian miser might have put it, Humbug.

If we need any evidence on this we have only to consider the way in which the leaders of capitalism have applied the Christmas myth to dupe workers into self-destructive acts and attitudes. In wartime, for example, slogans like peace on earth have become part of the propaganda on both sides urging workers to kill and destroy as much as possible of the “enemy”. Here is part of a dose of hypocrisy stammered out by George VI during the last war, on Christmas Day 1942:

. . . the message of Christmas remains eternal and unchanged; it is a message of thankfulness and of hope; of thankfulness to the Almighty for His great mercies; of hope for the return to this earth of peace and goodwill . . . The Queen and I feel most deeply for all of you who have lost or parted from your dear ones, and our hearts go out to you with sorrow, with comfort, but also with pride.

A few years later, when British capitalism under a Labour government was locked in yet another war, in Korea, the king was on the same theme, showing us what he meant by the unchanging message of Christmas:

. . . within the last few months, our countrymen have once again been called upon to lay down their lives on the field of battle. Once more, the sorrow of mourning has come to not a few British homes; in many more there is deep anxiety for husbands, sons or brothers who are facing death, enduring hardship and sickness, far away beyond the sea. To those homes, on this Christmas Day, the thoughts of the Queen and myself turn first . . .

The unchanging message of Christmas is the unchanging message of capitalism—that workers all over the world must suffer in the interests of the parasitic minority who are their masters. The festival of Christmas did not prevent World War One, or Two, or Korea, or Vietnam and, if and when it happens, it will not prevent the nuclear World War Three (although we may on that occasion be spared some unctuous royal hypocrisy from the depths of a bunker at Sandringham). Indeed, when the troops of both sides came out of the trenches on Christmas Day in 1914 to practise a bit of goodwill the authorities acted ruthlessly to prevent such fraternity ever happening again. Properly for capitalism, Christmas was ordered to be celebrated with some loss of life.

It is part of the confidence trick, to represent such times as war as abnormal and to pretend that capitalism could be like one long Christmas Day if only all those foreigners, or strikers, or criminals, would stop causing difficulties. So the myth persists of the benefits of the traditional Christmas sparkling snow on the ground and the bare trees while indoors at home all is warm and secure as the united family tuck into the turkey beside the glittering tree.

The sober truth is that industrialised capitalism ensures that chemical pollutants more commonly float adown the winter air than snow. Home is at best one of a disciplined rank of semis being bought on some ulcerous mortgage (except for the millions who exist in slums and the thousands who, Christmas or not, are actually homeless). The family under capitalism is typical of any property relationship-bonded by the most brittle ties and operating under the inhuman pressures of wage slavery. Most of those cosy symbols, incidentally, are anything but “traditionally” English; the turkey is an Aztec bird, the tree originated in Germany and so on.

Illustration by George Meddemmen.
And then there are the presents. How frantically, since the summer, have we been urged to spend as much as possible on them. As the great day draws near the shops become ever more crammed with heaps of trash all of which, we are wheedled, makes the ideal gift. Forests of patterned paper is consumed in wrapping the things and in the tens of millions of cards which fly to and fro with the message: have a good time these next few days —it’s one of your few chances to relax, live a little and be nice to your fellow human beings.


All of this takes place accompanied by the symphony from a few million cash registers. Buying Christmas presents becomes like a contagious disease, with the fever reaching its height on Christmas Eve when the working class become positively delirious in their anxiety to spend, spend and spend. A few days later they are back at work with Christmas often a sour memory; shoddy toys lie broken and forgotten, the gift wrapped after shave now perfumes desperate bodies in the rush hour crush to work, there is a scrape of cold pudding on a plate somewhere, a few dregs remaining from that lake of booze on which a week’s wages was blued. Reality returns in the factory, the mine, the office, driving the ’bus through the city. It is a good time for the bankers and, perhaps, the pawn brokers; their patron saint is none other than St. Nicholas.


So how do we best survive it all? Well there is nothing wrong in wanting to relax and enjoy yourself, in helping yourself to some better quality food than you are likely to eat at other times, in offering friendship to other people. Peace on earth can do none of us any harm and goodwill to everyone makes us all feel a lot better. So how do we survive the reality of Christmas the myths, the hypocrisy, the pressures?


First of all, by seeing it for the confidence trick that it is. So when the boss, in a traditional reversal of roles, serves us at the firm’s Christmas dinner, we are not deceived; we know it might well be his or her job to discipline us for being late as soon as the holiday is over, or to sack us if the company’s accounts say that we don’t make a profit. Then we should be thinking about how we can convert the hypocrisy of Christmas into a stable reality, how we can establish a society of peace and freedom and plenty—a society whose people care for each other as part of their own existence in co-operation and not just as a guilt-stricken, bibulous interlude once a year.


So the Socialist Standard does not wish its readers a Merry Christmas. Instead we send them greetings for their survival of a hazardous experience and the fraternal hope that they will learn, from their survival, that the world does not have to be as it is.