The Capitalist Origins of Christmas

It’s the most magical time of the year A time for family gatherings, gift-giving and gluttony

This is despite both religious and secular figures decrying the commercialisation of Christmas as a departure from the true Christian values of the season However the festival, as we know it, has almost never been about religion, and the Capitalist nature of Christmas is far older than we think For many in the Western world, Christmas isn’t Christmas without the usual traditions and iconography Images of Santa Claus adorn shopping malls and products Television adverts emphasise the mountains of tempting food that make up a traditional Christmas dinner

Seasonal films all feature trees decorated with lights and tinsel It is also a time for family and goodwill to others For more observant Christians, there are carol services and masses and celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ However most of these symbols and traditions are over two thousand years old For example, the 25th December isn’t even the true date of Jesus’ birth

When astronomer Dave Reneke compared evidence in the New Testament to astrological charts, he narrowed down Jesus’ real birthday to mid-June Before Christianity and the Roman Empire, many European communities celebrated the Winter Solstice in various forms, with feasting and drinking When Christianity took hold in Rome, popular Winter Solstice celebrations across the empire were co-opted by the Church in order to seamlessly blend with people’s lives Christ’s Mass was celebrated with pagan revelry, well into the 17th century In the mid-18th century and into the early 19th century, Western populations, in particular Britain and America, underwent radical social change due to rapid urbanisation

According to historian Mary Ryan, a new affluent middle class of city dwellers arose They sought a more personal, family-oriented Christmas that corresponded to their wealth Ryan says it was a separation of their “place of work” from their “place of residence” It was also a reaction to the drunken festivities that marked every Christmas In a close-knit, rural community, these celebrations were fun

But in a large, industrial, impersonal city, these revelries were threatening It is no surprise that many of the features we associate with a classic Christmas first took root in this period In the words of Professor Stephen Nissenbaum, the holiday became an “invented tradition” Christmas trees were introduced to England by George III’s wife Charlotte in the 1790s, and exploded in popularity after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert Before the 1880s, the species German Springelbaum was used

However, English entrepreneurs substituted the cheaper Norway Spruce to capitalise on the growing demand for affordable trees The change in attitude towards childhood also helped facilitate a capitalist Christmas For example, the cracker was the brainchild of confectioner Tom Smith, who invented it in the 1840s to sell more sweets to children As the century went on, the desire to “buy” a Christmas was fuelled by expanding market economies In the 1860s, department stores stoked this desire and Christian icons were adopted to increase sales

For example, St Nicholas, a 5th century Christian saint venerated for his benevolence, was celebrated by the Dutch as Sinterklaas on the 6th December The proximity of his feast day to Christmas, his association with gift-giving and the 1822 Clement Clarke Moore poem “A Visit From St Nicholas”, transformed the Christian bishop into the patron saint of Christmas capitalism… Santa Claus Even Santa Claus’ example of gift-giving was exploited Before 1880, gift-giving was conducted on a smaller scale, with homemade presents exchanged

After 1880, according to author William Waits, this changed with the evolution of Santa to embrace more manufactured, and more expensive, gifts As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, the cost and material toll of Christmas only increased, and economies came to heavily rely on the spending power of the people In 1904, author Margaret Deland said in Harper’s Bazaar, ""Twenty-five years ago, Christmas was not the burden that it is now There was less haggling, less quid pro quo, less fatigue of body, less wearing of soul; and, most of all, there was less loading up with trash"" According to food historian Cathy Kaufman, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” essentially codified Christmas dinner for many Americans

After the Haber Process revolutionised crop fertilising and food production, the traditional Christmas dinner became a festive necessity This demand has made the 23rd December the most profitable day of the year for many companies On the 23rd December, 2015, British people spent over $1 million just on gin – four times more than they had the week before It helps that, in the UK alone, companies throw $76 billion behind Christmas advertising

Today, according to the National Retail Federation, Americans spend approximately $680 billion on Christmas This easily makes the holiday season one of the most important retail events of the year and a large injection of capital into the economy The nature of Christmas has changed over the years, as competing cultural and economic interests gain influence Despite being a Christianised pagan festival built on the back of 19th century capitalism, approximately 46% of Americans still see Christmas as a religious holiday rather than a cultural one However, in 2013 it was 51%

Yet Christmas is different to every culture, and as the festive season gets underway it’s important for those complaining about commercialisation to remember that the holiday could be very different 100 years from now But in truth Christmas has always been about two things: partying and money As Professor Nissenbaum suggests, “Christmas has proven extremely difficult to Christianise”

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