As the temperature drops and Christmas fast approaches, the festivities have been well-underway since the start of the month. From 1st December and often earlier, in shops across the country, decorations are up, Christmas items are out and expensive marketing campaigns have begun. Today, nobody can escape the money-making colossus of business that Christmas is forced to tow along behind it. Christmas is arguably the most well-known and celebrated holiday around the world. However, there are many that argue Christmas is losing its meaning, its traditional roots fading into the snowy veneer of a capitalist world. So, has Christmas really lost its meaning? And if so, what has it lost?
Today, nobody can escape the money-making colossus of business that Christmas is forced to tow along behind it
A logical starting point would be to explore what the “traditional” meaning of Christmas actually was, and where it all came from. The idea of “Christmas” began with the story of the Nativity in the gospels of Luke and Matthew. Whilst the actual date of Jesus’ birth is contested, it is mostly celebrated by Christians on December 25th. With the integration of a feast and gift-giving (and it briefly being banned in 1660, as well as becoming a method used to Christianise Europe), the day itself slowly developed from a religious celebration to a broader social and cultural occasion. Even for Christians, affirming their belief that God came into the world in the form of man to atone for the sins of humanity through Jesus, rather than knowing Jesus’ exact birth date, is considered to be the primary purpose for celebrating Christmas. It is here that the Christian teachings of Jesus give Christmas its “traditional’ meaning – be kind, forgive, love one another. All the underpinnings that define what we know today as “festive cheer.”
However, there are many who will argue that Christmas has lost its true meaning. Society has become more secular, and it’s difficult to deny that Christmas has lost a lot of its religious grounding. In 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump launched a campaign to bring back the religion to Christmas. “For Christians, this is a holy season, a celebration of the birth of our lord and saviour Jesus Christ,” Trump said. “Whatever our belief, we know that the birth of Jesus Christ and the story of this incredible life forever changed the course of human history.” A 2017 survey by polling company Rasmussen Reports noted that 68% of American adults believe Christmas should be more about Jesus, with only 18% thinking it should be more about Santa. Whilst there are those that believe in this sentiment, America’s unique religious conservativism calls for us to consider the bigger social picture.
Society has become more secular, and it’s difficult to deny that Christmas has lost a lot of its religious grounding
Instead, there is an argument that the general trend toward secularisation has stripped much of the religion from Christmas. Over half of the UK say they have “no religion” and, as a natural consequence, the religious aspects of the holiday are often lost. Interestingly, whilst a survey noted that most British families only go to Church on Christmas Day, only 3% of young people share this sentiment. There is a clear trend to be noticed here. Whilst Christmas serves as a time of heightened religious awareness – children learning about the birth of Jesus, carol services that pay homage to the older hymns, and an upturn in Church traffic – this awareness is certainly less than it once was, and is continuing to wane. So, if there really is a decline in the religiosity of Christmas, does this equate to a loss of meaning? Do the values that were placed at the centre of Christmas still hold true where a stress on religion does not?
Over the years, Christmas has become embedded in the broader celebration of the holiday season. In the early nineteenth century, Christmas was reconceived by writers like Washington Irving and Charles Dickens as a holiday that placed more of an emphasis on family, gift-giving and kind-heartedness. Yet, Christmas was revived in a whole new economic world, one that began to be dominated by big business. There are those that argue Christmas has become focused on consumerism. The marketability of Christmas for big businesses has eroded what the holiday is all about. Every year the music plays sooner, the lights go up before that, and the shopping comes before that.
The marketability of Christmas for big businesses has eroded what the holiday is all about
From the influence of Coca-Cola on the Santa mythos to the much-anticipated John Lewis advert, companies use Christmas as a means to push their customers into buying far more things than they normally would. Even just this year, Coca Cola has launched its biggest ever Christmas campaign. Companies use Christmas as their time to drive up immense seasonal sales. Hollywood does the same thing. It’s a Wonderful Life, The Polar Express, Home Alone, The Santa Clause, Elf, to this year with Last Christmas, the Christmas film industry has become an easy way for studios to achieve financial success. The presents, the films, the music, the decorations, the tree, the sparkling lights, the fake snow – all have blurred the values of what Christmas is really about.
This argument can similarly be applied to the people that Christmas has come to truly represent – children. Children have come to demand more as each year passes. Modern-day Santa truly does have his work cut out for him. In fact, working out the numbers proves this point even further. In 32 hours, Santa will need to visit over 5,556 homes a second, consuming around 150 billion calories in milk and mince pies. With an average of 2.5 children per household, Santa will need to make 640 million stops on Christmas Eve. The total number of presents would set Santa back around £279.27 billion. What these slightly amusing figures show is just how commercial Christmas has become not just for adults, but also for children.
The total number of presents would set Santa back around £279.27 billion
However, just because Christmas has become more commercial and less religious, does not necessarily signify that it’s lost its meaning. The values of Christmas and, perhaps more importantly, the meaning of Christmas lies in the individual. No longer is it a holiday for just one religion, but what is truly magical is that it’s been opened to all. A survey from 2013 revealed that in the US, 87% of non-Christians celebrated Christmas in some way. Any sense of the spirit of Christmas, religious or secular, includes generosity. It’s no great surprise that the Charities Aid Foundation reports that more money goes to good causes in December than any other month of the year. To many, the act of buying gifts, watching a film or listening to a Christmas playlist to get into the Christmas spirit and putting up the decorations are all part of spending time with people you care about. Just because the holiday has adapted to the age we live in does not mean the values have been erased.
A survey from 2013 revealed that in the US, 87% of non-Christians celebrated Christmas in some way
Whilst Christmas may be losing its Christian roots, perhaps this doesn’t equate to the meaning being lost. In many ways, Christmas festivities and the older ideas of Christmas are two sides of the same coin. Maybe instead therefore, we should see the meaning as simply evolving. Christmas is now open to everyone to celebrate, it’s not about one religious holiday, but people from all walks of life coming together and maybe, for one day, just being that little bit nicer to everyone else. Perhaps that is the true meaning of Christmas.