Well, it’s Christmas time again, and, once more, Christmas is defined, as it must inevitably be in this particular social system, by rapacious consumption. And, of course, the man at the very heart of our contemporary Christmas, is not, as one might expect or hope, Jesus Christ, but rather Father Christmas or ‘Santa Claus’. Though Santa’s name and character derive originally from Saint Nicholas, he also clearly emerges out of European pre-Christian paganism. His contemporary form seems to crystallise and develop over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, reflecting the cultural trajectory of the emerging industrial, and now post-industrial, capitalist system.
Before I set out my proposals for reimagining Father Christmas, allow me to explain why I think Father Christmas in his current manifestation is so problematic.
Father Christmas today
Santa as consumerist icon
Clearly, the predominant problem with Father Christmas is that, as cultural institution, he has come to play a central role in the shameful consumption that dominates Christmas today. He has gone from giving solely to those in need (à la Saint Nick), to giving something small to every child (e.g. an orange), to giving loads-a-toys to every kid and kicking off a general orgy of present-giving among all and sundry. This generates hugely damaging environmental, social, and spiritual consequences that I barely need to elaborate on. Suffice just to say: plastic crap, dangerous work, soulless materialism, and crushing debt. Indeed, the only way we can see our consumerist Christmas as in any way rational is, unsurprisingly, through the current hegemonic prism of economic rationality.
Since our economy depends on continued consumption and the Christmas period is crucial for consumer spending, Christmas is absolutely vital to economic stability and ‘growth’. (Interestingly, the right-wing press has little to say about the fact that Christmas has morphed from a religious festival to a consumerist bun-fest, but are up in arms at any suggestion of any council or organisation relegating religious imagery to the background of their seasonal celebrations.)
Since, however one tries to spin it, it’s hard indeed to argue that Jesus Christ would have been even remotely cool with consumerist Christmas, it’s unsurprising to see Father Christmas elevated to top dog as he functions as the legitimating symbol of present-giving.
Santa as ultimate hider of social relations
For me, the fundamental contribution of Marxist theory has been to reveal capitalism as a system of social rather than purely economic relations, and to reveal these social relations as class-based, that is, structurally exploitative. This is absolutely necessary because capitalism does such a phenomenal job of hiding these social relations: commodities are produced in unseen factories and bought and sold in impersonal exchanges facilitated by pieces of paper and bits of metal. This creates a situation described by Marx as ‘commodity fetishism’. Rather than seeing the indirect, but no less real, social relations between us that are mediated by the things we make, exchange, and consume, we instead only see the actual products themselves and the direct value relation between them (expressed in prices). Thus, we end up attributing social relations between these things (commodities) themselves. This brilliant little video explains it better than I can here.
If this is the case then Father Christmas goes even beyond commodity fetishism. The commodity as gift-bestowed-by-unknown-man strips the material product of even the remotest sociality. Even the impersonal exchange relation, i.e. the social interaction of a shop purchase, is eradicated. Not that a visit to Toys R Us is an enriching human experience! Thanks to Father Christmas, our kids have absolutely no sense of where their presents have come from at all. They wake up and the thing is there. That’s seriously problematic.
Santa as white patriarch
It’s certainly problematic too that Father Christmas is portrayed as the archetypal white avuncular patriarch. We shouldn’t go so far, of course, to suggest that old white men can’t be generous and kind. We just need to be conscious of the cultural suggestions bound up with this depiction. If we lived in a society in which people of all genders, colours, creeds, etc were relatively equally held up as icons and heroes, I don’t think Father Christmas would be problematic in his current guise. It’s the fact that today the icons and heroes that are elevated are overwhelmingly white and male. From this perspective, Father Christmas today is a symbol perpetuating white patriarchy. This needs to change.
Santa as anti-critical thinking
Children are naturally, infinitely curious. It takes increasing amounts of deception to hide the fact from our children that Father Christmas does not and could not possibly exist. Some may think this is harmless fun. Others may see it as a harmful deception that abuses children’s trust in their parents as their principal guides to discovering the world. Personally, I think there is a line here. For me, we play along, but if our children ask an intelligent, critical question we respect them with an honest, straight-forward answer. The bigger issue here is that, if we want to make the world more democratic and just we need to raise our children to be critical-thinkers; to question everything in pursuit of truth. Ultimately, I think it’s for each parent to use their own judgment.
So, here we have a Father Christmas who peddles, and simultaneously conceals, our current environmentally, socially, and spiritually damaging consumption, and certainly does nothing to encourage a more critical-thinking and socially just society. So, what would a socialist Santa look like instead?
The first thing to say is that I am no killjoy. I understand socialism as an ideology grounded in the deepest love for humanity and for life. Therefore, what we should seek to do at Christmas under socialism is to cast off the detrimental and enhance and enrich the nourishing and truly joyful elements of Christmas. I think that under socialism, we would be able to lose the tragic, but keep the magic. Here’s why…
Losing the tragic
First, since under socialism, production would be for social need rather than for profit, the whole manipulative media and advertising circus would be disbanded. Social status and identity would be redefined, away from wealth and consumption, toward social contribution (very broadly defined). The financial and emotional relief on families would be immense. Furthermore, whatever we produce will be produced in democratic and socially and environmentally sustainable conditions and will be distributed far more equally. In a situation that people were cognisant of the environmental, social, and personal cost of capitalist production (and the surmounting of capitalism can only be achieved by such people), we would have no fear of producing in wasteful, damaging ways.
As for reforming Santa as cultural institution, in my view it might be achieved by bringing him closer to his original Saint Nicholas roots. As I understand it, Saint Nick’s most famous act of kindness was to anonymously provide a poor father with the dowry for his three daughters. Rather than portraying this within a frame of liberal charity, we could see this as expressing a basic communistic ethic of ‘from each according to their ability to each according to their need’. This could, of course, serve as a timely reminder of the awful structural injustice at the heart of all previous social systems as we build our socialist society finally free from poverty.
Keeping the magic
As for retaining the magic, the contradiction between our kids’ presents magically appearing and the danger of commodity fetishism can only be surmounted under socialism. First, the gifts that socialist Santa would bring would be far more modest. But, far more importantly, these gifts would now be produced under democratic and environmentally sound conditions. That is why we could then maintain the magic ritual for our young ones safe in the knowledge that when the right time comes they can be told where their gifts really come from.
A socialist Christmas would also add to the magic in the most profound way possible. Only under socialism could we ensure that every child got want they really wanted for Christmas – their mums and dads. With people earning proper wages for proper work, not having to work over Christmas and able to take lots of time off, we could ensure that Christmas became a truly joyful time for all families.
Finally, we must of course consider the religious aspect of Christmas as a festival celebrating the birth of Christ. Under socialism, the space opens for a re-politicisation of Christ. This would involve creating a Christmas that reflected the radical political teachings and acts of Jesus, and relegating Santa to his rightful place, well below JC…
This blog, and the utopian suggestions it contains, clearly raises serious practical questions concerning how all this could be achieved. I cannot answer them here. However, I will say that they are, at bottom, a matter of collective imagination, organisation, and creation; in short, they are totally possible. If you think what I propose is attractive then please join me in learning more about post-capitalist alternatives and in the struggle to realise them. More on all that next year!
I leave you with a small Christmas present of my own – a silly, slightly self-deprecatory poem. Happy Christmas to you all and thank you for reading my blog.
The Revolution has finally arrived
and Capitalism is dead.
But Christmas Eve has come again
and the children have gone to bed.
So, what’s gonna happen this year?
What are the kids gonna get?
A flying visit from the avuncular chap
and his red-nosed ruminant pet?
An iPad for dear little Jonny?
An Xbox for Jane, his neighbour?
Expensive gifts flown from afar
produced by Chinese sweated labour?
That wouldn’t be right
now that we’ve won the fight
to escape from our gilded prison.
It just won’t do.
And Santa too must be liberated from consumerism.
So, on this joyous revolutionary morning,
on this first communist Christmas Day,
we’ll wake up our sons and daughters
and this is what we’ll say…
‘I’m afraid there’ll be no Scalextric for you,
no trampoline, scooter, or bike,
for Santa has been exposed as a capitalist pig
and the elves have all gone on strike!
But, don’t despair, little Jonny!
Dear Jane, please dry your eyes,
for we still have the warm love of each other…
oh, and these delicious vegan mince pies.
And don’t think that we’ve forgotten your present!
Take a look what’s under the tree!
A lovely big parcel all wrapped up in red…
Das Kapital, Vols I, II, and III!’