Monday, December 24, 2012

Rubbing Your Commodity Fetish?

The Gift That Stops Giving

Gift-giving within Christmas originated in the Roman solstice festival of Saturnalia, which, after Constantine I, evolved into Christianity.  The Romans knew, in spite of their empire, that without the sun, they’d be toast.  Ah, ok, they’d be very cold toast.  No olives, no grapes, no sex at all.  Rome, and later Catholic Germany, then Dickensian England, were all places where scarcity ruled.  So a gift meant something.  Studies of early Christmas (read “The War for Christmas”) showed that Christmas – its lights, food, drink, gifts, pine trees, yule logs, wassailing – was still mostly a pagan festival.  This is what I tell my observant and non-observant Jewish friends about the present one too, but neither probably believes it.  It is true.  There is nothing specifically “Christian” about putting up lights for instance.  And lights are just a reflection of the big light.  No, not ‘God’ – the sun. 

Old Christmas was a combination of New Years Eve, Halloween and Mardi Gras that lasted for weeks, from the beginning of December into the first week in January.  After all, most of these societies were still rural and no plowing was being done, while lots of food had been stored.  In essence, one long party to enliven the dark, cold days of Europe, Russia and America.  Many times, gifts were given on New Years Day, not on the mythical ‘birth of Bejesus day,’ December 25, or even on Solstice Day, December 21.  The New York rich put a stop to that in the late 1800s and ever since, it has become an interior tradition centered on family, children and … shopping. 

Now I can get behind the children part, having been one myself, and having children myself.  There was a magic to Christmas mornings that the instant gratification of Christmas Eve giving does not match.  And buying presents for children is – or should be – an enjoyable exercise.  What limits it is their demands for higher and higher-priced artifacts, based on the advertising and consumerism they see all around them. Yet, they are still children.  After all, who is more vulnerable than they?

Well, actually, many.  Like your grown-up children, who still do not have decent or stable jobs.  Parents try to provide ‘gifts’ to their grown-up children throughout the year if they really need them - they do not wait for Christmas.  Or the poor of society.  Or the lower levels of the blue and white collar working class.  Perhaps one day around Christmas a mostly middle-class person will volunteer at a soup kitchen. The rest of the year, do they argue against welfare benefits and single-payer health care, want to cut Medicaid and the Earned Income Credit, and insist that the poor and unemployed are lazy and don’t want jobs?  It is very possible.  Charity, which is many times nothing but a boost to the ego of the giver, never results in permanent social benefits. And so it goes.

As an atheist, I celebrate "Christ" mass because Christmas is really a stolen solstice and pagan ceremony, only renamed, with a bunch of creches interjected.  And I'm not letting those people steal it. 

Now, in the present commodity economy, there is a chunk of society which does not need any more ‘presents.’  They have everything they need.  Presents are nothing but a redundant echo of the over-production economy.  From scarcity to too much junk.   This is not relegated to just rich people or upper-middle class people.  Some workers too have closets and basements full of crap.  So excessive shopping – and the consumer fetishism that promotes it are actually trials – economic, physical and social.  Which is why many families opt for just buying one person in the family a gift.  Or limiting the cost to $25.  Or not giving anything, or not accepting gifts.  Which is what I’ve decided to do next year.  No more gifts for me.

Christmas is actually a debt trigger, as workers attempt to copy the spending of the wealthy, to give their children things they cannot really afford (which actually hoodwinks children about financial reality), to forget for a moment their limited funds, to participate in the social ritual in order not to feel left out. In a way, it is a reflection of primitive regimes of 'competitive feasting' where families try to outshine others in their spending.  Weddings also reflect this. But the hangover happens anyway - especially the reception of credit card bills in January.   

The scarcity gift economy that originated in the pagan solstice celebrations is becoming its opposite in some social places.  Over-consumption and over-production are intimately linked. Continuing on this path of consumerist frenzy will not be possible at some point, as the Christmas buying orgy contains within itself the seeds of its own refutation.  Consumerism is a non-religious tradition that the corporations are happy to oblige.  In this, they have become the ultimate ‘pagans.’ So perhaps we will have to reject Christianity and also a bit of modern, dollar-drenched ‘paganism,’ and return to reality.

Happy Solstice. Happy New Year. Happy Old Christmas.
Red Frog, December 24, 2012

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