Jonathan Rowson

Christmas, Consumerism and Confusion

Christmas is the season of shallow critique. We lament the commercialisation around us as if it were a seasonal problem, but lurking inside the wrapped presents, juicy puddings and roasted birds there are deeper questions about ethical drift and the social logic of our entire economic model.



My main feeling about Christmas is that we should feel more confused about it than we are. The challenge at Christmas is to gain clarity about our lives and societies by experiencing our confusion as object rather than subject – to have our Christmas confusion, rather than be had by it.

This kind of approach to complexity is not new. Physicist and Philosopher Niels Bohr said that “If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet.” In a similar spirit with reference to the world as a whole, the American writer Irene Peter said “Today, if you are not confused, you are not thinking clearly.”

The first thing to notice is that Christmas is the season of shallow critique. We lament the commercialisation around us as if it were a seasonal problem, but lurking inside the wrapped presents, juicy puddings and roasted birds there are deeper questions about ethical drift and the social logic of our entire economic model.

Not merely now in December, but in January, February, March, April and all the way back to next October when people will predictably say ‘No, it’s too early!’, consumerism remains our modus operandi. Consumerism is heightened — we are confronted with it most directly — during whatever quarter now passes for the festive season, but it is not a unique Christmas phenomenon.

Consumerism, consumption and capitalism are often conflated. I have written previously about consumerism as our prevailing cultural and economic modus operandi. It is what we do, to some extent who we are, and it is ideological in nature because it defines our sense of normality, the nature of our social practices and the structure of our attention. Consumerism is not consumption, which is a basic and necessary human activity that predates capitalism. Hunter gatherers, for instance, consumed the products of land and used animals for various ends. Consumerism is not capitalism either — a slippery notion that connects ownership to profit and takes many forms. One way to look at it is that consumerism is what capitalism does to consumption — it turns a simple human activity into something culturally hegemonic.

The familiar critiques of consumerism include its deleterious ecological impact, its failure to offer enduring satisfaction and the comical absurdity of ‘spending money you don’t have to buy things you don’t want to impress people you don’t like.’ So consumerism is unsustainable, unrewarding and ultimately absurd. Yet it endures because it meets a range of emotional and social needs, and because it is conveniently operational — ‘it works’ in a bureaucratic sense, or at least it seems to. It is certainly hard to imagine replacing it. And yet we have to sail our imagination in precisely that direction, not least because we are transgressing a range of of ecological boundaries of which rising average mean surface temperature (‘climate change’) is merely the most notorious. We need to imagine a world beyond consumerism for other reasons too, not least to help clarify what we are living for (!) but any such imaginary will have to better meet social and emotional needs at scale within ecological limits (as I argued in a four part series here).

As the Philosopher and Psychotherapist Mark Vernon put it to me, there is a sense in which we try to create the significance of Christmas through what we buy, as if the consumerist frenzy was an attempt to make real something that we feel should be real. To get beyond shallow critiques of consumerism, I think we need to pay closer attention to precisely that kind of idea.

Martijn Konings has published a (brilliant but inaccessible) book called The Emotional Logic of Capitalism (2015) where he argues that progressives of all stripes fail to grasp that money is more like an icon than an idol. In other words it is not something people worship in itself (‘Money is God’) but rather something that represents forms of life that people identify with (‘Money is me’). No wonder then that we spend more at Christmas — it is in some ways the spending that gives the significance to the festival. That’s not how it should be of course, but compare weddings or graduations and the fact that a wedding cake invariably costs more than a mere cake, regardless of the cost of baking it. It seems we often associate ‘special’ events with the amount of money we give to them. So if we know or at least sense that Christmas should matter more than other times, our cultural logic now seems to demand that we spend more than usual as a result.

To take a broader view, in the context of excessive marketisation, which is part of how consumerism takes hold, Philosopher and Theologian Rowan Williams put the challenge as follows:

If we want to resist this intelligently, we need doctrine, ritual and narrative: sketches of the normative, practices that are not just functions, and stories of lives that communicate a sense of what being at home in the environment looks like — and the costs of failure as well.

I examine each of these ideas in some detail here, but reading that paragraph in December highlights that Christmas should be able to undertake some of these functions of resistance to consumerism — it has all the things Williams thinks we need. Which is why it should intrigue and concern us that Christmas not only fails to act as a check on consumerism, but actively promotes it. Indeed, many parts of the economy are entirely dependent on the Christmas boom to survive, but it is also true that the frenzy of activity that looks like a boom may not be because most people would pay much less than the value of the items they are given, so some believe Christmas actually features what economists call ‘a dead weight loss’. It feels like the entire festival is laced with delusion.

So the question is: What would it take for Christmas reflection to go beyond the personal and become a time when we collectively imagined an entirely different world, beyond consumerism? This is no small ask, because as the think tank Theos indicated in a thoughtful report on The Politics of Christmas a few years ago and through subsequent polling research, most people do not really understand the Christmas story; details for instance about homelessness and the refugee experience, and my favourite — the wise men getting lost and turning up late. Moreover, most people see Christmas as a time to turn away from politics and towards home. Theos summarised their findings on public attitudes to Christmas in 2012 as follows: “The message is clear: domesticity and charity yes, religion and leisure maybe, politics and economics no.”

Why might that be?

Christmas seems to give permission to escape from responsibility towards the external world. The main thing we want from Christmas is for the world to stop for a while. And yet it doesn’t really stop, as we know, and it rarely goes to plan. Even so, that is tacit cultural agreement — let’s pretend this time of year is different.

For the non-religious in Europe’s post-Christian culture, Christmas is still experienced as a reflective time where attention naturally draws inward and questions about meaning are heightened. Even for those from other faith traditions and none, the rituals of the Christmas festival alter the character and tempo of experience. For Christians, Christmas is a culturally sanctioned time to celebrate an answer to the most fundamental of questions — an answer about God becoming human that has a history, a philosophy and a narrative charm that still resonates, whether or not we think it is true. Moreover Christianity is in some ways a thoroughly materialistic religion, and Christmas is partly about remembering that ‘matter matters’…the materiality of the gifts, of the food and of the trees and lights is no accident — the ‘stuff’ is, other things being equal, ‘good stuff’. And yet things seem out of kilter…it is not just that there is too much stuff (and stuffing), but that the stuff does not seem to be meaningful in the way it promises to be.

In that fuller context I wonder what are we really saying when we critique the commercialisation of Christmas:

  1. This is not what Christmas is supposed to be about.
  2. I don’t like the feeling that I am complicit in consumerism.
  3. Our entire economic model is unreal and built upon manufactured needs and desires, generated through advertising.
  4. I miss whatever it is that Christmas is supposed to be about.
  5. I am part of the Christmas confusion but can’t see a way out of the myriad social and cultural expectations it entails.
  6. I am culturally Christian but feel disconnected from my cultural roots.
  7. I might even be Christian, but I have lost any sense of what that means.
  8. I would like to be Christian, but my intellect gets in the way.
  9. I am a resolute atheist, but we need rituals, myths and seasonal tempo to give life meaning and depth.
  10. Something is not right, but I’m too busy to give it any thought — somebody else should do something about it.
  11. Christmas reminds me of all the things that are wrong while simultaneously obliging me to pretend that everything is all right.
  12. Something else…

There is no correct answer, but the question remains how we might reimagine Christmas such that the time of repose and reconsideration might allow us to better reimagine the world.

In Prosperity without Growth Tim Jackson examines the social logic of consumption, but in a lesser known paper he links consumerism more directly to anxiety, in which consumerism acts as a theodicy — a way of holding the world together.

Drawing on Sociologist Peter Berger’s work on our need for ‘a sacred canopy’, an overarching framework of meaning, Jackson suggests the task of ‘holding the world together’ used to fall to religion, but increasingly falls to consumerism:

“Central to this task of ‘world maintenance’ is the task of ‘theodicy’. Theodicy (which means—literally—the justification of god) has its roots in medieval theology. So it might seem odd that I should call on such an idea in a discussion of consumerism. But as I hope to show, it is quite precisely this task that consumerism has usurped in modern society. And it is noteworthy that we have no better, more familiar terminology with which to confront one of the most fundamental dynamics in human society.”

Jackson summarises the idea as follows:

“In ordinary laymen’s terms, theodicy can be construed as the attempt to ‘make sense of’ our lives. Faced with persistent injustice, the prosperity of ill-doers, the persecution of the righteous, how should we seek to live? What kind of morality are we to live by? Confronted with our own mortality, the persistence of suffering, the sorrow of bereavement, where should we turn for solace? How are we to protect the authority of compassion and the promise of love? Where, in short, are we to find meaning in our lives?”

The idea is further developed with six main functions that a secular theodicy has to fulfil, which I have very roughly summarised as justice (the world feels fair), reward (effort is worthwhile), consolation (comfort is available), ontological security (we belong), transcendence (we can get beyond the self) and eschatology (it makes sense in the end). Jackson goes on to show how consumerism attempts but mostly fails to fulfil these functions — it is “not entirely pathological, but clearly flawed”.

Like Consumerism, Christmas can be thought of as a kind of theodicy too — it is a time of year and a set of rituals that is supposed to make sense, but often doesn’t.

For instance, Christmas is supposed to be about gift exchange, love, renewal, peace on earth and the experience of convivial homecoming (aspects of justice, reward, consolation, transcendence, ontological security and eschatology) but it can also be a challenging time. Wendy Doniger’s famous essay on Christmas —Hang Santa — goes deeply into why, but the line that captured my attention was: “Christmas is supposed to be a ritual, but it has become a game.” While rituals are communal and have predictable and meaningful outcomes, games have winners, losers and don’t always go to plan.

The ambient pressure to be happy at Christmas can be oppressive. Spending time with family can be alienating. Loneliness is felt more acutely. Financial burdens are particularly stressful. And even when the joy in giving and receiving is real, we feel complicit in the shameless commercialisation of the season. No wonder the Samaritans are particularly busy in late December.

Neither Christmas nor Consumerism really ‘works’ as a theodicy, as a way to hold the world together, or to help, as Charles Taylor puts it, to see our social imaginary and experience “a wider grasp of our whole predicament.”

No, we remain confused.

And yet, while imagining a world beyond consumerism seems challenging —indeed it is arguably the challenge for the world as a whole — imagining a more honest approach to Christmas feels like it should be possible.

Perspectiva is making the case for the need to engage more fully with spiritual questions when considering how to create new operating principles for our political economy. Personally, I remain as confused as ever about consumerism and Christmas, but the more I think about each, the more I feel their relationship has something to tell us. Perhaps the problem with our post-christian culture is that Christmas has become the question to which consumerism is the answer, and it should be the other way round.

This essay was originally published on the CUSP (Center for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity) website in December 2017.

Words by Jonathan Rowson
Jonathan Rowson is Director of Perspectiva and author of The Moves That Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life.