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Christmas seems to me under-theorized. I find few attempts to summarize its main distinctive features, and even fewer attempts to explain such patterns. For some reason, this topic is seen as low status among intellectuals, even though Christmas is a prime example of ritual, religion, and the sacred, all topics in which intellectuals claim to be quite interested. So in this post I’ll take a first cut; I hope to inspire others to do more.
Let’s start with some styled facts. At Christmas, we mostly give presents, eat, and socialize, mostly with family. Much as we do at many other holidays. But in many places, Christmas is special; it is our premiere holiday, collecting the most time and effort. It has more of its own distinct styles in clothes, decorations, food, movies/stories, and songs. More so than at other holidays, people claim to want to “get into the spirt of” Christmas with others. We are more eager to defend Christmas against enemies real and imagined. Christmas has even induces pauses during wars.
Christmas songs tend to sound bittersweet, older/“timeless”, major key, and they can be more easily sung well by ordinary people. Christmas stories are simpler, more heart-warming, and cover a wide range of relatively sacred themes, including children, family, nostalgia, pro-sociality, and gratitude. Compared to other stories, Christmas stories are more allowed to explicitly endorse and embrace sacred themes. Two common story themes are the power of belief, and characters (re-?) discovering a “true meaning of Christmas”. For both songs and stories, the artist/author tends to fade more into the background.
We humans use gifts, food, and holiday gatherings to bond together, and we also bond via shared views of the sacred. So it makes sense that we’d associate holidays with sacred themes. However, as Christmas used to be associated with a quite religious theme, it seems puzzling that it has become all the more popular and meaningful over a period of great decline in religious influence. How could that happen?
Let me suggest that the key to Christmas’ success lies in a synergy between two key elements. First, children are given many gifts at Christmas, but on the apparent condition that they believe implausible claims about Santa, and get into a spirit of Christmas. Second, we often repeat key Christmas myths which say that adults often lose touch with that spirit, but that they can and should find it again.
To find a Christmas spirit, it can help to see Christmas through children’s eyes. And our task of getting in the spirit is made especially easy by generous criteria on what can count as your “true meaning” of Christmas. As explained in the TV Show Community:
“The meaning of Christmas is: the idea that Christmas has meaning, and it can mean whatever we want.” S2E11, min. 20.
Our many Christmas movies make clear that while we want all adults to get into a spirit of Christmas with us, we will accept reverence of quite a wide range of sacred things for this purpose.
That is, Christmas more celebrates the sacred in general, and less particular sacred things; Christmas is a more of a sacred salad than a particular structured dish. And if you can’t find such a Christmas spirit in yourself, we will accept your appreciating this spirt in the kids around you. Which we make easy by maxing out kids’ enthusiasm for Christmas, and thus their eagerness to try to believe in it, even in the face of contrary evidence.
This seems to me to add up to a pretty strong setup for getting everyone into the Christmas spirit. And it seems a stronger setup than for most other holidays. For example, while Halloween is competitive with Christmas in terms of kids’ enthusiasm, we don’t so much try to guilt adults into getting into a spirit of Halloween. And while we do try to guilt adults into getting into a patriotic spirit of nationalism on holidays like July 4 in the U.S., kids aren’t nearly as eager to find that spirit, and many adults don’t see national identity as especially sacred.
And that’s my simple theory of why Christmas is our premiere holiday, at least in places like the U.S. Which I offer to try to prod intellectuals into theorizing more about Christmas. It is actually an important and promising topic for inquiry. So if you don’t like my theory; what other theories you got?
Added 13Feb2024: Xkcd made a related observation in Dec. 2017.