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A Darwinian explanation of Christmas

Alan Braunholtz

How we celebrate Christmas might strike evolutionary psychologists as a paradoxical mess. Christmas is both an extended gathering of the clan, a spiritual renewal, community celebration and an extreme example of runaway consumer capitalism and selfish materialism.

Evolutionary psychology tries to explain human behavior with underlying psychological mechanisms that evolved during our pre-history in the Pleistocene or Stone Age. Modern society developed too quickly for these base adaptations to keep up, and how we act now could be no more than outdated responses to the social conditions of those times – though we don’t really know how humans lived then.

Wasteful displays of conspicuous consumption and their (dwindling?) social and sexual appeal might only be the vestigial mental remains of those times. Darwinian explanations portray this behavior as outdated and, if not useless, at least unreliable. The “flash of cash” no longer has much relevance to the merit or virtue of one’s partners or friends in our modern world.

Idealists hope this criticism will expose and undermine our fondness for materialism over all else. If this happens it’ll be the type of rapid cultural shift that evolutionary psychologists ironically and typically underestimate in importance.

Why are Christmas and similar celebrations so fun? This probably depends on what age you are. For the child ” who takes a huge family support network dedicated to his well being for granted ” it’s the stuff: the gifts, the special food, the treats.

Grandparents have quite a different view. New baubles mean less and less and all the extras are just that, compared to the happiness of a family gathering. Life is tough and arbitrary and without a support network of friends and family to share its ups and downs, materialism is little more than a cold garage full of junk. Their maturity and experience provides an appreciation for social capital that the immature overlook.

Maybe the evolutionary psychologists are onto something. The Stone Ages provided a close-knit tribal lifestyle with ever-present support for and from all members, but tools, clothes, weapons were hard to obtain and valuable because they helped one literally survive. Survival would’ve been a pretty good status symbol then.

Now we’ve got so many possessions, we need bigger and bigger houses to put it all in while still taking regular trips to the dump. It’s really not that special anymore. Without the endless TV advertisements marketing to our old Stone Age brain, who’d buy half of what is under the Xmas tree? What we are missing now in single-family suburbia is the support of an extended local family, neighbors and community. Developments that emphasize community with mixed-use urban planning like Eagle Ranch seem to be popular.

Perhaps as we mature as a society we’ll start acting like our grandparents at Christmas, enjoying and emphasizing the community instead of the individual. There’s a new trend of organizations whose mission is the public good rather than shareholders returns. Summit County’s new hospital is the result of such an organization, Centura, founded to provide better health care for the public.

Each year Christmas brings into sharper relief the compromises of my lifestyle and career choices. As an impetuous youth, the choice seemed obvious; now it’s not such a slam-dunk. Careers stall, responsibilities and ageing joints limit lifestyles, there’s a diminishing return to money; after a certain point it becomes a means, not an ends. With a little effort, social capital and the happiness it brings continue to grow over time. Family and friends should be largely unaffected by circumstance.

Perhaps that’s the true gift of Christmas (and Thanksgiving and weddings and any other traditional celebration) ” the jolt they give to overcome the inertia and distance that separates us. The perfect gift is in you, not in a mall.

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Vail Daily.


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