Capitalism and Christmas spirit
December 27, 2003
Well, Christmas has come and gone. It often seems to do that up here. One moment you’re getting your ski boots fixed, starting to enjoy the snow, then work picks up and zzzip! it’s Christmas Day. Fortunately, a few friends refuse to let Christmas disappear under the holiday rush and shepherd me into their contagious good will.
Christmas is a gracious holiday emphasizing empathy and “good will to all men” – something every man, no matter what religion, should be able to embrace.
Fittingly, it also celebrates the birth of Christ, who from my hazy Sunday school recollections talked an awful lot about compassion, forgiveness, empathy and charity. A lot of talk radio hosts seem to forget this, or maybe they never made it past the scary intolerant tales of the Old Testament.
A few weeks back, I puzzled over the expressions of children waiting to meet a mall Santa. More looked bored than excited, just another shopping line to wait in. Do children get so much stuff now that Christmas is no big deal?
When I grew up, Christmas and birthdays were it. The frenetic bustle of shoppers more competitive than compassionate suggests that Christmas is now a religious expression to consumer capitalism.
Dr. Seuss’ Grinch is a fabulous tale about the spirit of Christmas. He steals all the presents, the food, the lights and every material object associated with Christmas. He can’t steal the Christmas spirit, though, and the Whos celebrate anyway. Their goodwill doesn’t depend on goods.
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Of course, Hollywood and its product-placement sponsors ruin this in the film version by making the return of the knickknacks central to the saving of Christmas. Possessions over spirit yet again.
The Grinch redeems himself not because he returned the stolen presents, but by realizing that he’s missing something much more important and giving himself over to that.
Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol” is a sublime tale of redemption. Plays often portray Scrooge to pantomime extremes, which takes away from a powerful but simple message. Scrooge isn’t a caricature but a hard-working businessman whose focus on the creation of wealth has obscured some of his basic humanity. Bankruptcy forced a 12-year-old Dickens to work in a factory so he knew the fear of being poor.
Scrooge’s charity extends only to workhouses and prisons, which could be seen as the social safety net of their day. His character reflected a common view that it’s your responsibility to support yourself. There is no right to live. You survive through aggressive, unenlightened self-interest. If you’re poor, it’s your own fault. This is an appealing argument, but hard to apply to children. How can a child be responsible for his condition? “Every child is every man’s responsibility.”
Tiny Tim makes this point unashamedly well in “A Christmas Carol.” While the spirit of Christmas present hammers away at the empathy quota, Christmas future helps Scrooge examine his mortality, his life and himself. To me this is the power of “A Christmas Carol” and Christmas itself – a combination of spiritual atmosphere and passing time prompt some self-reflection. How to be a better person and how to make the world a better place? Coincidentally, New Year’s resolutions are right around the corner.
While Dickens often moralized about some of the evil consequences of Victorian capitalism, he never offered ideas for radically altering the society that also provided the wealth of the British empire. Revolutionaries believe that you have to change the system to change human nature. Dickens takes the opposite view that by changing human nature you can change the system for the better.
“If men would behave decently, then the world would be decent” can sound like a stupid platitude. The power of “A Christmas Carol” is that it makes you want to try.
America has a history of doing just that, from the 19th century abolitionists through the civil rights movement to Jimmy Carter’s work with Habitat for Humanity. Rich and poor give time and money to support hospitals, museums, libraries, homeless shelters, public broadcasting, public lands and conservation efforts. Alongside the creation of wealth, there’s a tradition of social patriotism to make America a better place for all.
Some on the far right want us to believe that only aggressive self -interest is the “American way.” It never has been.
As tiny Tim says, “God bless us … everyone.”
Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.