The Catholic Church and various Protestant congregations are trying to struggle against the commercialisation of the great Christian holiday, but they are not doing well
VICTOR LOUPAN, Head of the Editorial Board
When I lived in the United States in the mid-eighties, all supermarkets, right next to the cash registers, had large stands with greeting cards. The inscriptions and illustrations on them were different, depending on the seasons and the holidays. These cheerful and dedicated postcards, of course, were not always beautiful – there was also enough tastelessness.
In December, the stands were literally inundated with postcards with endless variations of Christmas greetings. The typical American phrasing “Merry Xmas!” prevailed, which means “Merry Christmas!” And much less often you could see postcards with a longer text: “Merry Xmas and Happy New Year!”
The fact is that, unlike Russia with its Soviet heritage (the Kremlin chimes and New Year’s Eve), in the West, the main family holiday is not New Year, but Christmas, which is celebrated on the night of December 24-25, that is, exactly a week before the New Year.
Today you rarely see “Merry Xmas!” words. Everywhere there are only “Happy Holidays!” greetings, and it is not clear what holiday they celebrate, although based on the illustrations with snow-covered Christmas trees and New Year’s decorations, it is obvious that we are talking about “winter holidays”.
There are many signs of de-Christianisation of Western society. But none of them is as obvious as the rejection of the very mention of the Nativity of Christ. Holidays and vacation periods still continue, for now, to be called “Christmas” or “Easter” holidays, as if due to tradition or habit. Although this is already a kind of paradox in the context of the current radicalisation of the struggle against cultural, religious, family, civilisational traditions and the values arising from them. Nowaday in the West, Christmas is not real Christmas, but the main riot of the year, in essence, a blasphemous cult of consumption. People frantically run around the shops crowded with customers and, – if they do not find what they are looking for, because everything is being bought up, – then they take any random things. Even on credit.
The protracted pandemic, QR codes and fear of being infected have made it harder for the strong collective need to shop. But thanks to the Internet, Westerners still manage to satisfy their frantic craving for consumption.
No matter how strange it may seem to us, and Western sociologists are surprised to emphasise this fact, but despite the general impoverishment of population ascertained by all observers, Christmas consumer passions, which more and more often resemble convulsions, are presenting continuously. People save on vacations, give up travel, fail to buy books or go to the theater or cinema, but still spend money on Christmas gifts.
The fundamental family and religious tradition associated with the celebration of a joyful event – the birth of the Infant Christ – continues to be a family one and a reason for meeting in an extended circle of the family, but now joy level more and more relies on financial component – receiving or giving gifts.
The Catholic Church and various Protestant congregations are trying to struggle against the commercialisation of the great Christian holiday, but they are not doing well. Moreover, usually half-empty churches are suddenly replenished with parishioners on Christmas Eve. Or rather, that category of people who visit the church twice a year – at Christmas and Easter. These are already unbelievers or little believers who enter the church out of old memory, out of habit, due to the memory of how their parents took them there in childhood, or how beautiful it all seemed to them in childhood, when they still believed.
The New Year that comes a week after Christmas is no longer a family holiday, but rather an excuse to meet friends, drink and dance together.
A calendar in pre-revolutionary Russia was differing from the European one. But the 13-day difference did not change the essence: first, Christmas, and a week later, New Year. But since 1917, the situation has changed. Society began to live “according to a new style”, but the Church continued to live according to the Julian calendar. This means that New Year in Russia, on the contrary, precedes Christmas. We don’t think much about that, but, in fact, our New Year, with its hard drinking and gorging, was as much a Soviet holiday as May 1 or November 7. Because traditional Orthodox families did not celebrate it, or celebrated it just in a tokenistic way, for the simple reason that the Nativity of Christ in Orthodoxy is preceded by the Christmas Fast – the last multi-day fast of the year. This year it began on November 15 (28 new style) and will continue until December 24 (January 6). It lasts forty days and is therefore referred to in the church statutes as the Forty Day Fast, or Lent – just like the Great Fast before Easter.
The establishment of the Christmas Fast, like other multi-day fasts, dates back to the ancient Christianity, when the church was single and there was no difference between Catholics and Orthodox. The 4th century saints Ambrose of Milan and Augustine of Hippo mentioned the Christmas Fast. In the 5th century, Pope Saint Leo I (The Great) wrote about the antiquity of the Christmas Fast. At that time there was no difference between Eastern and Western Christians.
Initially, the Christmas Fast lasted seven days for some Christians, while for others it lasted a little longer. And only at the council of 1166, which was under the Patriarch Luke to Constantinople and the Emperor Manuel to Byzantine Empire, all Christians were supposed to follow a forty-day fast before the great feast of the Nativity of Christ.
The very celebration of the Nativity of Christ dates back to the times of the apostles. The apostolic decrees say: “Keep, brethren, the feast days and, first of all, the day of the Nativity of Christ, which may be celebrated by you on the 25th day of the tenth month.” The tenth month is “decembri”, December. It also says: “Let them celebrate the day of the Nativity of Christ, it is the day when unexpected grace was given to people by the birth of the Word of God from the Virgin Mary for the salvation of the world.”
In 303, during the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Diocletian, 20 000 Christians were burned on the day of the Nativity of Christ. But soon, under the emperor Constantine the Great, the church gained independence and became dominant in the Roman Empire. The 17th century author Nicephorus Callistus wrote in his famous “Church History” that in the 6th century the Emperor Justinian established the celebration of the Nativity of Christ throughout the earth.
Christmas is one of the oldest holidays not only in Europe, but also around the globe. We often forget that alternation of holidays give a special rhythm to the calendar year. In a spiritual sense, they rhyme it. Because the great holidays are always spiritual in nature. Before Christianity, there were many holidays in the Roman Empire associated with the cult of the gods, moreover, not only the Roman stricto sensu, but also the Egyptian ones. In Rome, for example, there was a temple of the goddess Isis, who symbolised femininity and motherhood.
The Vikings, Varangians, Scythians, Dacians, Thracians had their own gods and their own great holidays, often accompanied by bloody sacrifices. Over time, the established and strengthened Christian civilisation abolished pagan customs, and now we know little about them. But manifestations and even bursts of pagan Bacchanalia periodically appear. The Great French Revolution was one of them. Not only because of the martyrdom of thousands of Catholic priests, but also because of the grotesque change in the calendar, the cancellation of the countdown from the birth of Christ, the change in the names of the months of the year and other nonsense, in particular, the renaming of Notre Dame Cathedral into the Temple of Reason.
Fascism, especially in Germany and especially among SS personnel, was permeated with pagan mysticism with its rituals, processions, temples and other devilry.
The well-known Soviet period in the history of Russia and the eastern part of Europe also bore a pseudo-religious, pagan character. The cult of Lenin, the cult of Stalin, the cult of the Revolution, the infallibility of the Communist Party, national holidays with staged processions, figures of martyrs, such as Pavlik Morozov, Pavel Korchagin, Alexander Matrosov, Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, the closure and destruction of churches, the unprecedented physical extermination of priests and persecution of believers, the ban on all religious holidays and rituals – all this speaks of the pagan essence of the regime. Despite claims to be scientific and knowledgeable, the pseudo-religious essence of communist ideology is undeniable.
Today many Western analysts and generally thinkers are surprised to note the depression of society. The cult of profit has not justified itself for a long time, because the number of the poor has been constantly growing. Belief in democracy and equality is also going through hard times. Racial, ethnic, gender and other minorities consider themselves disadvantaged. When criticising the “androcentric society”, the younger generation actually rejects the foundations and essence of Western civilisation. Islamisation, especially in European society, occurs as if Islam fills the spiritual emptiness of a society that has renounced the Christian faith and civilisation to remain essentially naked and defenceless.
Taking the example of what the holiday of the Nativity of Christ has become, one can notice the substitution of the Christian religion of love with the pagan religion of consumption. Love for one’s neighbour has been replaced by love for an object acquired for money.
In this regard, advertising, with its propaganda techniques, is quite indicative. Realising that many people are already deeply in debt, marketing and promotion specialists come up with moral and ideological moves. They argue, for example, that the average person, when buying a product, expresses moral responsibility and does a good deed, thereby contributing to the growth of emerging economies. And buying “green” products helps to save the planet. Laymen who do not see the meaning of life, receive the message through the specifically refined propaganda, which convinces them that they are not manipulated tools, but responsible buyers who, while spending money on all odds and ends, actually do good and thereby attach meaning to their life.
But let’s again return to Christmas as a holiday. For the holiday of consumption remains a holiday in spite of everything. People rejoice in it in advance, seeing city decorations, festive lighting funded by the municipalities of Paris, London or Berlin. Iconic commercial enterprises, such as London’s Harrods or Parisian Galeries Lafayette, spend huge amounts of money to decorate their windows which are sometimes so unusual and attractive, that thousands of onlookers who do not have enough money to buy something at these expensive department stores, crowd the sidewalks, simply admiring the advertised luxury and, of course, dreaming about it.
Any technology of power lies in the ability to take possession of the minds, thoughts, dreams of those whom leaders wish to lead. Behind any true (and not only totalitarian) power, there is an idea. Charles de Gaulle was guided by the idea of the Fifth Republic, Boris Johnson – by the idea of Brexit, Donald Trump – by the revival of America. In Europe, the degradation of the “European idea” has led to the fact that there is nothing positive, nothing to dream about. The struggle against migrants, the war against Islamisation, the opposition to populism, adversarial relationship with Russia, the growth of the ultra-right movements. All this is not only negative, but also defensive.
And yet it is human nature to strive for something uplifting. People need positive dynamics that can bring them satisfaction. The satisfaction that they contribute to something important and good, proving that their existence is not meaningless, but is filled with the essence, which is commonly called the “meaning of life.”
Due to the absence of any alternative to the existing system and the world order arising from it, there is no – and cannot be – any semantic dynamics. Earlier, millions of Europeans dreamed of equality, fraternity, socialism, communism, a world without borders, the end of exploitation. Thirty years ago, all these dreams and utopias came to an end. They were replaced by an all-encompassing neoliberal ideology, the essence of which is to reduce a human being to the level of an obedient individual, whose life consists of consumption based on a constant feeling of inner dissatisfaction. Not knowing how to get rid of this feeling, the layman continues to consume, which only aggravates the metaphysical feeling of frustration.
In this – and not only in this – regard, Christmas became a truly political holiday in modern society, where mass consumption summarises everything, including the ideas of good and evil that are vital for every person.
Here is a quote from Chuck Palahniuk’s cult novel “Fight Club”: “What are we then?.. We are consumers. We are by-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things don’t concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy’s name on my underwear.” And here is what the great American-German philosopher Erich Fromm wrote about the same: “Modern man has transformed himself into a commodity; he experiences his life energy as an investment with which he should make the highest profit… if he succeeds in this, he is “successful” and his life has meaning; if not, “he is a failure.” His “value” lies in his salability, not in his human qualities of love and reason nor in his artistic capacities.”
And here is the last quote, which summarises briefly and clearly the whole essence of the consumer society. It belongs to the great American unique Jacques Fresco: “The consumer society is a society of single people who have everything except what they really need.”
Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!