The irony of Christmas

The core idea of Christmas is very beautiful: Jesus taught that each of us, no matter how humble, is possessed of divine Grace. By giving gifts we are reminded not to put ourselves above others, for there is divine Grace within every human being.

Yet that’s not how it ends up playing out. In a modern consumer economy, everything becomes an impetus to spend money. The promotion of such behavior is, in fact, the core wealth-generating engine of a consumer centered capitalist economy.

So when you watch a movie about Christmas, the gifts that Santa brings end up being commercial goods, rather than made by hand. These run to things like board games, dolls, ice skates, Nerf guns, game consoles — items made of plastic and metal, produced on a massive scale in a factory somewhere.

A key word in that last sentence is “somewhere”. The relentless U.S. consumer economy can no longer be supported by domestic manufacturing. The things we buy — and give to others for Christmas — are now made in parts of the world where the minimum wage is the equivalent of between $2.00 to $2.50 per hour.

Ironically, our yearly expression of generosity exploits people who work for slave wages. It’s not that we are bad people, but rather that this inequity is by now baked deeply into the very structure of our economic system.

If any of this bothers you, and you are wondering whether there is a better way next Christmas to honor the divine Grace of others, there are alternatives. You could give a gift of cookies that you baked yourself, or something you painted or knitted or quilted or perhaps crafted out of clay, or a poem or a song that you wrote.

There are so many gifts you could give which come from your true self. You would be honoring the divine Grace in human life everywhere, without being a de facto participant in a vast cycle of exploitation.

Just don’t expect to see too many people on TV or in movies doing likewise. That kind of generosity is not considered good economic policy.

4 thoughts on “The irony of Christmas”

  1. For the last 5 years, we have given home made cookies to our extended family. I like it because it is something easy to do, and doesn’t leave them with something they don’t know what to do with. They don’t have to feel guilty about something they don’t want or need. They don’t have to regift or donate it to a charity shop. They can simply eat the cookies and the box is gone.

    I do feel guilty though that I know the box of cookies costs us pennies to make, but they spend significantly more on gifts for us. I wish there was a way to not feel guilty without unnecessary spending money in a store.

  2. It is a resounding notion, not only in the U.S.
    There is no better gift than the one who contains a thoughtful intention. It usually lasts longer (or, if consumed, tastes better) too.
    I must admit, however, that the DIY approach has not been well accepted by the kids, to my dismay.
    We do not live in the U.S., and yet the joy of consumerism is what makes this holiday more common than one should expect in a non-Christian country.
    I learned, through my kids, that Santa Clause and Ded Moroz (the russian version for the new year – we are a mixed-heritage household) are loved mostly because they bring gifts, and the gifts should be the trendy plastic-and-metal toys, action figures or collectibles.

  3. As unfair as it may sound, I think we need to put this into a relative context – compare the $2-$2.50 wages to the alternatives that are available. From our perspective, this is pretty awful. But if we consider a long term process, where these employees are able to feed themselves and their families, learn skills and develop their countries economies, this may not be a bad thing – just part of the process that most countries have gone through. There are probably similarities between these workers and those in the early industrial age sweatshops in the US and Europe. Was it bad? Doesn’t matter as there was no alternative at the time (reasonable or not). Human-centric manufacturing is a fungible commodity – then and now. Just like dollars, it flows to maximize value and minimize costs. Unskilled workers can only compete on costs – as their skills improve, they have more leverage. The unfairness is built into our system because it is relentless. I do believe that looked at over a long period of time, it is self balancing. Anyway, I am not sure that taking away those $2/hour jobs that are required to feed a family somewhere else in the world is such a great idea either.

  4. Wow, so many thoughtful ideas to unpack from these comments!

    Premshay’s comment points to an interesting aspect of culture. Whatever the normative culture may be, children will be drawn to it and embrace it. This is one reason that cultures persist across generations, for better or worse. Children do not just look toward you, their parents, for guidance — they also look outward toward what is accepted as the larger social norm.

    David, I completely agree with you that the situation is not so simple. For one thing, depending where you are in the world, the same wage represents very different levels of effective wealth.

    Even so, I felt that exploring this topic would be a good way to get people pondering the larger questions of economic disparity across our interconnected global economy, at a time of year when folks are particularly open to thinking about generosity.

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