Can you imagine a Christmas without lights? And no brightly illuminated shops, their racks groaning under the weight of colourful packets of cakes, wine, dolls and every other gift item you could possibly think of? Impossible? Like imagining Diwali without the fireworks?

But isn’t it strange how festivals like Christmas and Diwali are virtually unimaginable without the accompanying glitz that goes with them? Take away the show, the giving and receiving of gifts and people’s enthusiasm about the festivals might evaporate in no time.

The Commerce of Christmas
The Commerce of Christmas [Illustrations by Shiju George and Shinod A.P.]

Take Christmas. How did a festival that started out to celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ – a humble carpenter’s son who rose to become one of the most charismatic and compassionate saints that the world has ever seen – lose its spirit so profoundly? And become the most commercialised of all religious festivals?

Stephen Nissenbaum believes he has the explanation. Nissenbaum, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, and author of a new book called, The Battle for Christmas, writes: “There never was a time when Christmas existed as an unsullied domestic idyll, immune to the taint of commercialism”. What he means is, from the beginning, Christmas – American style – has been ‘commercial at its very core’. And it’s well known that what America does, the rest of the world adopts blindly soon after.

There was no Christmas in America in the beginning. As late as the first decades of the 19th century, Nissenbaum observes, “Christmas was neither a domestic holiday nor a commercial one”. The Puritans of New England suppressed it, even for a time forbidding it by law. The Puritans were one of several groups of white settlers in America, who followed a rigid spartan form of Protestant Christianity.

For one thing, they argued, the New Testament gives no date – or season – for the birth of Christ. The New Testament is the later, and smaller of the two major divisions of the Christian Bible, and the portion that is canonical (authoritative) only to Christianity. The other reason is that they identified Christmas with the pagan rites of ancient Rome (rites practised by followers of a polytheistic religion – that is, a religion of many gods). But puritan rule did not last long.

The commerce of Christmas

Soon Christmas was more like carnival time, when rowdies spilled into the streets with public displays of eating and drunkenness. ‘Wassailing’ was one very disruptive custom. Packs of poorer youth and workers would lay siege to the homes of the well off, demanding free drink and food.

By the end of the 19th century Christmas celebrations began to be taken seriously. The day of Christmas, 25th December, became a public holiday. In cities like New York and Philadelphia, the ‘misrule’ of Christmas mobs had become so widespread that it threatened civic life. The wealthy hired guards to protect their property. Shopkeepers barred their doors; pedestrians stayed home.

But Protestant America did not have the sanctioned religious festivals of Catholic Europe. Americans needed a tradition for celebrating Christmas. So they went ahead and invented one. With a little help from the myth of Santa Claus.

In his poem of 1822, A Visit from St. Nicholas, Clement Clarke Moore, a very wealthy New Yorker, gave Americans a benign non-threatening night visitor whom all classes would welcome. St. Nick played the role of a wealthy benefactor distributing gifts to the dependent class. But instead of the working poor as a whole, his gifts were meant for children.

Within five years of its publication, Moore’s poem became wholly associated with Christmas. Newspaper editorials began to speak of Christmas as ‘a festival sacred to domestic enjoyments’. Although public drinking and merrymaking continued the ‘real Christmas’, was gradually identified with rituals that centred on children and took place in the quiet of homes.

The old Yule spirit of ‘letting go’ in December was transformed: what were loosened were the purse strings of the parents. If Christmas was a time for giving gifts, they had to be purchased. A logic completely in keeping with the capitalist ethos of America, in which sale of goods took precedence over everything else.

By the middle of the 19th century, Santa Claus was a common figure in stories and advertisements. Santa Claus legitimised the expecting of gifts by children, no matter how difficult it might be for parents to procure them. The commercialisation of Christmas was thus complete.

A recent Hollywood film, Jingle all the Way, shows all that a hapless father has to undergo, in order to get the sought-after toy that his son wanted. The father in the film is a well-paid professional; he is willing to spend any amount to get his hands on the toy. But what about a father who cannot afford a toy like that? His inability to buy the toy could be taken to mean he loves his child a little less, couldn’t it?

Today Christmas, especially in the western countries, places an additional social pressure on people to buy and give gifts, to buy extra things for Christmas dinner and other celebrations. Gifts that they don’t really need and often cannot afford.

Christmas is a money-raking season for merchants and corporates. All the signs associated with Christmas, the tinsel, Christmas trees, the decorations in shops and malls, and the gifts hidden in mistletoes, are meant to send out one prominent message – spend, spend like there’s no tomorrow.

The really distressing thing is the way people across the world have eagerly responded to the message. The real Christmas message of love and brotherhood seem to have got lost on the way somewhere.