What is Christmas these days?

Some people (mainly economists) criticize the American interpretation of Christmas on two grounds.

1. Gift giving is inefficient because other people don’t know what you want better than you do. “Grandma got me a onesie again” syndrome.

2. The crunch to stock stores with excessive inventory raises shipping and labor costs at retail outlets. If, as a society, we spread our gift giving over the whole year we wouldn’t incur these costs.

I think 1 is just straight wrong, because it ignores the happiness people get from giving gifts. You might not like the onesie from Grandma, but she might have really liked giving it to you. This is partially why the etiquette of gift giving includes accepting a gift whatever it is; if you say something, you will make the giver feel bad and their welfare is just important as yours.

2 on the other hand is probably right, but I think it’s outweighed, by what I call the network effect of Christmas, which I think has wide implications for how we understand Christmas.

Primarily, I think that Christmas solves a coordination problem. In our busy society, it’s hard for people to do things with other people. If you have 5 friends, how likely is it that they are all free at once, unless it’s during Christmas-time, when many people receive fairly generous vacations or at least fly to their home town for time with family and friends. Though Christmas started out as a religious holiday/celebration, I think it has become, along with its close cousin New Year’s, a de facto break time for our society.

This is why concentrated gift giving is an acceptable cost to a society-wide vacation. We have to all get together at once, and this means gift giving just comes along as a side effect or an unavoidable consequence of the happiness that this time of year brings.

I think this also sheds light on the controversy of whether its acceptable to say “merry Christmas” to someone without knowing what religion they are. In most cases, when I say “merry Christmas” I’m not intending anything religious. What I’m trying to communicate is something like “happy society-wide vacation in which everyone stops working at once to relax.” In other ords, I think Christmas in no longer primarily religious and has become primarily cultural. In some cases, its surely wrong to wish a Jew or a Muslim a merry Christmas as a way of making them feel excluded or uncomfortable, but in most cases, Christmas wishes are not interpreted as a specifically religious greeting.

Critics of Christmas have noted this for years, decrying its shallow commercialization. These critics were right to point out Christmas’s new secular meaning, but wrong to say that its new function was commercial. Rather, Christmas is the solution to a coordination problem in a busy society.


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