Does it Matter Where our Christmas Traditions Came From? – Towards a Positive Genealogy of Christmas.

by Chris Lynch

Amidst the rituals and tropes associated with celebrating Christmas, thinkers and commentators occasionally intervene to highlight how Christmas as practised in 2017 Britain is in some important respects culturally specific, politically problematic, and not as straightforwardly wrapped up with ‘authentic’ Christianity as commonly assumed. Motivating these interventions seems to be the thought that a historically-informed genealogical survey of Christmas as practised in 21st-Century Britain might generate reasons for being more sceptical about or less committed to some of the ways in which we embrace the trappings of Christmas. In what follows, I outline some typical aspects of some genealogical accounts of Christmas, and then suggest that – even if the findings of genealogists are accurate – this does not entail that we should abandon most, if any, of our Christmas beliefs and practices.

Many of the hallmarks of celebrating Christmas are objects of genealogical investigations, including carols, the choice of 25th December as ‘Christmas Day’, the nativity story, and the ‘traditional’ representation of Father Christmas. Many carols are exposed as thinly-veiled celebrations of secular authority or of secular nation-building. The location of Christmas Day in the UK and other countries is cited as arbitrary, having more to do with pre-Christian conventions of feasting than with any sincere attempt to accurately mark the birth of Christ as Biblically described. In light of these insights, someone who was previously a naïve proponent of Christmas might review their commitment to some of their beliefs about Christmas or the practices in which they engage as celebrations of Christmas. In more extreme cases, they may end up abandoning their endorsement of Christmas altogether. Indeed, there are books, articles and blogs dedicated to describing the ways in which non-Christians can and should rethink Christmas considering certain genealogical findings (amongst other reasons).

Genealogy is not criticism

Genealogical approaches vary. Some are single-issue projects concerned solely with a single object of investigation; others are bigger in scope. Genealogists of Christmas may have different aims in mind. They may have different degrees of success in achieving their aims. However, what is true regardless of the particular circumstances is this: genealogy is not in itself critique. Philosophers ranging from Hume to Nietzsche to Raymond Geuss have distinguished between negative genealogies and affirmative genealogies. To borrow Simon Blackburn’s hermeneutic, it is possible to cash this distinction out, roughly, in terms of genealogies that debunk and those that ‘bunk’. Debunking genealogies of X put critical pressure on the truth or plausibility or straightforwardness of (our belief in) X. Conversely, bunking genealogies of X might make X seem more likely to be true or more plausible or more evolutionarily valuable.

In what follows I defend two claims. The first I take to be uncontroversial: genealogy is not identical with critique. This is a conceptual claim about what ‘genealogy’ means, about what ‘critique’ means, and about the fact that they are not one and the same. My second claim requires a little more work to establish. I’ll argue that one prominent genealogical account of Christmas does not give us good reason to abandon, or even weaken, our commitment to some standard beliefs and practices associated with Christmas.

One prominent genealogical account of Christmas runs as follows. Christmas practices and tropes have emerged in a highly particular context, and we are often ignorant of the history behind how they emerged and came to combine as they do now. Indeed, their contingent combination in 2017 in Britain has very little to do with the way in which Christianity was celebrated even a century ago, and so our sense of Christmas as a historically continuous rite of passage is misguided. Moreover, this picture of Christmas has been perpetuated by powerful business interests (among other interests), and it is the preservation of these interests which partially explains the false picture we have today about Christmas.

This is a familiar enough narrative. However, this narrative is not sufficient to abandon, or even weaken, our commitment to standard Christmas beliefs and practices. It isn’t sufficient to abandon those beliefs and practices for at least two reasons. Firstly, it is not conceptually true that genealogy entails critique – or, indeed, that the best or only response to critique is abandonment of that (set of) belief(s) and/or practice(s). Secondly, there are good reasons to retain belief or practice even if the genealogical account is true.

Let’s assume that something like the genealogical account I have outlined above is true. Should we weaken our beliefs about and practices associated with Christmas? Part of our answer depends on what we mean by ‘weaken’. We may need to change, or re-assess, or revise our beliefs and practices. However, this does not necessarily entail that our beliefs or commitments would be any less strong in character. Learning something new about some object of belief doesn’t entail that my belief must necessarily weaken. On the contrary, the genealogical account as I’ve outlined above can generate a ‘bunking’ than a ‘debunking’ analysis.

Positive Christmas: Be Good, Be Merry

Whilst we may be surprised or saddened to learn that some of our beliefs about Christmas are misguided and may be the function of ideology, our attitude to Christmas can – and, quite plausibly, should – be positive. For simplicity’s sake, I restrict my reasons to three, and I don’t have space here to consider objections and possible responses to these reasons. Firstly, Christmas has uniquely powerful existential and moral value. It provides a context of rest, celebration and reflection in our otherwise hectic or alienated or depressing lives. And it is an institution which encourages greater kindness and generosity amongst other people, which I take to be a morally positive aim if anything is. Secondly, modern Christmas has many aesthetically valuable features: the carols, the Christmas lights, etc. Thirdly, it is, for all its rigidity and conformism, a rather malleable animal. This means that it is possible and indeed common for many people to successfully take the positive established aspects of Christmas and change or reshape or combine other elements that make Christmas for them a more positive, or more liberating, or more enriching experience.

Christmas can be a drag or even a time of conflict or self-loathing, but this is not intrinsic to Christmas as it actually exists in Britain in 2017. We can and should change it to maximise happiness and minimise suffering. Therefore, given its combination of established ritual and flexible character, Christmas can and should be retained in all good faith and without believing in falsehoods.

Santa and Little Bird” by William Warby is licenced under CC by 2.0