Unwrapping Christmas 
edited by Daniel Miller.
Oxford, 239 pp., £25, November 1993, 0 19 827903 5
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The authors of this collection of essays are social anthropologists who follow the structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss, literally – an essay by him comes first, after Daniel Miller’s introduction – and, in varying degrees, intellectually. What they discover when they unwrap Christmas present – Christmas now, throughout the world – are the human structures of the cover-up, disguising, beneath a number of hilarious cultural transformations, a tragic opposition between the glittery surface and the dark heart of Christmas. They unwrap the big lie of Christmas.

Lévi-Strauss sets the simultaneously satirical and sombre tone with his essay, ‘Father Christmas Executed’: on 24 December 1951, Father Christmas was hanged in Dijon Cathedral and, in the presence of several hundred Sunday School children, publicly burnt (they set fire to his beard) in the precinct. The clergy had condemned him as a usurper and heretic who had ‘paganised’ the Christmas festival, installing himself at its centre ‘like a cuckoo in the nest’. Lévi-Strauss (to whom paradoxes are what whales were to Captain Ahab) regards as highly paradoxical the fact that the Church seems to adopt ‘an avidly critical attitude on honesty and truth, while the rationalists act as guardians of superstition. This apparent role reversal is enough to suggest that the whole naive business is about something much more profound.’

That more profound something has to do with death and lying. Lévi-Strauss argues, rather unconvincingly, that children represent the dead: ‘Who can personify the dead in a society of the living if not those who ... are incompletely incorporated into the group, who, that is, share the otherness which symbolises the supreme dualism: that of the dead and the living? Therefore it should come as no surprise that foreigners, slaves and children become the main beneficiaries of the festival.’ The counter-intuitive association of children (or Christmas) with death does, however, fit with some of the submerged themes of the British Christmas canon that the French anthropologist doesn’t mention, such as the Christmas party in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ and the imagined deaths of both the protagonist (Scrooge) and a child (Tiny Tim) in A Christmas Carol.

Lévi-Strauss is more convincing in his discussion of lying: ‘The only difference between Father Christmas and a true deity is that adults do not believe in him, although they encourage their children to do so and maintain this belief with a great number of tricks.’ Thus Father Christmas marks the difference between little children who can be fooled and adults who cannot. The secret of his non-existence is the secret of the initiation rite. This lie, however, is the key to the relationship between our children and the dead: children must ‘consent, by believing in Father Christmas, to help us believe in life’. Indeed, ‘the belief that we help to perpetuate in our children that their toys come from “out there” gives us an alibi for our own secret desire to offer them to those “out there” under the pretext of giving them to the children. In this way, Christmas presents remain a true sacrifice to the sweetness of life, which consists first and foremost of not dying.’ This hardly astonishing structuralist insight (life = not dying) seems a little less banal when one recalls that, although the Christian Christmas is about birth (ostensibly, about the birth of the Christ), the pagan Christmas is about death and rebirth (of the sun, at the midwinter solstice).

The ‘torture’ of Father Christmas by the Dijon clergy – the pagan god martyred by Christians – is only one battle in the war between the Christian and the pagan Christmas. Pagans have been fighting for their survival for a long time. As Russell Belk points out, Martin Luther’s objections to gifts being given to children in the name of Saint Nicholas prompted him to introduce Christkindlein – ‘the little Christ child’, a messenger of Christ – as the gift-bringer. (Belk doesn’t point out the historical irony whereby mispronunciation transformed Luther’s spiritual pinch-hitter into Kris Kringle, best known nowadays as the hero of that paean to Christmas shopping, Miracle on 34th Street.) The eclectic elements of Christmas, a masterpiece of European bricolage, include the North Pole, Saint Nicholas, the Roman Dies Invicti, the yule log, Scrooge, Samuel Clemens (‘The Night Before Christmas’), Rudolph, shopping – and Jesus.

Several modern attempts to establish a ceasefire between Santa Claus and Jesus are noted here, including the story, invented by some American, of Santa praying at the manger. Going one better, Brian Moeran and Lise Skov report that a few years ago, Santa Claus was found in a nativity scene in a Japanese department store ‘acting as stand-in model for the new-born Christ’. They also heard, though this was unconfirmed, ‘that one of Tokyo’s department stores had at its entrance a crucifixion of Father Christmas, with the words “Happy Shopping” inscribed above the cross.’

Jesus and Father Christmas are opposed in ways to make a structuralist’s mouth water. Thus Belk outlines differences in their physical image (‘Santa is dressed in rich reds and furs; Christ is dressed in humble white robes’) and, surely the understatement of the theological year, demeanour (‘Santa is jolly; Christ is serious’). Lévi-Strauss’s argument is that Father Christmas is pretty serious too, if you take death seriously; which is what makes him a worthy opponent to Jesus. He also suggests another structural opposition, between nights/adults and days/children: adults celebrate Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve while children celebrate Christmas Day. Adam Kuper, writing about the English Christmas, sees New Year’s Eve as a reversal of Christmas Eve.

The New Year is launched with a party that contrasts sharply with the Christmas dinner. At Christmas, the English get together in family groups and overeat. At New Year they have a party with friends, and drink too much. Christmas begins on Christmas Eve, a quiet time, and the magic moment is midnight (when even the animals kneel down to pray and many English people nowadays attend a midnight mass). Midnight on New Year’s Eve is marked by shouting, hooting, whistling, adults kissing adults, and the drinking of toasts. The benevolent, fat Father Christmas, with his sackful of presents, is matched by the sinister and scrawny Father Time, with his scythe; and the Christ child is contrasted with the very human infant in nappies who represents the secular New Year.

This final cluster presents further variants of the jolly/serious, old/young oppositions between Santa and Jesus. And Father Time, with his scythe, indirectly supports Lévi-Strauss’s association of Christmas with the dead.

The ‘kissing adults, and the drinking of toasts’, however, put one in mind of another aspect of Christmas. Although many would follow Kuper in placing these factors in the counter-Christmas camp of New Year’s Eve, for others they are a part of Christmas itself. Drunkenness and lechery are ritualised in the saturnalia of office parties, as Mary Searle-Chatterjee points out: ‘Those who refuse to “become pissed” or to “lark about”, whether in the home, office (in pre-Christmas parties), or elsewhere, are “spoilsports” who are refusing to recognise “specialness” or sacredness, and refusing to participate in group communion.’ Belk notes the role of promiscuous sex in American Christmas celebrations, its icons provided by Playboy and Penthouse portrayals of Santa as a dirty old man. But the hedonistic aspect of Christmas finds its extreme expression in Japan, in what may well be an inadvertent pun on the double meaning of ‘Eve’: ‘Christmas Eve itself can also at times be turned from the temporal occasion of Holy Night into the very embodiment of consumerism – a young woman. “For all the Eves”, promises one advertisement headline; “Make me into Eve,” requests another.’ And Moeran and Skov remark: ‘Could it be that there were, after all, a few happy hours right after the Fall of Man (but before it had been discovered, of course) when Eve, naked, wandered around the Garden of Eden innocently checking the time on her Seiko wrist watch?’

This Dionysian night of sin stands in stark contrast with the Apollonian day of the birth of Christ. To the already impressive list of inversions we may now add: religion/money = joy/fun. How does this new quartet connect with the original quartet of life/death = truth/lie? To forge this link, we must take another look at joy/fun, and at its implication in a theological dyad obscured by Lévi-Strauss’s original formulation: martyrdom/despair.

Despair, like death, is excluded from the official vocabulary of Christmas, but it emerges again and again from the essays in this volume. If the pagan Christmas is about death and rebirth, the third, secular Christmas often appears to be about death without rebirth. Lévi-Strauss suggests that social tensions are historically built into Christmas, from the Roman Saturnalia and the medieval Christmas, both of which ‘had two syncretic and opposite traits ... heightened solidarity and exaggerated antagonism’. In the contemporary family gathering, the apparent solidarity masks a real antagonism. This may result simply from the clash between the Ghost of Christmas Past (the family of one’s childhood) and the Ghost of Christmas Present (one’s ‘alien’ in-laws). Tensions are further exacerbated as siblings grow apart, especially when some move up the social scale while others do not, or the family is exponentially fragmented by divorce. Parents, children and siblings who shun one another for 364 days of the year (often with good reason) are suddenly expected to be full of joy in each other’s company. Doors are slammed, and tears are shed. ‘Real violence is not uncommon,’ as Barbara Bodenhorn points out. The British commonly paper over some of the basic schisms (and separate some of the potential combatants) by a dédoublement, making the day after Christmas, Boxing Day, into a shadow Christmas at which the script is the same (same ceremonies, meals and exchanges), but the cast is different (the other set of grandparents or the other half of a family separated by divorce). The Great Structuralist in the Sky could have devised no better solution.

Even within a single traditional family, Christmas is problematic, precisely because it is not supposed to be problematic. In England, the Samaritans receive approximately eight thousand calls of anguish on each of the three main Christmas days (as compared with five thousand at other times of the year). The Swiss even have a word for it: Weihnachtscholer (‘Christmas unhappiness’). In Trinidad, Daniel Miller notes, a popular play begins

Fargo was in ah bad mood. It was Christmas Eve, an’ he hated Christmas Eve. Because dat was one time ah year he used to feel like nobody eh like he. Because Fargo didn’t have no family to like he.

The title of Orvar Löfgren’s essay conjures up many a Bergman film: ‘The Great Christmas Quarrel and Other Swedish Traditions.’ He quotes a typical celebrant: ‘I don’t think I have been genuinely happy at Christmas since I was a child. What’s wrong?’

Instead of asking ‘What’s wrong with me?’ we might do well to ask: ‘What’s wrong with Christmas?’ Underlying the social tensions is the tension between the expectation that now, if ever, we should be happy and disappointment in the reality of the event, and in ourselves for failing to rise to the occasion. Kuper expresses the counter-view that in England people do not generally feel a sense of loss at Christmas time: ‘The experience of Christmas is generally supposed to be a happy one.’ But ‘supposed to be’ is precisely the problem. Kuper’s ethnographers asked, ‘Do you think you will have a happy Christmas or not?’ and 88 per cent said they thought they would. The truth would have been better served had they been asked afterwards whether it had been.

The saccharine pretence that everyone is happy at Christmas is reflected in Searle-Chatterjee’s list of animals who do not generally appear on Christmas cards: bulls, porcupines, weasels, stoats and snakes. Large, predatory carnivores are also rare, as are ‘endangered whales’. Whales, however, play a crucial role in the one place noted here where Christmas appears to be generally happy: this, by some strange coincidence, is the place where traditional folklore locates Santa’s workshop, at the North Pole – more precisely Barrow, Alaska. According to Barbara Bodenhorn, people who do not regularly take part in either Presbyterian or Assembly of God services in Barrow decide which feast to attend on the basis of where the most whale-meat is likely to be served. Here, ‘the numbers of alcohol-related arrests fall; the Arctic Women in Crisis Shelter has fewer emergency visits and the Children’s Receiving Home must take fewer calls in the middle of the night.’ Bodenhorn’s explanation for the greater sobriety is charming but rather simplistic: ‘You cannot drink and play a game that demands you balance on one hand and one foot, hop up and kick a ball of caribou skin which is dangling above your head.’ Now, anyone who has ever spent time in a pub will tell you that you can, though you may not do it very well. Bodenhorn provides a much better explanation when she says that, in contrast to European Christmases, people in Barrow ‘may choose when, where and how to participate (or whether to participate at all). Rather than denying the existence of aggressive feelings, they may be contained in the performance of dances and games.’ In other words, they don’t have to lie.

Lévi-Strauss famously distinguished between games, in which the outcome is open, and asymmetry is thus generated out of symmetry, and ritual, which brings asymmetrical relations into symmetry. Games become rituals if the winning side is predetermined. Bodenhorn argues that the games in Barrow are very much like rituals. I would invert the proposition (in structuralist fashion) and argue that our Christmas is supposed to be a ritual but has become a game. We expect a predictable outcome – joy and brotherly love – but what we get is very unpredictable, by no means invariably joyous or loving. The people who commit suicide at Christmas (or, less dramatically, the many people who get sick) are those who cannot or will not lie.

The great American Christmas parable, O. Henry’s ‘The Gift of the Magi’, is a big lie, and a stupid and costly one, at that: she lies about how much her beautiful hair means to him (she cuts it off to buy him a watch fob), and he lies similarly about his watch (he pawns it to buy her combs for her hair), and so they end up with an ugly crew-cut and a useless watch fob. This indeed is a parable of Christmas, which turns out to be nothing but a monstrous potlatch, as anthropologists term ‘primitive’ sacrifices in which tribal leaders vie to see who can destroy more of his own property. If love, as one cynic defined it, is giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it, Christmas really is the season of love.

Above all, however, it is the season of lies. We didn’t need Lévi-Strauss to tell us that we lie to our children at this time of year: ‘Do you (still) believe in Santa Claus’ is the touchstone for childish innocence, and we often justify our own unhappiness at this time by arguing that ‘it’s all for the sake of the children.’ But we do not usually know, or at least acknowledge, that we lie to ourselves. Denial of the sadness of Christmas continues on the national scale, with the Queen’s traditional message to the Commonwealth – her extended family. When even last year she suggested, as Kuper points out, ‘that Christmas was a time at which family values should be reaffirmed’, was this denial? Or what the philosopher J.L. Austin would have called a performative speech act?

On the other hand, if Christmas is a game, we can, sometimes, win it. The real miracle of Christmas is the fact that the big lie – the lie that we are happy and love our families – sometimes comes true. Like Method actors, we can sometimes make ourselves genuinely experience the emotions we are faking.

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Vol. 16 No. 2 · 27 January 1994

Wendy Doniger mistitles Clement Moore’s ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ (LRB, 16 December 1993), as well as misattributing the poem to Samuel Clemens. Moore’s poem was published anonymously in 1823, 12 years before Clemens was born. Clemens, whose wit could turn on paradox (‘Wagner’s music is better than it sounds’), would probably revel in the notion of a prenatal entry in his bibliography.

James Hill
Michigan State University,

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