Happy Anniversary to a Famously Humanist Take on Christmas

On this day in 1843, A Christmas Carol by English author Charles Dickens was first published (first edition pictured below), arguably influencing Christmas as we know it more than any pagan tradition. In fact, the phrase “Merry Christmas” was popularized by the story!

Left-hand page shows Mr and Mrs Fezziwig dancing; the right-hand page shows the words "A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas by Charles Dickens. With illustrations by John Leech
Wikimedia Commons

Dickens was ambiguous about religion; while he was likely a Christian and admired Jesus, he openly disliked rigid orthodoxy, evangelicalism, and organized religion. (He once published a pamphlet opposing the banning of games on the Sabbath, arguing that people had a right to pleasure.)

To that end, a Christmas Carol placed less emphasis on faith and observance and instead focused on family, goodwill, compassion, and joy. Dickens sought to incorporate his more humanist approach to the holiday, constructing Christmas as a family-centered festival that promotes generosity, feasting, and social cohesion. Some scholars have even termed this “Carol Philosophy”.

So when religious and nonreligious folks alike think of loved ones and the “Christmas spirit”, they are basically channeling Dickens’ once-unique take on the holiday. (Though in his time, other British writers had begun to reimagine Christmas as a celebratory holiday, rather than a strictly religious occasion.)

Christmas in China

Apparently, Christmas has taken off in the world’s largest nation, becoming both an amusing curiosity imbued with Chinese character, and a pragmatic excuse to shop, relax, and catch up with loved ones (not unlike in the U.S. and other Western countries). From The Atlantic:

The Western religious festival is so trendy, in fact, that it may be the second-most-celebrated festival in China after the Spring Festival among young Chinese, according to research conducted by the China Social Survey Institute (CSSI), which found that 15- to 45-year-olds are the most likely to observe it. The holiday’s popularity is an outgrowth of study-abroad programs, said Sara Jane Ho, whose Institute Sarita specializes in educating wealthy Chinese on aspects of Western culture such as how to properly pronounce “Hermes”—the brand, rather than the Greek deity (the ‘h’ is silent, and the second ‘e’ accented).

Christmas is “an excuse to party” whereas Chinese festivals are comparatively “solemn, serious and spiritual,” Ho told me over mulled wine and petit fours. Instead of gathering around the family table for a turkey dinner (“Chinese don’t entertain at home,” Ho pointed out), most go to “entertainment places”—movie theaters, bars, or karaoke clubs—or out to eat, the CSSI survey noted. “Christmas is just an excuse to go shopping, as there are many big sales at a lot of places,” admitted Mo, a 33-year-old sales executive in Guangzhou. “The theme is to have fun.”

And at the end of a long and stressful year at work, it’s an opportunity to take stock and kick back. The CSSI survey lists “relaxation after a busy year” and “experience the new year’s atmosphere” among the top reasons cited for celebrating Christmas, along with “be closer to friends and colleagues” and “use the romantic atmosphere of Christmas to spread love.” Some take the latter rationale quite seriously. “Have you heard of such a phrase in China, ‘Silent Night, First Night?’” asked Long Fei, an assistant pastor at an “underground” church in Beijing whose activities are not officially monitored or approved by China’s religious authorities. “Many young people choose to give themselves to their beloved on this eve and eat forbidden fruit.”

Meanwhile, China also contributes to the holiday in another big way: it is the source of over half the world’s Christmas decorations. It is impressive enough that a single nation (albeit one with a reputation for being the world’s factory) should have such an outsized role in the practice of a foreign holiday, but it turns out much of this production takes place in one town (really a cluster of workshops and plants). As the Guardian reports:

Christened “China’s Christmas village”, Yiwu is home to 600 factories that collectively churn out over 60% of all the world’s Christmas decorations and accessories, from glowing fibre-optic trees to felt Santa hats. The “elves” that staff these factories are mainly migrant labourers, working 12 hours a day for a maximum of £200 to £300 a month – and it turns out they’re not entirely sure what Christmas is.

Packaged up in plastic bags, their gleaming red snowflakes hang alongside a wealth of other festive paraphernalia across town in the Yiwu International Trade Market, aka China Commodity City, a 4m sq m wonder-world of plastic tat. It is a pound shop paradise, a sprawling trade show of everything in the world that you don’t need and yet may, at some irrational moment, feel compelled to buy. There are whole streets in the labyrinthine complex devoted to artificial flowers and inflatable toys, then come umbrellas and anoraks, plastic buckets and clocks. It is a heaving multistorey monument to global consumption, as if the contents of all the world’s landfill sites had been dug-up, re-formed and meticulously catalogued back into 62,000 booths.

The complex was declared by the U.N. to be the “largest small commodity wholesale market in the world” and the scale of the operation necessitates a kind of urban plan, with this festival of commerce organised into five different districts. District Two is where Christmas can be found.

It is odd to think that so much of what goes into Christmas comes from exploited laborers halfway around the world, most of whom do not even know what the holiday is — although their often better-off countrymen do. Such is globalization I suppose.



Xmas vs. Christmas

There is a common misconception that the word Xmas is an attempt to secularize the Christmas tradition by removing the word “Christ”. On the contrary, the word was used by religious people as far back as the 16th century, mostly as a convenient abbreviation.

The “X” comes from the Greek letter Chi, which is the first letter of the Greek word “Χριστός”, which in English translates into “Christ”. (Meanwhile, the “-mas” part is from the Latin-derived Old English word for Mass).

Granted, some Christians regardless dislike the use of “xmas” in place of Christmas, while by the same token many irreligious people prefer the former as a more secular version of the latter.

Final Christmas Reflections

As a child I always saw holidays, most of all Christmas, as something magical, even when discounting the mythology of Santa Claus. Such a joyous and festive time seemed otherworldly, almost as if the entire world – and all its horror – paused for just a few days to allow everyone a happy respite. When you’re caught up in having a good time, you forget all the things that worry you, and all the bad in the world – you escape physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Such a sentiment still lingers in me to this day. When I’m having a good time, I like to think that everyone else is too. I’d like to think that time has stopped while we all engage in festivities, spend time with loved ones, and reinforce one another’s good spirits. This perception (or wish) isn’t limited to Christmas or other holidays: it’s any occasion or moment when I’m content, and everything and everyone around me seems to be as well. Otherwise, it’s hard to enjoy yourself when others can’t – it brings you down, and drags you back to a more unpleasant reality.

I for one feel guilty or undeservedly privileged – why should I have fun while others suffer, many of them good and honest folks? How can I enjoy myself and indulge in rich-world pleasantries while the majority of the world is mired in poverty, disease, and injustice? Even in my own community, there are thousands out in the streets or barely scrapping by, and many more working during what would otherwise be a vacation. I’m having fun, and they’re toiling, struggling, or both.

I don’t like to imagine all these bad things still going on while I enjoy myself. I don’t like to accept that wars still continue, people still clock into their low-wage jobs, and personal tragedies are befalling millions even on a day when we’re supposed to be having a magical time (even a nonbeliever like me can’t shake away that traditional outlook, as my prior post explains). We all deserve a chance to enjoy  ourselves and just take a break, if only briefly.

A little bit before Christmas Eve, two bombs went off in Syria, killing over two dozen people, and reminding me how thousands are still dying in the name of freedom. A similar tragedy befell Iraq around the same time, killing scores more. Nigeria began its Christmas day with a gruesome terorrist attack against a church, just as devout worshipers were leaving mass (several other minor but still fatal attacks occurred concurrently). These are just a handful of the horrors that claim our fellow humans at an unending rate – it stops for nothing. The planet still turns, and a fun holiday in one part of the world, for just a handful of the globe’s denizens, means little else to most people. If only it still meant for me what it did as a child.

I still like to reflect on the positive acts that nonetheless transpire concurrently, often unnoticed: acts of charity or justice, to name a few. I know there’s still a lot of good in the world, and that even the most oppressed and impoverished people manage, through sheer willpower and perseverance, to care a little happiness for themselves whenever they can. But it’s small comfort compared to the magnitude of needless human suffering that still goes on despite our our presumed technological, medical, and ethical advancements. I’m reminded of this video my friend posted on my Facebook group not along ago:

I don’t mean to be such a downer so soon after the holidays. I had a very pleasant season, and one of the best parties in years. I’m not at all glum today, despite the somber reflections. I simply feel a bit unfilled now that a nostalgically happy time is behind me, and I’m forced to confront the real world once more, even though as a news junkie, I still got wind of these tragic events (albeit with a level of cognitive dissonance). I just wish more of the world could share in my good fortune. If there’s one silver lining to all this, it’s how strongly it reminds me to be grateful for all that I have, you readers included.

I hope everyone has a great holiday, and better still, a great life. Never forget what and who you have.

Season’s Greetings

Whatever Christmas means to you, I wish you all the best, and hope this hectic season has gone well. I personally cannot stand this absurd and increasing controversy involving the meaning of Christmas, or the trivial semantic disputes between wishing someone a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” As an agnostic atheist, my stance is somewhat obvious: even as a believer, I didn’t put much stock into the significance of Christmas (indeed, historically it was never really an important holiday, which makes all this reactionary concern about its eroding importance rather quaint – click the link to learn more).

But I still make the most of the season, spending time with my loved ones, enjoying the well-needed time off, and taking the moment to reflect on all that I am grateful for. Most of my family remains at least nominally Christian, and I have a diverse circle of friends with all sorts of beliefs and degrees of piety. In the end, we gather together in the holidays simply because it’s an opportunity for everyone to spend time with their loved ones and enjoy their good fortune, whatever the complex origins of such a tradition, or one’s personal views on it. It’s the one thing most people – regardless of faith, piety, or culture – can relate with.

Obviously, such things should be done as much as possible, and not be relegated to specific time periods or occasions. But in a world as busy, divisive, and increasingly uncertain as ours, any moment to pause and be merry is to be welcomed and made the most of. However the culture war goes, the average person couldn’t care less, as far as I’ve seen: most of us just want to have a good, loving time. The commercialism, selfishness, and polarization that have increasingly taken hold of this time is lamentable, but expected: nothing is immune to the vagaries of human nature, negative or positive, and few traditions are ever as static or wholesome as we romanticize them to be.

But ultimately, most people are just trying to be courteous, wish their fellow human beings well, and take this rare opportunity to just enjoy themselves in the company of their cherished companions (something we should always strive to do as best we can anyway). So just take whatever well-wishes you get as a kind gesture and move on. Don’t make any assumptions as the the greeters intent, and if it’s obvious they’re trying to impose upon you obnoxiously, state your position politely and leave. Life is too short, and so are these moments to make the best of them.

Update: I wish to explicitly extend my greetings to those who are stuck working during this (and any other mostly non-working) holiday. My heart goes out to the countless laborers whose selfless occupations, or otherwise desperate circumstances, necessitate that they toil away while most of us enjoy our rest. Thank you.