What Would Santa Do?


We know all the usual critiques. Christmas is an affront to our multiculturalism. Christmas is an irrational religious myth. Christmas is crass. Christmas is commercial.

And on goes the orthodox critical condemnation of this ancient and anachronistic festival. The critique is adopted by many parties along the belief continuum. The religious are affronted by the commercialism and the non-Christians are confronted by the mainstreaming of a religious culture different and often opposed to their own. The unbelievers once again must cope with another irrational religious mythology. Surely everyone’s a loser?

And yet I feel that here in Australia we can celebrate this odd admixture of cultures — a confluence of the European winter fire festival, a transcendent Christian faith in the son of God, the secular worship of the God of sun, and an annual end-of-cycle time to recover and reflect. Let me explain.

Humans are herd animals. We gather in communal groups and this underpins our social cohesion. Part of our group behaviour is the ritual. Ritual is the non-verbal communication in which groups engage. Such non-verbal rituals may include song, symbols, food and dress. The army provides many visible examples of highly ritualised behaviour: its rituals of saluting, uniforms and marching bring the group together, distinguish the army from other groups and reinforce the hierarchy within the group.

The ritual is thus at the core of the army as a group. In less obvious ways, ritual is at the centre of every human experience when we gather as a group. Thus ritual is important and not to be mocked or ignored. To do so undermines our social cohesiveness. Rituals are what we share as humans and notwithstanding the cynicism about ritual — particularly Christmas ritual — such rites are what we treasure.

Christmas can thus be understood as a suite of cultural rituals that we employ to express ourselves as a group. And for each sub-group within the Australian society, Christmas has its own set of rituals that appeal to both the religious and the secular. It has, in a perverse Darwinian fashion, evolved to suit almost everyone.

Given the multiple origins of the modern celebration of Christmas, this evolution makes sense. It started as a secular festival that celebrated the Yuletime pageant of candle light in the European winter. It was then grafted by the Romans onto the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus. And along the way, the process of secularisation has added the much maligned commercial aspect.

There is another aspect of the Aussie Christmas that is seldom acknowledged. The combination of Christmas, summer and New Year transforms this period into a ritual of reflection and rest at the end of the annual cycle of life. Christmas for kids is a celebration of transition from one grade to the next. Thus, the combined New Year/Christmas extravaganza is habituated into the school-age rite of passage.

A rite of passage is a ritual that celebrates change and transition like baptism (birth), marriage (the commencement of the traditional model of procreation) and the funeral (death). Christmas is not generally thought of as a rite of passage, but in Australia it has this feature merely because it coincides with, and thereby becomes intimately associated with, annual change and renewal.

So the defence of Christmas goes like this. On a national level, it brings all of us together by means of an amalgam of religious and secular symbols that we can all enjoy regardless of belief. It is sufficiently secular to appeal to the non-Christians and it is sufficiently Christian to provide spiritual inspiration for believers.

The specific rituals of hymns, Carols by Candlelight, inappropriate food consumption, Santa and fake snow are widely practiced and capable of being enjoyed by all. Rituals need repetition and rehearsal to gain traction. We get that repetition in spades at Christmas. And the constant repetition over the years can form a binding set of rites for many.

On a micro level, each group adapts. The secular have many of the same rituals as believers because we all know that Christmas has been so thoroughly desacralised and commercialised that it is now palatable to the most hardcore atheist. Look at the very symbols of Christmas: Santa (a merged entity of the Turkish Saint Nicholas and the English rural wood spirit Father Christmas), Christmas lights and decorations — none of which have any nexus to Baby Jesus. The Nativity can, if you wish for a God-free event, be discarded altogether. Christ can be well and truly taken out of Christmas if you so wish. But of course, if you want to celebrate the birth of Jesus, then that is simple too.

And I know that many Jews simply do on Christmas what every Christian does — have a meal with the family. There’s nothing else to do. I imagine that other non-Christian groups do much the same thing.

So I believe that there is much curmudgeonly criticism of Christmas. This criticism fails to take into account how well modern Australians have adapted this strange mixture of winter and Christian ritual into our secular summer context. It is still a ritual that can unite us on a national and family level. And in a world where shared community ritual is abating, where groups as diverse as footy clubs and political parties struggle for members, we need every communal ritual we can grab to enhance our social cohesiveness.

Me? Well apart from airing our family pathologies at our Christmas meal, I will sing along to Carols by Candlelight and probably go to Midnight Mass at St Carthage’s Church. Strange for a secular Jew you might think but actually quite consistent with the way modern, tolerant Australia has adapted to this festival that has never ceased to change to meet the changed circumstances of the societies where Christmas exists. We all can celebrate without guilt. I do.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.