Garry Glass discusses how Christmas fails to reconcile the social and ecological alienation of Capitalism, instead reinforcing it.

Christmas is a kind of bourgeois leisure-time devoted to excessive shopping, making it a pivotal moment in the continued reproduction of consumer capitalism. Pagan and Christian customs have been recycled since the Victorian era into the 21st century as aesthetic props for this annual revelry in the power of mass production.

At this time of year, TV ads show us the warmth and abundance offered by Capital to those loyal in servicing their debts. We have the Dickensian image of the perfect Christmas which we can only ever fail to emulate. Underneath the mistletoe is the prescriptive heteronormative relationship at the centre of an extended nuclear family. The Santa Claus myth allows the parent to escape having to countenance the true horrors of the global supply chain to their inquisitive children. Realising the truth about the Christmas myth may foster a healthy skepticism, but it also teaches us that it’s ok to lie and behave irrationally. Children are manipulated by television to expect presents, and affection is conflated with gift exchange. Parents bankrupt themselves so that they ‘won’t let the kids down.’ Fear of inadequacy in this ritual binge is an anxiety promoted by the Christmas retail experience.


Gifting as a reward structure for good behaviour essentially disciplines the child into civilisation without really instilling much in the way of ethics. It also promotes the anticipation of acquisition that will carry this future labourer through to the next paycheck, and indeed next Christmas, now that adults are also encouraged to be juvenile and make impulse purchases. The holiday season is our only time of collective respite from the demands of wage slavery, yet it is also peak season for consumer spending. The overriding emotion of most Christmas shoppers is hardly that of Yuletide festive cheer, rather it consists of stoic forging like a cynical snowplough through an avalanche of misery. The profligacy of the “holiday season” has become synonymous with alcoholism. The true spirit of Christmas perhaps, is the desire for it to be over as soon as possible.

How estranged our culture is that we rely on this curious assemblage of decorations and gestures to create a scene where we may attempt to feel normal around one another. Enchantment can be fun, but the pretext is the promotion of commodity fetishism. We are led to believe it is “a good excuse to spend time together”, as though one were needed.

The Christmas spectacle is pursued on a collective level despite the reluctance of many. It is spectacular in the Debordian sense, that social relations are conditioned through our construction of its image. Christmas doesn’t emanate from Santa’s grotto. It is a relatively autonomous and decentred series of Victorian invocations that have survived the centuries. It has been retained in secular form in the interests of social control. So well recited are these customs that the roll out of the usual onslaught of tropes is enough to get people in the ‘spirit.’

Bonding experiences are made scarcer by the commitments of wage slavery. There are genuine human needs for bonding which Christmas resonates with, but it reveals the sheer irrationality of consumer culture in the West that we have to go to such lengths in pursuit of an image of those moments.


Marx believed Religion only continued to exist under capitalism because people longed for a life after this free of material burdens. In its modern secular form, Christmas functions as a kind of hybridised institution to patch up some of these needs, making it still very much an opiate of the masses. The most spectacular examples of Christmas displays are seen not near churches but shopping centres.

The bourgeois liberal cannot reject Christmas because it is the epitome of everything they romantically and aesthetically aspire to. Crucially because liberals lack a critique of the alienation that props up this and the entire material culture of capitalist domination, they see it as harmless fun, the more decadent the better. Christmas represents a kind of culturally imposed financial trap for most people. Gifts are a gesture which in their obligatory nature renders them little more than an embarrassing machination of social custom. The pressure being that if you really care about someone, you will buy them something expensive. This frenzy of irrational purchases pushes the madness of overproduction for overconsumption to excess, with Christmas sales making or breaking companies.

The festive season is for those in the West something of a mass hysterical exercise in frivolity that can feel almost inescapable, though we are granted enough secular space within it to participate more or less as we feel. A liberal may contest this protest against cultural indoctrination, content to remind us that others are free to celebrate as they like. The crucial flaw in this reasoning is the implicit assumption that the products which materialise the Christmas assemblage are free of ethical content. That somehow in the midst of the enchantment it is inappropriate to consider the real world impacts that are obfuscated by commodification. The implication is that at the height of the materialistic frenzy conjured so that we may escape the mundane realities of wage slavery, we should neglect the very real social and ecological consequences of this festival of indulgence.

Image: Tim Maughan BBC - 'Up to 80% of the world's toys are made in China where international labour standards are regularly ignored with many toys made by child labour" -
Image: Tim Maughan BBC – ‘Up to 80% of the world’s toys are made in China where international labour standards are regularly ignored with many toys made by child labour” –

This hallowed tradition is not often interrogated in any sustained manner, but reluctantly pursued in the hope of recovering some of that original enchantment we may have naively experienced at one point or another. Retailers and economists use sales data to make predictions about the health of the economy. It’s quite an indictment of a civilisation’s rationality, when it measures its health by our ability to be whipped up into a frenzy of consumer confidence despite the warnings of the age of austerity. Christmas becomes as important as ever under this economic strategy,  by creating the illusion of respite from an otherwise all encompassing scarcity.

It’s also a pretty blatant indictment of the racism inherent to the global supply chain when a doll made by a precarious child worker in China can be gifted with love to a white child in the West. Any retort that it’s just a bit of fun should be submitted to those workers in the factories, sweatshops and mines that make it all possible. The decadence of a white Christmas is very much the point at which colonialism seems most triumphant, yet ultimately facile. Meanwhile, the Queen’s speech conjures some sense of national unity as we are reminded of service personnel dutifully missing Christmas with their families so that we may all benefit from the excesses of imperial plunder.

A wide enough cultural rejection of the debt servicing that the Christmas tradition necessitates would significantly disrupt business as usual. Meanwhile mulled wine, twinkling lights and a roast are possibly all that maintains the social order from deteriorating into a real winter of discontent.