christmas selfishness commercialism jesus

franny zooey

Compliments of the Season

Compliments of the Season

It might be too soon to tell, but I think I have a reasonably good chance of avoiding the Great Christmas Bum-out this year. For one thing, Lindy Davies I retain a residual level of bum-out about the general state of the World Around Me; these days seem, in Nikki Giovanni's prophetic words, not to be poetic times at all. But the Great Christmas Crassness isn't a shock anymore, and, cranky as I want to be, I can't help liking some of the seasonal tunes, I mean I still wanna snugga-bugga-ruggle-up together, like two birds of a feather should be.

As for the meaning of the Holiday, the only thing I can get my mind around -- the only interpretation that makes any sense at all, is the celebration of birth. It seems to me that we were taught to view Christmas in the light of the Royal Court of King James (the guy who hired scholars to create that new edition of the Bible). Much of the traditional celebration of Christmas has the character of a royally-sanctioned feast celebrating the birth of an heir to the throne. Such were moments of great reassurance to the Sovereign, who would not, therefore, mind allowing hearty draughts of cheer to trickle down to the plain folk; you don't go carving the Roast Beast just any old time.

This interpretation has much to do with the traditional theology of the holiday too, for "Unto us this day, in the City of David, is born a Savior, that is Christ the Lord" -- and somehow it went without saying that shepherds and astronomers alike would drop what they were doing and bring gifts. And the animals could like talk, and everything. Clearly this was something totally miraculous, utterly singular and special.

Well, I don't know about you, but I cannot encounter any tiny baby, in any street or shop, without grinning, cooing and peekabooing. I mean, is not every birth totally singular, utterly miraculous and special? If that's not the meaning of Christmas, then why bother with it? The King can throw his own party.

One of my favorite expressions of this truth is the blunt advice given by Zooey to his sister Franny, at the end of Salinger's novel. Franny has pushed herself to the point of collapse in a spiritual quest to know the meaning of the "Jesus prayer" and the injunction to "pray without ceasing." She is a college student, and has felt herself surrounded by people like her boyfriend, her professors, various sorority sisters, clods who simply cannot understand anything that has any depth to it. But, with the following advice, her brother brings her to a moment of blessed clarity (I don't doubt that you have encountered the Fat Lady he refers to, in various shopping malls at this time of year):

...I'll tell you a terrible secret -- Are you listening to me? There isn't anyone out there who isn't Seymour's Fat Lady. That includes your Professor Tupper, buddy. And all his goddam cousins by the dozens. There isn't anyone anywhere that isn't Seymour's Fat Lady. Don't you know that? Don't you know that goddam secret yet? And don't you know -- listen to me, now -- don't you know who that Fat Lady really is? . . . Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It's Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.

Without a doubt. I think it may even soothe the bum-out a bit, to recognize this truth. And soothing is certainly needed. This "season of giving" is, indeed, capitalism's grandest festival, the time when normally frugal people shove money at all manner of crap, the crappier, the closer to the day, who cares, we gotta come up with something for Uncle Fred. And when two dozen motivated shoppers start wrestling over the last six Tickle Me Elmos, what better illustration is there of the basic selfishness of Economic Man?

There was one great economist, though, who took exception with that notion of selfishness as humankind's most basic motivator. No one else thought to question it. But in his Progress and Poverty (1879), Henry George reminds us that

...the wonder is, not that men are so self-seeking, but that they are not much more so. That under present circumstances men are not more grasping, more unfaithful, more selfish than they are, proves the goodness and fruitfulness of human nature, the ceaseless flow of the perennial fountains from which its moral qualities are fed. All of us have mothers; most of us have children, and so faith, and purity, and unselfishness can never be utterly banished from the world, howsoever bad be social adjustments.

Really, when it comes right down to it, don't most of us go through the holiday motions because we don't want to disappoint our relatives and friends -- all of those who, truth be told, are going through the holiday motions because they don't want to disappoint us? It may all be a bit silly, but I really think the amount of true evil in it is negligible.

If this observation is generalizable (and I believe it is), then it could just be that Christmas (and I use that term, not meaning to be exclusive, or non-inclusive, of other traditions, but merely as the term that most strikingly calls to mind our civilization's garish year-end hoopla), it could just be that "Christmas" is capable of reminding us of things that are worth remembering. I think it reminds me that the world is full of basically polite, peace-loving people who don't want to disappoint the people they care about, and that most of these people are just as scared and just as bewildered as I am.

There came a Christmas day during World War I when trench-fighting soldiers stopped fighting for the day. They just wouldn't do it, for that day; it was a spontaneous movement that could not be stopped by higher-ups. I heard that they met in the middle and played soccer. They went back to fighting the next day, just as scared and bewildered as before, but with slightly broader vision, a little bigger sense of what is possible, than they had before.


Lindy Davies is Program Director of the Henry George Institute.

Also see:

A Global Language

And So This is Christmas

Happy Chanuka!

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