How Happy is Christmas?

by Peter Wells

Christmas is traditionally a time for stories – happy ones, about peace, love and birth. In this essay I’m looking at three Christmas stories, exploring what they tell us about Christmas: the First World War Christmas Truce, The Gift of the Magi (O. Henry), and the Nativity story.

Peace: The Christmas Truce

The Christmas Truce of 1914 is, as the Imperial War Museum admits (link), one of the most mythologised events of the First World War. Here is one version, which is probably as near the truth as we are going to get:

Late on Christmas Eve 1914, men of the British Expeditionary Force heard German troops in the trenches opposite them singing carols and patriotic songs and saw lanterns and small fir trees along their trenches. Messages began to be shouted between the trenches. The following day, British and German soldiers met in no man’s land and exchanged gifts, took photographs and some played impromptu games of football. They also buried casualties and repaired trenches and dugouts. After Boxing Day, meetings in no man’s land dwindled out [Imperial War Museum website, my emphasis].

Love: The Gift of the Magi

O. Henry’s 1905 story, The Gift of the Magi, is a Christmas story about “two foolish children” – an impecunious American couple, aptly surnamed “Young.” We are introduced first to Della, who has only $1.87 to buy her husband, Jim, a Christmas present. She sells her exceptionally long and beautiful hair to a wigmaker, so that she can buy Jim a present that reflects her love for him. This earns her enough money to buy a gold chain for his beloved fob watch, and she is blissfully happy. Then he arrives, sees her with her shorn head, and the chain, and reacts in a terrifying manner:

His [Jim’s] eyes looked strangely at Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not understand. It filled her with fear. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor anything she had been ready for. He simply looked at her with that strange expression on his face [my emphasis].

This wild look comes about because Jim has bought, for Della’s Christmas present, a set of combs for her vanished hair. As a further irony, in order to buy the combs, he has sold the watch. So there are a number of emotions going through Jim’s mind, none of them happy, and none of them anti-Della, though they are very much anti-something.

Birth: The Nativity

You can still see traditional nativity plays in elementary schools, with tots in tea towels, and a stableful of animals – the donkey, the aardvark, the crocodile (for class sizes aren’t getting any smaller, and a part must be found for everyone), and hear the class teacher intoning these time-honoured words:

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him’ [Matthew ch. 2].

Cue dressing gowns, cardboard crowns, and a brave attempt at a camel (which absorbs two more children).

Nativity plays, like Christmas cards, conflate the two gospels that have birth narratives (Matthew and Luke), though their stories contradict each other. In Luke, Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth and come to Bethlehem only because of a census. In Matthew they live in Bethlehem, where the Wise Men visit them in a ‘house’ (not a stable), when Jesus is around two years old. They are different stories. Putting the Wise Men side by side with the shepherds around the manger, together with ox, ass, camel and alligator, is rather like having Hamlet meet Sherlock Holmes (and Donald Duck). In this essay I’m focusing on Matthew, the version that tells us about the Wise Men, or ‘Magi’ (referenced by O. Henry), and the Massacre of the Innocents (which is also what WW1 was about).

These three stories may be said to epitomise Christmas, though not necessarily in the way that Christmas would prefer.

The WW1 Christmas truce, for example, does not really bear witness to the abiding relevance of friendship and internationalism, or a common religious heritage. For, after the touching scenes of camaraderie on the first Christmas Day of the War, the participants got back to work (or were sent back), and spent the next four years shooting and gassing the hell out of each other. The tale thus becomes, like The Gift of the Magi, not a pro-Christmas story, but the opposite. The Christmas Truce is, unintentionally, an apt metaphor for how Christmas actually is for most people, its brief period of brittle bonhomie giving way all too soon to the conflicts of ‘normal life.’ Like the ‘first Christmas’ (the birth of Jesus), the Christmas Truce was followed by a Massacre of Innocents.

There is a moral appended to The Gift of the Magi, though it is not the moral I would draw:

The magi, as you know, were wise men – wonderfully wise men – who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

As a result of its emotive conclusion, which puts its case by mere assertion, this story has come to be regarded as a beautiful fable about Christmas, and is regularly rolled out around this time to celebrate it. This is ironic, because it presents Christmas not as the fairy that brings happiness, but as the ogre that takes it away. The Gift of the Magi is undoubtedly a story of love, but it is more importantly (though presumably unintentionally) a story of loss, waste, and the death of Innocence.

The selfless sacrifices made by the young couple in The Gift of the Magi resemble the support given to each other by people in the direst straits, such as victims of floods or fires. However, Jim and Della are not living through a natural disaster, but a man-made disaster caused by the rule that on one particular day of the year, gifts of substantial value should be exchanged between friends and relatives, and that, to make it more difficult, these gifts should not only be perfectly attuned to the wishes of the recipients, but also a complete surprise.

Over a century later, the pressure to buy Christmas presents has not diminished. The months of increasing stress felt by present-buyers as Christmas approaches give way to an aftermath in which the presents have to be put away (never to be used), saved to be passed on to someone else next Christmas, returned to the store, taken to the charity shop, or just trashed. (Unless people agree to be sensible and sacrifice the element of surprise.)

Money can buy happiness, if it is wisely spent. But Christmas presents bring, on the whole, very little pleasure. Reflect once more upon the look on Jim’s face – that ghastly unbelieving stare as he realises the full horror of what has happened: that he has lost a vital tool of his trade (and a family heirloom of huge sentimental value) in order to buy his wife something she no longer has any use for. And that she has sacrificed her crowning glory in order to buy him a chain to attach nothing to his waistcoat. And that it is all the fault of stupid, stupid, Christmas. If only tradition had allowed them to tell each other their plans!

The Christmas story in Matthewis no less cruelly ironic:

His [Jesus’s] mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. (***) But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’  [Matthew ch. 1].

We are not told what scene took place at (***), after Joseph discovered that his fiancée was pregnant, and fortunately liberal theologians agree that the whole story is probably fictitious. But if it did occur, it would scarcely have been a pleasant interchange. (THE HOLY SPIRIT? DO YOU THINK I’M COMPLETELY STUPID! … ) Things would have been said that were not easy to unsay. In that respect, how like our Christmases today! But this embarrassment could so easily have been avoided if only the Almighty had mentioned to Joseph what his plans were. He’s obviously quite able to do this, as he can deploy dreams at the drop of a hat, but for some reason, on this occasion, he decided to spice up the event with a bit of misunderstanding. In other words, if we follow Matthew, at the very beginning of the history of Christmas the element of surprise was working its evil magic.

Unfortunately, God makes a similar mistake after the baby is born:

Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they [the wise men] left for their own country by another road.

While this manoeuvre protects the Baby Jesus, it does not protect the other little boys in Bethlehem:

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.

If God had got his act together, he could have warned the wise men not to visit Herod in the first place, and prevented the Massacre of the Innocents. But as it is, he appears to be careless, or callous, or both. Perhaps he just likes surprises at Christmas.

These three stories together represent the three legs on which this hoax called Christmas stands, or the roots through which, like a gigantic parasite, it takes nourishment: superstition, commerce and the Church.

Superstition is not quite the same as religion, in my view. It doesn’t have leaders, theologies, members, or any way it can be challenged, explained or modified in the public domain. Rationality can find no foothold. Superstition is what makes us think that we have to put up a Christmas tree, and spread tinsel around, and that those who don’t are not ‘one of us,’ without telling us why. Superstition means that on this day (unlike most other days) it is mandatory to wish people a happy one, or to return the greeting, failure to do so causing grave offence and suspicion. Superstition makes us eat and drink more than we know is good for us, or at least it permits us to give in to our greed, because ‘it’s Christmas.’ It invents ever more complex rules about gift giving, and the correct food to eat, and develops new ‘traditions’ every decade or so. It makes people angry if they don’t receive an expected gift, card or greeting, and causes families agonies of indecision over which of the in-laws they are going to celebrate with. It is superstition that, as I write, is making people (most of them not churchgoers) clamour for the right to ‘celebrate Christmas,’ in spite of the danger to themselves and other people from the coronavirus.

Like the Church, the retail industry depends on Christmas to make an annual profit. Most of the rest of the year it makes losses. So it fights ferociously to keep Christmas alive by relentless appeals to ‘the spirit of Christmas.’ From October onwards! But just in case Christmas loses its appeal, the advertising people have other ideas up their sleeve. There’s Diwali in October-November, Hanukkah in mid-December, and Hogmanay in the New Year. Big business occasionally sniffs around these tempting targets, and even speculates about a humanist midwinter festival – not wishing to lose the goose that lays their golden egg.

The big shops foster the myth of Father Christmas, pressuring parents (who are supposed to teach their children to tell the truth), to tell them a lie, until they are six years old or more. And, as the kids generally suss out that it’s a lie before that time, it means that they’re lying too, by pretending to believe it in order to keep the presents coming. Is it just a coincidence that ‘Santa’ is an anagram of ‘Satan’? (!)

The Church in the Western world is struggling to retain and recruit members in an age of doubt, when there are so many more interesting things to do than sing hymns and listen to sermons. As everybody knows, the Christian celebration of the Nativity was planted on the 25th December not because there is the faintest evidence that Jesus was born at that time, but in order to suppress and supersede the existing pagan festival of the winter solstice, the Saturnalia, or Yule, with its worship of the sun, its fertility rituals, and its general aura of riot and profligacy. Two thousand years later it is pretty clear who has won, and it isn’t Jesus. Instead of opposing paganism, the Church has entered into an alliance with it, in the hope of gaining adherents.

A more honest story about Christmas was told in 1993 by Joel Waldfogel, who coined the phrase The Deadweight Loss of Christmas. According to Waldfogel, who went on to produce a book entitled Scroogenomics (2009) and discussed his views on air in 2013, the overall loss of value around Christmas and similar holidays occurs because

consumption choices are made by someone other than the final consumer. 


gifts may be mismatched with the recipients’ preferences.

In 1993 Waldfogel estimated that

between a tenth and a third of the value of holiday gifts is destroyed by gift giving, 

which amounted in 1992 to between 4 and 10 billion dollars.

The obvious answer to the Deadweight Loss is to give, not presents, but money – which conjures up the bizarre image of a family sitting around a tree, and solemnly passing a £20 note from one to the other until it returns to the original donor. (Or, if they were really generous, £1,000!) Waldfogel’s theory accounts for the astonishing popularity of the gift card (for how else would it make sense to give someone a quantity of money limited in its validity, which may be unspent due to forgetfulness, instead of just giving them the money – and, additionally, paying the store a percentage for the privilege?). Donors are trying to find a middle way between the idiocy of exchanging real money and the stress and wastefulness of buying surprise presents.

The Gift of the Magi is a stark illustration of the Waldfogel principle. Della spent $21 on the chain (in 1905) and we may assume Jim spent something similar on the combs. For their $40 (worth hundreds today) they got a set of combs that would not be of any use until Della’s hair grew back (which would take several years), and a chain that would not be relevant until Jim could afford a new watch (which, on their current income, was likely to be never). The value gained was thus virtually zero, while the loss, for people counting pennies, was enormous. Jim’s wage for over two weeks. Five months’ rent. Plus they could have lost their marriage. As many people do around Christmas.

A similar pattern is found in the other stories we have studied:

World War OneA nice Christmas party20m dead
Matthew’s Nativity StoryJesus survivesAll boys two and under in Bethlehem get killed

It would not be my business to criticise Christmas were it not for the harm it does. Current affairs programmes in December regularly include comments on disasters such as floods, fires, famines or corporate collapses, to the effect that it is much worse for such things to be happening at Christmas. What sort of feast is it that by its mere existence manages to exacerbate all sorrows, causing churches to pray, as it approaches, for the sick, those who will be alone on the day, the housebound, the recently bereaved, those who lost a loved one at this time in years gone past, those who are working away from home, those who have lost their jobs, those who work unsocial hours, shop assistants, who are run off their feet, grandparents scared of the cost of the gifts they are pressured to buy their grandchildren, the poor in general, and those on whom the burden of entertaining and cooking falls? Like Covid 19, Christmas targets the poor, the sick, the lonely, the aged and the overweight.

Undoubtedly there are some benefits from the annual celebrations. Charities get a boost to their income. There is some lovely music. Christmas cards enable us to show people we’ve lost touch with that we still think about them (though Facebook does that so much better). And perhaps some people actually enjoy it. But against this you have to consider the damage to the environment caused by the flood of new consumer goods that either replace other goods that have to be trashed, or get trashed themselves. The health problems caused when an already overfed and alcohol-dependent society indulges in even more rich food and drink. The debts that the less well-off in our society incur, and the stress that this causes, and the medical and social results of that stress.

The caption from the British satirical comedy programme Have I Got News For You? at the head of this article refers to the possible impact of Coronavirus regulations on the UK Christmas holiday of 2020. It wryly acknowledges the tensions that threaten the annual family reunions around the turkey, when people of different generations are forced together, ancient grudges are waiting to re-emerge, in-laws are being tolerated with difficulty, children are running riot, and the cook is stressed out. The fact that hatred of Christmas is a common theme of cartoonists and stand-up comics proves that it is a widely-shared sentiment. For most people, Christmas is not fun.

All this misery could be avoided if Christmas could be simply magicked away. But this won’t happen, due to its multiple means of support. Superstition is not amenable to reason. Commerce is not going to relax its grip on the situation. And the Church is not going to relocate the celebration of the birth of Jesus to some vacant area of the Church year, where it can sever its association with the pagan festival. It remains convinced that this season is the time to pull people in, despite the unconvincing, contradictory and sometimes unpleasant nature of the stories it has to tell.

Perhaps, however, the restrictions of the pandemic will give us an opportunity, as with many other aspects of our lives, to reassess Christmas. The enforced abstinence from the ambivalent pleasures of the season might embolden us to modify our own personal involvement in it in future years, taking out or diminishing one or more features we find pointless or excessive, as our personal contribution to making the world a better place. What better Christmas present could we give it?