Unthinkable: Is Christmas a cause for celebration?

Yuletide, winterval? Bah! Shouldn’t it just be called salesfest?

What does the festive season mean to followers of Karl Marx? Image: Imagno/Getty Images

What does the festive season mean to followers of Karl Marx? Image: Imagno/Getty Images

Fri, Dec 20, 2013, 07:44

An anthropologist studying the celebration of Christmas in Ireland would be forgiven for thinking it is principally a festival of consumption. According to a survey by accountants Deloitte, the average household will spend €894 in preparation for the day itself. As for St Stephen’s Day, it has become one of the major events of the retail calendar.

What exactly is the point of Christmas in an age when even the Christians are obsessed with shopping? Unthinkable explores this question with Helena Sheehan, professor emeritus at DCU and a former lecturer in the history of ideas. She is also an activist, a Marxist and an atheist – so not an impartial commentator on the meaning of Yule.

Her seasonal exhortation provides today’s idea:


How would you describe yourself?
“If I only have a few seconds, I’d say, yes, I’m a Marxist, but if I had a bit longer I’d say it’s a bit more complicated than that, because I’ve evolved my own world view. I don’t like naming it after a man who lived in the 19th century.”

Audio: Helena Sheehan on Marxism at Christmas

And how do you define Marxism?
“It’s a critique of capitalism, and it’s the aim of transforming society into something that’s beyond capitalism, namely socialism, and I define that as a society based on the principle ‘from each according to abilities, to each according to needs’.”

Is celebrating Christmas compatible with that?
“A Marxist sees the material basis of Christmas in a winter festival: a feast of light and warmth and celebration at the time of year that is darkest and coldest and bleakest. I’m an atheist, so I don’t mark it in a religious way.

“It would be more natural to celebrate it on the 21st, winter solstice, but we’re inserted in the wider culture, and we have rhythms of work and holidays, so we celebrate it on the 25th, and hopefully in not too consumerist a way.”

You think it’s important for people to distinguish between materialism and consumerism. Why?
“Since I was a child, I’ve heard people say Christmas had become too materialistic. I think people are using the word materialism when they mean consumerism.

“Materialism is the idea that matter is the basis for all that exists. There’s the ancient philosophical debate between materialism and idealism, whether matter or ‘idea’ is the source of all that exists. Typically, idealism projects a supreme consciousness, a God, who created everything, whereas a materialist argues that everything which exists, even higher forms of consciousness, comes from the evolution of matter into higher and higher forms.

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