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There are many different stories to tell about Christmas. One in anthropology talks about the modern paradox of Western Christmas as a sacred festival, and Western Christmas as a profane commercial activity. Emile Durkheim, one of the granddaddies of the social sciences, defined “sacred” in many ways.
He said the sacred could be understood as synonymous with religion. Or it can be viewed as a form or event transcendent and foundational to modern society, like the idea of heaven and hell. His third definition of the sacred was to understand it as something “set-apart.” By that he meant the sacred did not have to be strictly tied to the religious or the supernatural. The sacred could also refer to certain rituals, duties and beliefs that are symbolic for group cohesion.
Hence the sacred can be a source of group identity produced by members sharing and creating meaning connected to a ritual activity, like Christmas. In this sense, for Durkheim, the sacred could change because it was a social product of collective belief and practice independent of a religious component. The term “profane” is often understood as the opposite of sacred. The profane is said to be unholy, not devoted to religious purposes, and secular.
It’s also been used to mean vulgar, heathen, and common, but we’ll stick to the first set of terms and equate “profane” with secular. Understanding the sacred and the profane in Durkheim’s way makes it possible to conceive that oncesacred religious festivals like Christmas could, over time, become profane cultural practices connected to gift-giving commerce.
Culture, after all, moves and changes. Now it is possible to describe a Trinbago Christmas through many of its local symbols—pastelles, parang, ham, ponche de crème, sorrel, sweetbread, black pudding anyone? Yet we have also adopted the North American Christmas represented not by local symbols, but by a well-fed Santa Claus and all the Christmas presents he brings.
This rotund red-and-white version of Christmas first appeared in North America during the 19th century. Yes, Santa had been around in Europe for a few centuries prior to his arrival in North America but the Santa in North America arrived to recover a festival that, during the 17th and 18th centuries in North America, was not considered sacred.
This was primarily because early North American Puritans said the date of Jesus’s birth wasn’t in the bible so there would be no sacred commemoration. Toward the end of the 18th century, Anglicans and Methodists as well as some other religious groups fought to celebrate Christmas as a sacred religious holiday and began holding services on December 25, at first with little success.
Then at the beginning of the 19th century— partly because of industrialisation and the emergence of cities— Christmas shopping became more normal and accepted. Around this time, we see Santa and his giftgiving in New York City. His gifts were considered God’s blessings and hallowed. What in North America had degenerated over the 17th and 18th centuries—Christmas as a religious celebration—returned with Christmas gift exchange, overseen not by Jesus but by Santa.
The modern commercial North American Christmas we know today begins there in the mid-19th century. Over the next 50 years an evolution of Christmas as both sacred and profane continued. On the one hand, gift-giving became a sacred element of the festival growing to include giving Christmas gifts to charity.
At the same time, there were many Christians who believed Santa had become a symbol of acquisition and consumerism, at odds with the Christian meaning of Christmas. A similar tension appears throughout the 20th century too with, on the one hand, a better fit between Christmas shopping and Christmas symbols increasing the importance of gift exchange to Christmas.
On the other hand a heavier religious critique also emerged around the commercialism threatening the religiosity of Christmas. Over this long stretch of time, the sacred and the profane blurred and merged. A good example of this is the hymn-singing one finds at many malls over the Christmas shopping period.
Today, the merger has become a swap. What was once seen as sacred and religious has lost much of its sacred character while what was once seen as the height of secularism and profanity—commercialism— has been sacralised so effectively that for many people gift exchange is now far more traditional and normal for Christmas than religious celebration. Or as Durkheim would tell it, the profane has become sacred.
• Dr Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at UWI, St Augustine.
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