The Social Function of Christmas

Christmas is a tonic for our souls. It moves us to think of others rather than ourselves. It directs our thoughts to giving.
– B.C. Forbes

Imagine you’re a visitor from another planet and have never heard of Christmas. The beliefs and rituals celebrated during Christmas would look very puzzling: cutting down trees to put in our living-rooms, putting an array of trinkets on them, covering everything in lights, and telling stories to our children about an absurdly generous man who uses reindeer to fly around the world in a sled. Why would any rational creature engage in the silly behavior associated with Christmas?

As a holiday rooted in religious rituals, the heart of Christmas is to the spirit of community. The purpose of evoking such a strong spirit of community around this time goes back to Christmas’ pagan roots and celebrations associated with the Winter solstice. Marking the darkest time of the year in the northern hemisphere – where these traditions originated – festivities served to bridge the transition through the most difficult conditions. Coming together serves to rekindle the spirit of community and a sense of joy when it is most needed at this potentially most desolate time.

Although we now have the luxury of modern technology sheltering us from harsh mid-winter environmental conditions and a great deal of the celebrating population now lives in warmer climates or perhaps even the southern hemisphere, the origin of Christmas as a bridge through the darkest times is still central to its rituals and symbolism. Bringing greenery indoors and putting lights on everything reminds us of life and flourishing, decorating it with ornaments that mark important family milestones reminds us of our lives together and the joyful sentiments associated with this sense of communality; lastly, the mythical stories of Santa Claus represents the ideal of altruism – the glue that bonds social groups together into communities.

Even though we have an abundance of goods, plenty of heat and lighting, and social media to keep us perpetually connected with others, we need to remember the heart of the Christmas spirit: the spirit of community. Classical sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies describes the joy of community when he states that man is “his best and happiest when he is surrounded by his family and his own circle.”

Holiday calibrations can serve as tonic for our souls, nourishing it with the spirit of community in an age marked by rampant individualism, or they can perpetuate this individualism if we lose touch with the heart of these beliefs and rituals. I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and hope that their holiday celebrations may serve as a light amidst darkness, providing life amidst desolation, rekindling a sense of warmth amidst the cold.

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  1. Despite obvious good intentions, you have sadly missed the mark. At the heart of Christmas is (or should be) a celebration of the birth of Christ, the Light of the World. This has little or nothing to do with religious “ritual” — and even less to do with the orgy of spending, so common at this time of year. To say that Christmas is principally a celebration of community is to turn this holy day on its head.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I agree with you, but what I’m arguing for in this post is the social function of Christmas as a transnational bridge by means of community reinforcement.

  2. Excellent article. I whole heartedly agree on the importance of the connections made and fostered during the holidays. It does much to give our lives purpose and structure. I wonder though if many overstate the pagan roots of Christmas. The Christian Church has always celebrated it on Dec. 25 even in the Near East (obviously where it is not as dark). Also remember traditionally the rituals of Christmas are part of the larger story lived by Christians throughout the year (Advent, Easter, Ordinary Time, etc.) all designed to take what you said about Christmas a step further.

  3. Beautiful sentiments. And it does not matter if the gifts are expensive, homemade or gifts of words or deeds. Add to this the Christian tradition (hence the name Christmas or Christ month) which is to celebrate the birth of the Christ child- the one who is fully God and fully man, who came to bring peace in our hearts .
    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!

  4. It’s really sad how this holiday has been commercialized to the point of making people fall into debt after expending credit.

    Glad how you went into detail about this holiday with your article.

  5. Christmas is a very confused time. Here it is pictured as a continuance of pagan traditions. Others see it as a time to celebrate the birth of Christ. Merchants hope to sell their goods. Some seek to give gifts, and some hope to receive. Many, without purpose, family or friends just sulk, feeling lonely.

    We cannot always choose our lot in life. As thoughtfullyprepping pointed out, we may be in desperate need or alone, but we can choose our attitude. We can still give thanks for what we have. We can still celebrate, and we can choose what we celebrate.

  6. If only the social functions of Christmas could penetrate beyond the limited time frame and was more resistant to the trappings of consumerist ideas. I agree with the sentiment, I just wish we could save it from the darker aspects of our culture.

  7. I spent Christmas with myself and the fur clan, in our new place~ a palace!
    Lots of unwrapping, arranging stuffs, culling and enjoying one’s own company lol
    Friends, family and newbies were (mostly) supportive during our emergency relocation. Christmas was very special this year, for all the Right reasons. An Alien be Blessed to participant-observe the Adventure ~:-)

  8. Hear hear Steve. Odd how some of your commenters miss the point yourself making. Having worked at a homeless charity and seen some of those in the UK right at Rock bottom I would say that without the context of Christmas and community none of it might happen.

  9. Thanks for the follow…I agree that we are most happy among our fellows and yet it seems like so much work some days. People are so busy…I have to make an appointment now to just have a phone conversation. Regardless…you’ve inspired me to have a New Year’s party…life is short and those times with family and friends most dear. Glad you are studying this…how can we turn the tide.

  10. Very well done. I believe all people need meaningful only to be found in community. Community is where all kinds of valuable traditions are found.

  11. The joy of community is practiced here in Texas where major and minor cities pull together for the holidays to add some warmth to the reality of the destitute. The full year should be so blessed. Lovely post. Merry Christmas. Oh yes, thanks for following my blog.

  12. Christmas reality for some is entirely different,
    When you have no spare money, the electricity meter needs more credit, and the rent is due.
    When it’s cold and wet and you have to choose between heating or eating.

    When the kids walk mesmerized round shops looking at all the wonderful things and ask “Daddy, will Santa be able to find us in our one room boarding house?”
    I’ve cried at that as did my wife. Have you?

    So try and look at the broader picture people.
    It’s there, probably no further than a few doors away.

    The households where the decorations aren’t, the cars that just barely run, and the latch key ,quiet in manner, non playful kids.

    The pensioner who returns from the shops with the shopping bag with just one meal in it.
    The single person spinning out a cup of tea in a cafe for a few hours to keep warm.

    The parent(s) who have to hold down multiple jobs, by day and by night.
    Their tired wane faces and the worn clothing or even them wearing their works uniforms all the time as they can afford nothing else.

    This is the reality for a lot of people in the UK.
    Even in the wonderful US of A, Canada, or ?
    The list could go on and I guess round the planet.

    Today the religious message has been swamped under commercialism and when firms impose Christmas breaks on their hourly paid or ‘cash in hand’ staff leaving some with a week or so without money.

    It’s not wonderful, IT’S PAIN!

    What would an alien visitor say to that?
    A planet exists where there is plenty for some and naught for others.
    Where sharing doesn’t happen.

    When you go for your Christmas meal and the waitress earns less in a week then you pay for one meal?

    Her kids on a pallet in the back of the kitchen, hoping to hell that at the end of the shift there will be leftovers from the rich for her kids to eat.

    Where people live life perpetually scared and parents cry because they cannot provide.
    Where kids go without or mothers don’t eat in order to buy a child a simple toy.

    The hypocrisy of Christmas and the wonders of it extolled does nothing for me.
    I’ve lived like all that and seen it for real.

    So sod your rich Christmas and your social rewards.
    Go out and look further than your nose.
    Think why so many will be wondering “I hope it all ends soon”.

    1. Thoughtfullyprepping — Your comment reminds me of Dickens’ stories — A Christmas Carol, might be the most appropriate — because your comment, like this Christmas tale, are there to remind us to ensure our neighbour is supported, where possible, and that in this season we should cultivate the thoughts and practices which should support others all through the year. For example, fair pay for a days work etc.
      When one alone may not succeed in equalizing benefits; it may still be within the power of a community. Christmas offers opportunities for such even to the poorest family. And so Steve’s post encourages us to thinking more deeply than the presents and eggnog etc.

      Steve — May you also experience the warmth and connectedness you mention in your post.//mm

    2. I agree…. It is a season of giving that is for sure. But there is strong poverty amongst us that is being ignored at this time of year. This season of giving is pointed in the wrong direction. I certainly think it needs to be for the ones who are truly in need for mortgage payments, car batteries and people literally surviving on fumes. As one who does not celebrate Christmas, and has always grown up around wealth but has never had any…. this speaks volumes to me and assures me over and over that not celebrating this world wide holiday that is extremely misinterpreted makes me sleep a little easier at night, knowing that it is all about giving to people who are REALLY in need.

  13. As a visitor from another planet, I must say I am impressed. Amidst your violent wars and the corrupting greed your kind is stricken with, you have the most heart warming rituals – and the best egg nog in the galaxy. This requires further analysis

  14. The true and most valuable currency of human beings are the feelings in our hearts. And, by the way, we do think with our hearts. The science has shown that “there are more nerve fibers going from the heart to the brain, than the other way around, and the heart beats on its own without innervation from the brain.” (Smart Moves by Hannaford, p.87).

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