A Merry Little Christmas? On Possible and Desirable Christmases

At this time of the year, the nature and possibility of a desirable Christmas must be asked again. In this post, I examine the question of how we can understand possible Christmases and their desirability in our own lives.

The first thing we need to study is the previous Christmases. Can we find some patterns that shape how Christmases are? For example, do the people, the food, or the gifts determine how Christmas goes? What is the impact of external factors such as weather and economic situation of the society? If we know the patterns that govern Christmases, we may attempt to investigate what kinds of Christmases are possible, given the governing patterns.

There are two problems in this investigation. First, we do not have direct access to past Christmases. Our knowledge is mediated by historiographical accounts (or memory). The construction of those accounts is based on many choices, trends, and assumptions. This means that, before we make inferences about the patterns of Christmases, we have to be aware of how our thinking through historical cases affects the construction of the patterns. Different historiographical choices might construct different patterns. There might be great differences within families on what is the nature, prospects, and limits of Christmas. Some people could highlight the role of attitudes in the development of Christmas whereas others could highlight the role of external economic conditions. It is not clear how to decide between these perspectives on the basis of looking at past Christmases. The people probably have deep assumptions about the nature of human beings that shape both the accounts of the past and visions for the future. [See this and this.]

Secondly, knowledge of mere patterns does not get us anywhere if we do not know how the outcome of a Christmas depends on the factors mentioned. In addition to reflecting on actual Christmases, we have to reflect on counterfactual Christmases. If we claim that attitude affects Christmas, then it needs to be the case that, had the attitudes been different, the outcome would have been different. But how can we know what happens in counterfactual Christmases?

Well, this depends on the issue at hand. Sometimes the counterfactual Christmases are easy to track down. For example, if one was not able to play in snow last Christmas due to the weather, we can say that Christmas would have been better, had there been a snowstorm before it. In other cases, the tracking down is much more complicated. For example, if we say that the attitude of the person P ruined Christmas by provoking fights, we are committed to counterfactual “had the attitude been different, there would have been a better Christmas”. Whether this is judged to be true depends on our worldview concerning human beings. Someone could have the worldview that human beings can shape their attitudes and thus the outcomes of their social interactions. Someone else could think that human beings are trapped in social dynamics that inevitably generate conflicts: Had that person had a different attitude, some other thing would have provoked the fights. Different worldviews generate different possible future Christmases. The first person would claim that it is possible to have a peaceful Christmas whereas the latter person would claim that a peaceful Christmas is highly unlikely. To understand the space of possible Christmases, we need to map scenarios that different worldviews generate. [See this.]

There are additional concerns about our prospects of understanding what a merry little Christmas could be. First, we should notice that there might be unconceived Christmases that we do not take into account when planning our current Christmas. Can we trust that our Christmas is a merry little one if we are not aware of the unconceived alternatives? Are such alternatives merely a skeptical hypothesis that aims at ruining our ability to enjoy our Christmases? Well, if we look at the history, it seems that the existence of unconceived alternatives is a real possibility. Christmases have changed and, at any given point in time, the nature of future Christmases was not conceived by those who enjoyed their Christmases. It is, of course, another question whether the changes in Christmases count as progress or not. Perhaps our Christmases are inferior to historical ones and thus their inconceivability for historical agents does not have any relevant consequences on the correctness of their judgements about the quality of their Christmases. [See this.]

However, one could also argue that the current Christmases are satisfactory because it is not obvious that there could be serious alternatives to them. One should, the argument continues, put-up-or-shut-up, i.e. build an alternative Christmas and show it is enjoyable. The obvious counterargument is that building a Christmas requires resources. If all the other members of the family – and the whole society – continue the existing practices, there is not much one can do to build alternative Christmas. For example, building and spiritual rather than material Christmas is difficult because other people buy food and gifts and because society expects us to do so (advertisement and so on). Our inability to provide an alternative Christmas does not tell the whole truth about how relevant an alternative Christmas is. [See this.]

Now we have discussed the possible Christmases and what perhaps can and cannot be done to achieve them. But what about the desirability of a Christmas? How can we judge the desirability of a future Christmas? Well, we often plan the Christmases on the basis of our current values and needs. However, it is far from obvious that our values are tenable. We really should have a systematization of values that clarifies how Christmas should be. For example, we often wish to have a quiet Christmas with time to settle down. At the same time, we judge material conditions as significant for Christmas. It is not obvious that these expectations do not stem from a contradictory set of values. It might be that our judgements of the desirability of a Christmas are contradictory, ambiguous, and unclear. We should have philosophical reflections to assess these shortcomings.

Moreover, it is even more unclear why the desirability of a future Christmas should be judged on the basis of our current values. Values have changed historically. This has been due to intrinsic dynamics of ethical thinking and due to changes in the external world. It is probable that values and needs will also change in the future. How can we study the future of values, i.e. axiological futurism? For example, a century ago people would probably have been incorrect in their judgements about the desirability of our Christmases. Some people wish to travel on Christmas. A century ago, this would have been an odd choice. Who would feed the animals? In the same way, we probably have difficulties in estimating future values and needs. Planning for merry little Christmas is problematic until we have built axiological futurism as a discipline. [See this.]

Finally, we perhaps should take some distance to our current Christmases. The debates concerning it seem rather superficial. We have a lot of litany about Christmas – whether we like food, people, traveling, quietness, snow, and so on. Perhaps we should look beneath the surface to open up possible futures. There might be deep worldview commitments behind these phenomena. For example, we could inspect the general worldviews that guide our Christmas habits. What makes people wish to spend time with their families? What makes people wish to have gifts? If we understand the worldviews behind the actors, we might challenge the worldview and open up radically different alternatives. What if people should be alone and contemplate instead of being social? Why is giving (a gift) better than taking (some stuff) – is it not possible that reducing things reduces worries and therefore improves the quality of life? Finally, we could attempt to blow up the whole Christmas by altering the deep stories, the collective archetypes, and the unconscious dimensions of the phenomena. What’s going on with our notions of merry little Christmas, walking in a winter wonderland, mommy kissing Santa Claus, Ho Ho Ho, and so on? Why should Rudolph run? Are these myths and metaphors or are people serious? [See this.]

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