It’s a shame all the shopping has to spoil the true meaning of Christmas. Or so we get told at this time of year, usually by the same prophets of good cheer who want us to celebrate the season by donning hair shirts and cutting back on the booze.
How wrong they are. And how unsurprising that is: we give altogether too much credence to finger-wagging from the comfort of TV studios. The true story of our commercial Christmas can be read in the great mass of people choosing to celebrate by buying one another gifts.
We are in denial about shopping. A longstanding tradition of intellectual snottiness toward the commercial world has constructed a bleak and cheerless vision about as close to retail reality as Ptolemy’s geocentric planetary spheres were to the orbital mechanics of the solar system.
Rather than an empty, slightly desperate act of self-centred indulgence, shopping is a ritual act of love. Other-centred, even sacrificial, it is a generous acknowledgement of the reality and value in personal interests beyond our own.
Anthropologist Daniel Miller reached this conclusion by looking at how people actually buy in north London. He found the truth so different from our conventional expectations that he had to formulate an entire new theory of shopping to explain what was going on. Rather than retail therapy and excess, he saw the use of scarce resources to sustain valued relationships: “[shopping’s] pleasure is more often associated with the sense of skill involved both in thrift and in monitoring and subtly altering relationships the shoppers care about.”
Shopping doesn’t deserve its reputation. Whether the bad rap stems from a suspicion of capitalism, prejudiced dismissal of a traditionally female pursuit as trivial indulgence, or intellectuals readier to theorise airily than interrogate what really happens, there is more going on when we buy than we have been taught to think. Our souls do not empty out along with our pockets. In Miller’s words: the things that we buy “are the means for creating the relationships of love between subjects rather than some kind of materialistic dead end which takes devotion away from its proper subject – other persons.”
But if you want to see shopping associated with corruption and misery, join me in picking Queue as your Christmas board game. Originally called Kolejka, this Polish title was created to remind a new generation what shopping was like under communism. Since then, its popularity has led to an international edition in six languages, including English. Playing Queue recalls a world, not so historically or geographically distant, where filling your shopping list meant calling in favours or standing in long queues with no certainty of what you would find in the shop.
Communism’s suspicion of individual choices was inevitably crushing, joyless and corrupting. But a commercial Christmas is not a distracting monument to greed or selfishness. In tune with the divine gift at the season’s heart, it celebrates the bounty of a free society devoted to the pursuit of love.