Christmas Displays

December 25, 2006 | By | 1 Reply More

We’re right in the middle of massively expensive Christmas displays. No, not just the light displays. I’m referring to the numerous expenditures of time, energy and money that, because they are expensive, serve as reliable messages to others that we are interested in bonding with them . . . or not. Christmas is as good a time as any to let the truth hang out.

These displays take many forms. To whom do we send Christmas cards (and from whom do we receive them?)? To whose parties will we be invited? Who are those select people with whom we will end up exchaning gifts? It doesn’t matter if we don’t really enjoy cards, parties and gifts. It doesn’t really matter whether we believe in virgin birth. It doesn’t matter whether there were three kings or whether there was an especially bright star. As with oh-so-many things, Christmas is really about relationships. At bottom, Christmas is about rubbing elbows and bonding, no matter what the conventional wisdom.

The conventional wisdom says that Christmas is about a particular set of alleged historical truths. We need to keep in mind, though, that there are many cultures that give no credibility to the Jesus story who engage in similar gatherings and similar gift exchanges based on their own lore, much of if as unlikely as the story of a virgin giving birth to a God. They have their own gift exchanges and parties and songs and decorations framed by lore that makes no sense to those raised in our culture. But all of this conduct, regardless of the frame, makes sense to evolutionists who carefully step back a few steps and ask some simple yet pointed questions about what is really being accomplished, no matter what the excuse is used for the holiday hoopla.

The alleged historical stories, whatever they might be, can be important even though not true. Those alleged stories frame the celebrations, giving the people all the excuse they need to bond with some people and to exclude all of the others. The alleged stories “work,” no matter how strained they are, no matter how much they violate the laws of physics, biology and common sense. From an evolutionist’s point of view, a fantastic story is a fantastic story. It might as well be a story about a flying octopus or the tales about Zukamono, who protects the Earth from giant invisible dragons. Or it could even be a story about a big fat elf named Santa. Any tale that invites celebrations, conversation and the rubbing of elbows works. At bottom, it’s all about relationships. That has never changed and it never will change.

Humans aren’t very impressive as individuals. Or, at least, their accomplishments are generally limited. They can accomplish super things as coordinated groups, however. Holidays present us with oppotunities to bond (or not). Bonding functions as the social glue that gets the job done. Bonding allows individuals to coordinate their activities; bonding allows us to become super-organisms that can accomplish things of which unbonded groups of individuals can only dream.

Somewhere along the way, however, many of us start to reify the myths that serve as opportunities for bonding.  We take such myths and lore as literally true for no good intellectual reason, but for a very important social reason.  Considering the myths to be literally true intensifies the bonding  process.  I don’t claim to understand the mechanism for this process, but it definitely happens.  Those people who are most into the social aspects of the Christmas season are the least comfortable questioning the myths and lore of Christmas.  

If you are invited to the homes of these people, don’t expect that your question whether Jesus really existed or whether he was really born on December 25 will be warmly greeted.  Critical thinking and skepticism, therefore, might  well be  the enemies of social cohesion.  Such questioning is likely a greater sin than being anti-social. The questioning of the literal truth of widespread Christmas myths will often be seen as immoral by those who seek to rally around these myths.  These myths thus serve the same function as flags.  It is not the intellectual content that is important (that content is quite often self-contradictory or nonsensical).  Rather the myth serves as a social rallying point.  Again, it can be important without being literally true.  I’ve written about this critical distinction previously.

As shown by Amotz Zahavi, animal signals must be expensive to be reliable. This is a universal rule throughout the animal kingdom.  Displays can be expensive in two ways.  We can present something of value to another person or we can incur a debt or burden on ourselves (in the latter case, the classic example is the peacock’s tail).  Many displays are expensive in both ways.

Simply uttering to someone that he or she is “valued” is just too easy for us human animals.  Words are cheap.

We can say such words at almost no cost. We can easily lie about such things. But what about sending other people cards, inviting them to parties and buying them gifts? These activities are much more expensive; and it’s not just the money (cards, for instance, can be financially cheap). It’s the time, the energy and the money.  It’s our display.  We are making a substanial personal investment.I think of Christmas as a social “lek.” What is a lek?

A lek is a gathering of males of certain species of animal for the purposes of competitive mating display, held before and during the breeding season, day after day. The same group of males meet at a traditional place and take up the same individual positions on an arena, each occupying and defending a small territory or court. Intermittently or continuously, they spar individually with their neighbours or put on extravagant visual or aural displays (mating “dances” or gymnastics, plumage displays, vocal challenges, etc.).

No, Christmas doesn’t have anything directly to do with sex, of course. But Christmas is our designated social gathering spot, just as leks are designated animal gathering spots. For many humans, Christmas is the place to put up or shut up, socially speaking.

There are many out there who think that they know what Christmas is all about. They think that it is about the birth of Jesus. But we are often confused about the true significance of the things we do. We don’t think about nutrition when we eat (we think we eat because we’re “hungry”). We usually don’t think about creating babies when we have sex (instead, we think we are “horny”). As Patricia Churchland wrote in an article entitled “A Critique of Pure Vision,” at bottom what we do is about the “four F’s,” by which she meant “feeding, fighting, fleeing and reproduction.”

Emotions and cravings guide us incredibly well in each of these respects. They allow us to be stupid survivors. As Robert Wright wrote in The Moral Animal, Emotions are “evolution’s executioners.”

Christmas is expensive, wastefully so. We bemoan this fact every year. But it’s necessarily so (at least for those who choose to do their hard work of bonding within the frame of Christmas lore).

To be a satisfying Christmas, it’s really not any problem that the gifts turn out to be inappropriate or unneeded or that the lights are gaudy, as long as significant expenses were incurred (in terms of time, energy or money). What others want to know is whether we “cared.” They will be satisfied only if we show, instead of merely telling. They will be satisfied only if we show that we’ve incurred a substantial price as part of participating in the game. Hence, the title of Zahavi’s book: The Handicap Principle.

If the gifts and activities were cheap in all ways, they wouldn’t be reliable. If they weren’t reliable, there really wouldn’t be any point to Christmas at all.

[Topic for another day: None of the above is to suggest that the expenditure of resources (that constitutes the Christmas displays) has to be wasteful. Maybe someday, all of these time, energy and money can serve two functions: A) constitute a display to show others that we are serious and B) help desperate others.]


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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, Evolution, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science, Sex

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    One of the preachers on a local religious television channel was preaching today that there would be no holiday celebration without Jesus. According to him, families would not get together, gifts would not be exchanged, and songs would not be sung. At each assertion, a loud "Amen" came from the congregation. Obviously, these poor folks are unaware that humans celebrated the winter solstice for many thousands of years before the story of Jesus was ever written; indeed, many of the holiday decorations that are now associated with Christmas (pine trees, holly wreaths, mistletoe, etc.) come from those pagan celebrations. Like marriage ceremonies, Christmas is merely the result of Christians co-opting a pre-existing celebration and cloaking it in their own mythology.

    Erich observes: "Christmas is expensive, wastefully so. "

    Indeed it is! A news report last week said that, on average, one-third of all gifts are returned. If so, consider how much time and gasoline is wasted just moving around all that merchandise. First there is the shopping, then the travel to and from the point of exchange, and then the returning. That's a lot of time and gasoline wasted just to transport a gift in a circle.

    Speaking of gift-giving, I learned this year why Christmas trees traditionally have an angel decoration on top. When Christians first invented Christmas, they told their kids that the gifts came from the baby Jesus. Not believing this claim, kids began asking how an infant could wrap and transport gifts to homes around the world. Not having a good answer to this question, parents changed the fable so that angels, not the baby Jesus, brought the gifts.

    My family used to go through the traditional ritual of giving gifts at Christmas. Today, the parents still do this for the children (Christmas is, after all, a powerful tool of parental control: "If you're not good, then maybe Santa won't bring you any presents this year…."), but the adults mostly just get together and talk. The "gifts" we exchange are mainly donations made to various charities in the name of the other person. This saves everyone a lot of shopping time and there is no burden on the recipient to return it…and, we believe, the gift helps people in genuine need.

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