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Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

The spirit of Christmas present

Christmas is a time of reflection on what we have been given and on our own generosity, culminating in new year's vows

Morley was dead to begin with. Scrooge had signed the register of his burial. In fact, Morley was as dead as a doornail." Thus starts A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, perhaps the most famous Christmas story apart from the nativity story itself. In a way the book embodies the modern duality of Christmas, as both the most commercial time of year (symbolized by Scrooge’s greed) as well as the most spiritual time of the year in the west (reflected by the kindness Scrooge receives, despite his glumness towards others).

Christmas promises salvation not just for worshippers but for retailers and there is probably no religious festival that is marketed so well anywhere. It is a participatory experience that is a mix of what the Church called heathen and sacred elements which evolved over centuries. There is a brand ambassador (Santa Claus), a 3D logo (the Christmas tree), a clear set of easy to acquire props (nativity miniature sets, angels, silver and golden balls, stars, bells, green holly leaves, santa hats), a soundtrack of hundreds of songs, a range of signature dishes (gingerbread, stollen, turkey, candy canes) and a clear beginning (Advent) and end (25 December). Even non-Christians love to celebrate it for these reasons.

But underneath the commercial sugar-coating lies a meaning that is still regarded as significant and which is relatively unspoiled. Dickens’ version reflects it perfectly. The story of the business partner of the deceased Marley, the old miser Ebenezer Scrooge, who hates Christmas, has never been out of print since it appeared in 1843. For those who are not entirely familiar, the story is set on a cold, snowy Christmas eve. Scrooge calls Christmas “humbug", turns down the Christmas dinner invitation from his nephew and rudely refuses to give a donation for a Christmas dinner for the poor. He grudgingly gives his employee Bob Cratchit—whose child Tim is dying—a day off because that is the social custom, but complains it is just “a poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December!" Scrooge is the Christmas antithesis. Naturally, the book holds up a mirror to review our own conduct.

Scrooge meets Marley’s ghost, who announces he will be visited by three spirits: The Ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. Together they force him to see his painful past, his own cold-hearted present and how he will die in the future as a despised, lonely man if he does not change his ways. The confrontation with his own death rudely shakes Scrooge out of his egoistic slumber. Terrified, he begs for a chance to redeem himself and awakens on Christmas day a changed man who embodies the spirit of Christmas, treating people with kindness, compassion and generosity. Selfish, material gain makes room for generous, impartial giving, summarizing the Christmas spirit.

But the most important story remains the nativity story, of course. Perhaps the story of Jesus is the West’s story of stories. Its message is universal and a deeply spiritual one—there can be as little doubt on that as there was about Morley being dead. But it may have become an emblem in other ways too. It is also the story of Jesus the individual, who lives to give his gift to the world (love and compassion) and is ready to pay the price for it by giving his life at a young age. In doing so, he never actually dies but is resurrected, leaving the cycle of life and death. It is a story of outward suffering and uncompromised striving for what is right, for truth, even at the price of ones own life.

Are we not telling the life stories of great entrepreneurs, great scientists, great freedom fighters in much the same format, at least in the West? The individual who confronts the odds, fights for his beliefs, wins even if he loses and finds salvation. The Economist magazine ran a profile on Apple a few years ago called The book of Jobs, calling the iPad by its nickname as the Jesus Tablet. Apart from such literal references, the story of Jesus may have become an elementary tableau of telling the story of individual human purpose: to use your talents to give to the world, not take, and that such giving is the path to liberation.

Christmas is the time at which we remind ourselves of this, in strong or weaker forms. It is the key message even in the most consumerist representation of Christmas, Santa Claus. Santa is a commemoration of the Christian Saint Nicholas, who gave small gifts to poor children in need. Most importantly, Santa never receives or accepts gifts himself, he only gives to give—not to receive.

The problem is of course that we all know we should give, that we should not live as Scrooges, as greedy watchmen who live only to accumulate material possessions. We know we ought to show more compassion and that we should live as if it was Christmas every day. The problem is that we forget.

That is why the nativity scene in the stable in Bethlehem always depicts Mary and Joseph and the crib, the three wise kings from the east and almost always an ox and a donkey. These two animals are not mentioned in the Bible but have been added later. Some scholars suggest that they symbolize the fact that humans do not always recognize Jesus’ divinity, but simple animals like the ox and the ass did. They thus symbolize our ignorance and our tendency to forget the point.

And so, the dark, short days of Christmas are a time of reflection on what we have been given and on our own generosity, culminating in new year’s vows. Christmas is therefore not simply a Christian festival. Its message is intended for everyone.

As for Scrooge, in the words of Dickens, from then on it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, every one!

Tjaco Walvis is the managing director of brand consulting and advertising agency THEY India, and a speaker at the Outstanding Speakers’ Bureau. He writes a fortnightly column on the softer cultural aspects of marketing that often tend to be ignored by marketers.

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