Why I Hate Christmas

[N.B. This is a re-post from last year, but I thought it worth sharing again]

OK, I don’t really hate Christmas.  But there is a part of it that I despise.  I remember once being at a Christmas party where several people exchanged gifts – all the gifts, it turns out, were gift cards.  These folks basically just swapped cash, an empty gesture if the balances are equal, and the only one who really benefits is the merchant.  I thought, “Couldn’t we just skip the gift-giving and celebrate the birth of Christ? Why these meaningless exchanges of goods?” Surely whatever money we spend on gifts could be put to better use.

Now, there are times in which gift-giving is a joyous experience.  Take the following commercial for example:

I’ve often come across something that “would be just perfect for so-and-so.”  And I knew it would bring them great happiness to receive it.  And sometimes I’ve even received such gifts.  But those are few and far between.

C.S. Lewis in his essay, “What Christmas Means To Me,” identifies four reasons that this whole burden of gift-giving should be condemned:

1. It gives on the whole much more pain than pleasure. You have only to stay over Christmas with a family who seriously try to ‘keep’ it…in order to see that the thing is a nightmare. Long before December 25th everyone is worn out–physically worn out by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and to think out suitable gifts for them. They are in no trim for merry-making…They look far more as if there had been a long illness in the house.

One needs only hear the annual horror stories of “Black Friday” sales to know this is true.

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2. Most of it is involuntary. The modern rule is that anyone can force you to give him a present by sending you a quite unprovoked present of his own.  It is almost a blackmail…

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3. Things are given as presents which no mortal ever bought for himself–gaudy and useless gadgets, ‘novelties’ because no one was ever fool enough to make their like before. Have we really no better use for materials and for human skill and time than to spend them on all this rubbish?

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4. The nuisance. For after all, during the racket we still have all our ordinary and necessary shopping to do, and the racket trebles the labour of it.

We are told that the whole dreary business must go on because it is good for trade…But can it really be my duty to buy and receive masses of junk every winter just to help the shopkeepers? If the worst comes to the worst I’d sooner give them money for nothing and write it off as a charity.  For nothing?  Why, better for nothing than for a nuisance.

So, will I abstain from buying gifts for mom, dad, and grandma?  Probably not, but if we are casual aquantences and you get me a gift, don’t expect one in return – I’m drawing a line in the sand.  Here, and no further!

Merry Christmas!

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On Reading Books: A Confession

There was a time when I would have been embarrassed to say how many of the “great books” I have not read. There was a time when, if someone were to ask me if I had read some classic work like say, The Aeneid, I would have lied, said I read it, and even feigned some discussion with what I knew of it generally. There was a part of me that, because I teach philosophy, history, theology and the like, and because I have a bit of a reputation as someone who knows a bit about a variety of topics, that I was ashamed of the fact that there were so many classics that I had not, in fact, read. What would they think of me, if they knew I had never actually read Moby Dick!?

I have also made it a priority to build a library in my home. When people would see how many books I own, I often got some snide remark about whether I had read them all, and there was a part of me that felt I needed to justify outwardly this “show” of books, even though I knew they were not for show, but for study. As Umberto Eco said on the subject:

The visitor enters and says, “What a lot of books! Have you read them all?” At first I thought that the question characterized only people who had scant familiarity with books, people accustomed to seeing a couple of shelves with five paperback mysteries and a children’s encyclopedia bought in installments. But experience has taught me that the same words can be uttered also by people above suspicion. It could be said that they are still people who consider a bookshelf as a mere storage place for already read books and do not think of the library as a working tool. But there is more to it than that. I believe that, confronted by a vast array of books, anyone will be seized by the anguish of learning and will inevitably lapse into asking the question that expresses his torment and his remorse.

Furthermore, while I have taught at a classical school for eight years which draws on C.S. Lewis for its name and is saturated with references to The Chronicles of Narnia: and yet, until two years ago I had never read a single word of The Chronicles of Narnia. I know I faked several conversations at school, and probably during the interview process as well. I’m sure there are more complex reasons for why I felt compelled to be dishonest about this: pride, shame, embarrassment, etc.

Again I have to say that I used to lie about the books I’d read. I have now come to see that there is no shame in having failed to read some “great work”—for there are far too many for anyone to have read them all. Furthermore, there are even far too many of the “essentials” to have read them all! I still get a kick out of people who are shocked to discover I have never read, say, Pilgrim’s Progress. “It’s on my list,” I say, “I’ll get to it!”

The problem is further compounded by the great writers who are still writing great books. I think I would be cheating myself if I only read books published more than 100 years ago. And if I want great writers to keep writing, there have to be people like me who read (and more importantly, who buy) their work. So, I try to keep a balance between the old classics, the new classics, and just the new ones in general.

Like C.S. Lewis says somewhere (but I cannot remember where), for a good book, after you have read it the first time, then you are ready  to read it (or something to that effect). So, I can safely say that for many of the “great books,” I am ready to read them now!

So, “No,” I haven’t read them all yet. I’m working on them. I have not yet made it to War and Peace and vast majority of Dickens, but I’ll get there, maybe, if not in this life, then certainly in the next.

 

Everyone A Philosopher

It is — I take it — a distinguishing characteristic of philosophy that it is everybody’s business.  The man who is his own lawyer or physician, will be poorly served; but everyone both can and must be his own philosopher.  He must be, because philosophy deals with ends, not means.  It includes the question, What is good? What is right? What is valid?  Since finally the responsibility for his own life must rest squarely upon the shoulders of each, no one can delegate the business of answering such questions to another.  Concerning the means whereby the valid ends of life may be attained, we seek expert advice.  The natural sciences and the techniques to which they give rise, though they may serve some other interests also, are primarily directed to the discovery of such means.  But the question of the ultimately valuable ends which shall be served, remains at once the most personal, and the most general of all questions.

-C.S. Lewis, Mind and the World Order (1929)