[Seasonal Reflection] The Christmas bear: merry reflections on the sacred in a secular Christmas

Timothy Stacey reflects on secular spirits of giving in this festive period…  timothy

Standing in the urinals of a pub in Bangalore, India, I look up to see a Christmas-themed poster. A bear, wearing a Christmas hat, invites me to “get merry this Christmas – and not just on our beer”. I was about to dismiss the poster as a depressing example of the needless secularisation and commercialisation of Christmas. Though barely raised Christian, I suppose I had always assumed that Christian symbols such as, say, the nativity scene, still reminded what we might call post-Christian (raised Christian and still influenced by Christian culture despite neither believing nor attending church) celebrants that Christmas was about remembering the poor. I was about to dismiss the poster, but realising I had nothing better to do, decided to read on. In fact, the Christmas bear invited me to get merry by gifting money to a poor child. I had been too quick to judge. Later, I saw how those taking up the offer had been incorporated into a public ritual,immortalized by writing their name beside a picture of the child they had helped on a paper tag, which had been draped in the branches of a Christmas tree, where normally decorative baubles might hang.

I reflected on how a secular Christmas had nonetheless sacralized and ritualised giving and receiving, and this ritual in itself might be a strong enough anchor from which to inspire solidarity with the poor.

To understand how this might work, I began to reflect on the nature of this ritual. I recalled Bloch’s (2010) description of ritual as a performance of transcendental ideals. Notwithstanding the commercialisation, there does seem to remain, at least amongst my family and friends, an authentic sense that Christmas is about thoughtful giving and receiving amongst those we most dearly love. Bloch also tells us that ritual acts as a performance of a possible world that deliberately contradicts the world around us, such as when funerals speak to the continuation of a life despite the evidence to the contrary.

What world might our Christmas ritual of giving and receiving be contradicting? Parry (1986) observes that a capitalist society is one in which there is simultaneously no gift, since everything has a cost, and an absolute gift, whereby nothing is expected in return. Perhaps secular Christmas is a time in which we push through the no gift/absolute gift, and return to a reciprocity grounded in love.

Perhaps the Christmas bear draws its strength from this same binary, luring us towards the absolute gift. Or perhaps the bear invites us to expand the circle of those we love. In either case, in this bar, in Bangalore, the Christmas bear might be all that is required to inspire solidarity with the poor.


References

Bloch, Maurice (2010). ‘Bloch on Bloch on Religion’. Advances in Research 1. 4-13.

Parry, Jonathon (1986). ‘The Gift, the Indian Gift and the ‘Indian Gift”. Man 21(3). 453-473.


Dr Timothy Stacey is a graduate of and Research Assistant at the Faiths and Civil Society Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London. Against a backdrop of a perceived decline of solidarity in secular modernity, especially in the North-Atlantic West, Tim’s doctoral thesis explored the sources of solidarity in religiously plural spaces. The thesis combined a genealogical exploration of constructions of solidarity in theology, philosophy, sociology, anthropology and social policy, with an ethnographic study of groups seeking to develop solidarity in London. Tim is interested in research into and visions of solidarity that defy binaries such as religious/secular, embodied communitarian/cartesian individualist, and socialist/capitalist. His aim is to undertake research that strengthens solidarity by connecting with policy makers and activists.

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New Statesman Guest Edited by Dawkins out this week

New Statesman Guest Edited by Richard Dawkins 19th Dec 2011

 

Richard Dawkins has taken the role of guest Editor for the 19 December 2011 to 1 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman. The issue gives space to the “four horseman” of New Atheism and includes a contribution from Sam Harris on the neuroscience of freewill, Daniel Dennett contributes a Christmas essay “The Social Cell” addressing the social ties that bind us and the remaining two “horseman” come together in a conversation between Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Other notable inclusions include authors Phillip Pullman and Kate Atkinson, Microsoft giant Bill Gates, planetary scientist Carolyn Porco and commenter and human rights activist Maryam Mamazie.

The edition gives an interesting overview of the current issues dominating the British nonreligous/secular/religious public debate. Dawkins opens with a letter to the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, in which he declares his “cultural Anglicanism” and urges Cameron to acknowledge the British Social Attitudes survey. The survey found 50% of the population declare themselves to be of no faith and the number declaring themselves to be Church of England, Christian, at 20% which for Dawkins undermines  the privileging of religion over non religion, especially the particular privilege he sees accorded to the Anglican state church. He urges Cameron to consider the need for neutrality “in all matters pertaining to religion”.

The New Statesman site quotes Dawkins on his venture:

“To guest-edit a great magazine with the status of a national treasure is the literary equivalent of being invited to imagine your ideal dinner party – Christmas dinner, in this case – and then of actually being allowed to send out real invitations to your dream companions. Every acceptance is like a present off the Christmas tree, gratefully unwrapped and treasured.

At the same time, I couldn’t help being daunted by the New Statesman’s historic reputation for serious, well-written radical commentary, and by the need in my literary Christmas dinner to temper merriment with gravitas.

We have no reindeer, but four horsemen; no single star of wonder and no astrologers bearing gifts, but a gifted star of astronomy who knows wonder when she sees it; no kings from the east, but the modern equivalent of a king from the west; and wise men – and women – all around the table. Please join us at the feast.”

Details of his editorial and how to access the magazine can be found on the New Statesman website