[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.

**Please get in touch with us if you want to add similar reflections on other public holidays.

CFP: Rethinking Religion in India conference: Secularism, Religion and Law

Deadline for abstracts 15 August 2012

Rethinking Religion in India conference to be held on 24-27 November 2012 held by the  the research programme Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap (Comparative Science of Cultures)

In 2003, the Research Centre Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap (“Comparative Science of Cultures”) was established at Ghent University, Belgium, under the directorship of Prof. S.N. Balagangadhara. The Research Centre promotes research on cultural differences between Asia and the West and has a special focus on European and Indian culture.

Parallel Paper Sessions

We invite submission of max. 300 word abstracts on the following themes:

  • The colonial construction of Hinduism
  • The caste system and Indian religion
  • Secularism in Europe and India
  • Religious conversion in India
  • Religious and communal violence
  • Religion and Law

In case there is a second author, please indicate this clearly in your abstract.

“How to…?” Workshops

We invite proposals for workshop sessions that address a concrete question such as ‘How to teach about the Indian religions and traditions?’ or ‘How to develop de-colonised descriptions of the Indian traditions?’ will be addressed. Even though the aim of these sessions is to involve the audience in a more active way, the structure of these sessions is left open: the sessions could consist of presentations, a discussion among a panel of experts on a particular theme, a discussion with the audience introduced and moderated by a chair. It is left to the organiser of a ‘how to…?’ workshop to decide upon this.

Workshop proposals should explain why this workshop is important vis-à-vis the general objectives of Rethinking Religion in India. They should also contain an outline of the planned structure of the session with the number and names of speakers, moderator and/or other participants.

CFP The Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions March 23-25 2012

The Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions

Merton College, the University of Oxford

March 23-25 2012

The Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions invites papers on Indic religious cultures and traditions.  This year we encourage papers relating to ecology and related matters, such as animals; however, we will consider papers on other themes. The Spalding Symposium is an annual conference bringing together scholars from many disciplines who are working in the general areas of Indic Studies.  It is funded by the Spalding Trust.  Papers on Jain, Hindu, Buddhist, Parsi, Sikh and sub-continental Christianity or Islam are welcome, as are those that examine Indian religions as diasporic or global communities.

We invite proposals for 45 minute papers, with 15 minutes for discussion.  Proposals in the form of a title, a short abstract and a brief biographical statement including affiliation should be sent, by February 3rd, to Catherine Robinson c.robinson@bathspa.ac.uk

It is expected that a selection of papers from the Symposium will be published in our peer-reviewed journal, Religions of South Asia (RoSA). However, giving a paper at the Symposium does not guarantee inclusion in the journal.

Speakers, papers and a provisional programme will be posted on the Spalding website as soon as they become available.

www.spaldingsymposium.com

http://spaldingsymposium.wordpress.com/