A prediction: before the end of this century, Christmas as we know it in 2014, and as we’ve known it for over one hundred years, will no longer be celebrated.
Today Christmas is a national holiday in countries around the planet, observed by vast numbers of the earth’s people, and a central event of sacred and lay calendars everywhere – why so dire a forecast? Extreme scenarios may be conjectured. Global climate change melts the snow associated with the Yuletide; conflict with China cuts western retailers off from their chief supplier; terrorists launch a wave of attacks at shopping malls and other commercial centers, scaring customers away from those that remain; a prevalence of atheism negates the accounts of Jesus’s divinity and the circumstances of his birth. But less drastic devolutions of the annual ritual may occur.
First, demographic changes in Europe and North America mean that, in time, the popular majority in many nations will not be Christian, either by custom or ancestry. While Hindu, Muslim, Confucian or other believers may be perfectly adaptable within secular democratic societies, they are less likely to revere Christmas as a religious or seasonal festival; it is too much to expect that they add to their own traditions an historically muddled celebration which has itself been rendered almost unrecognizable under generations of mercantile embellishment. Already, in immigration hubs like Vancouver or Toronto, Christmas is only a single cultural episode among many marked throughout the year. Its universality can no longer be assumed.
Second, as more and more of our lives are spent online, the growing numbers of digital services available through the Internet mean physical products are not the only things wished for or given as gifts. A new book, a DVD, or a toy can be wrapped up and put under the Christmas tree, but a downloadable text, movie, or game can’t. When what we do and use every day is increasingly virtual, the emotional significance of choosing, packaging, and opening presents may become obsolete. Chocolates, teddy bears, and train sets, of course, will remain as “real” items which friends and families exchange, but – as at every other time – durable or edible goods now compete with an avalanche of cyber wares which, by their nature, cannot be presented from one individual to another. A key symbol of Christmas charity could go the way of the music or publishing industries.
It is also important to recall that many of the Christmas conventions we follow today – the carols, the decorations, the food – date back to the Victorian era. Will anyone in 2075 truly understand mistletoe, Ebenezer Scrooge, chestnuts on open fires or one-horse open sleighs? Will the North Pole still be covered in ice? Even complaints over the stress and commercialization of Christmas, and reminders of the day’s “true meaning,” have become almost archaic, especially when endorsed by highly marketable characters like the Grinch and Charlie Brown. The Christmas we attempt to duplicate is receding ever farther from the Christmas we actually live.
As much as anything, Christmas could die a natural death. It may remain a special point in the almanac of one shrinking monotheistic faith, but by outsiders it will go unnoticed. Eventually, a gradual momentum away from the holiday’s rush of acquisition may develop, and our descendants might consider our commemoration the same way we consider witch-burning, fox hunts, or human sacrifice – a relic of superstition, waste, or mania which civilization is well to be rid of. Indeed, the yearly madness of the Christmas weeks in the early Twenty-First century has turned into a communal game of chicken, a collective action problem where few of us sincerely want to lavish the effort and amounts we expend on the things we do and buy, but where fewer still can admit our reluctance and drop out of the process altogether. It is this dichotomy that many of us inwardly protest: the forced public sentiment and almost mandatory material consumption, versus the genuine, intimate generosity we are supposedly being asked to honor. For the future it may be too late to put the Christ back in Christmas, but in our own era we might begin to remove some of the mass.