The idea of ordinary people enjoying luxuries and “unnecessary” items has long troubled intellectuals and aristocratsBut thanks to capitalism, ordinary people can now enjoy the basic pleasures the ruling classes have long seized for their own
When questioned about the propriety of eating meat on Christmas if it fell on a Friday, Saint Francis of Assisi reportedly responded:
You sin, Brother, calling the day on which the Child was born to us a day of fast. It is my wish that even the walls should eat meat on such a day, and if they cannot, they should be smeared with meat on the outside.
Francis, of course, was known for his austere lifestyle, yet he correctly concluded it was a terrible idea to forgo the basic material pleasures of life on a day like Christmas.
Contra Francis, however, there is little doubt that many now believe the pleasures we enjoy on Christmas, somewhere along the line, got out of hand. Thus, it has become cliché to bemoan the “commercialization” of Christmas.
This critique permeates popular culture, and everyone who’s ever seen “A Charlie Brown Christmas” has heard the message: Christmas is being ruined by too much consumption, and all you really need on Christmas is a tiny little tree and some friends. Only by abandoning material luxuries, we are told, can we appreciate “the true meaning of Christmas.”
The origins of these worries go back at least to the late nineteenth century, when mass production for middle- and working-class households accelerated. For the first time, in both Europe and in North America, an ordinary person might hope to take a little time off work, buy some extra toys and food, and enjoy some of the bounty and the “good life” that the aristocrats had long taken for granted.
This development, however, appeared to trouble intellectuals and the upper classes, who looked with disdain upon the crass displays of holiday cheer enjoyed by ordinary working people. This thinking was applied with special gusto to the Christmastime, but it was part of a general distrust of markets expressed by the old aristocrats and guardians of culture, who preferred a world of “refined” tastes untouched by the new consumer culture where ordinary people were gaining both economic and political power. Although the old scolds and puritans could not come up with any standard to demarcate how much holiday opulence was “too much,” it was thought that most people could not handle this new abundance.
Early on in England, for example, the aristocrats feared that regular people lacked the moral constitution to handle any sizable increase in access to “luxuries.” As historian Robert Kelley describes it: