The palpable excitement of winter holidays has warmed the hearts of students for many generations. Here in North America the majority of pupils have participated in Christmas traditions with varying degrees of religiosity.
Surpassed only by the ubiquitous Santa Claus, the Christmas tree is one of the most emblematic symbols of winter break. Throughout the first three weeks of December, students return home each day to a festive house and decorated tree and know that a break from classes is imminent. As it turns out, the history of the Christmas tree is tied to the history of Germanic missionaries to North America known as Moravians. Countervailing the Christian sentiment of these early German pioneers is another, seemingly Grinch-like German philosopher: Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).
The first Christmas tree on record in the New World was erected for school-age children in a colony of German missionaries in Pennsylvania known as Moravians. Their town was known as Bethlehem. Instead of an actual fir or pine, the ?tree? consisted of ?wooden pyramids covered with evergreen branches? onto which candles were affixed. The sight of this tradition imported from the fatherland must have added a sense of authenticity to the festivities.
In fact, long before its Christmas connection, a decorated evergreen was ?used as a symbol of hope and joy? and as ?a reminder that the darkness and cold of winter would end and spring would return.? In North America, Christmas trees were not common until ?the early 1900s.?
Had Friedrich Nietzsche been, say, a ninth-grade teacher during the holiday season he might have expressed some rather dour perspectives on Christmas trees and the holiday itself. He might have noted that the tree is itself decapitated and doomed to slowly die of dehydration, symbolic perhaps of the sacrifice of outstanding creative individuals to the herd-like mentalities of mediocre commoners. Perhaps he might also describe how true morality emerges not out of individuals meeting ?the demands imposed upon them? by society, but out of transcending the ?sickness? of conformity by which Christmas demands all participants express joy, joviality, and goodwill.
Later hailed as a ?prophet of the postmodern,? Mr. Nietzsche would have had a hard time buying into the idea of Christmas spirit. Instead of gifts being emblematic of caring and sharing, he would state that ?there are no moral phenomena, only moral interpretations of phenomena.? To him, Christmas presents would be assertions of power over others: the power to dispose of surplus money and thereby draw attention to one’s own affluence.
Nietzsche notes that moralizers tend to ?get rid of all unbelievers,? such as those who do not enjoy being marinated in Christmas carols in order to enforce a status quo. Rather than making society a better place, Nietzsche might say that collective meaning-making involved in group holidays reduces individual responsibility for meaning itself. In the end, ?the so-called good man is a tyrant,? albeit one with an inviting Christmas display on his lawn.
From a Nietzschean perspective loyal followers of holiday traditions are in fact acting only to further their status and prestige. The seeming altruism of gift-giving serves as a mask for the true basis of life: the desire to attain power. Just as chiefs of Pacific Coast Haida tribes sought to overwhelm their neighbours with lavish gifts at potlatches, so too does the act of gift-giving serve to create inequalities. The ?power relation between debtor and creditor gives rise to a feeling of guilt and personal obligation on the part of the debtor.? In essence, people buy the loyalty of family and friends by incorporating them into an economic exchange of gift-giving.
Under the auspices of a magical Christmas morning, the power of those with the ability to give is forged. This is particularly true when we consider that the mythical Santa serves as a stand-in who masks the true relation between giver and receiver. Children become unwitting debtors to their parents by receiving gifts. They must repay their debt with the only power they possess: the power to make their parents lives as miserable or as blissful as possible.
In his philosophy of the ?Übermensch? (Overman) Nietzsche describes his vision for what a person freed from social constraints might act like. Possibly Nietzsche’s Overman would embody the true Christmas spirit. Rather than follow codes of conduct endemic to the holidays, whether it be Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Ramadan or Christmas, the Overman ?knows how to train the will to power that drives humans in the direction of self-control, self-cultivation, self-direction, the result of which is an abundance of joy and peace.? The Overman embodies a ?stylish, graceful movement through the world, leaving its glorious mark, rejoicing as it goes.?
Nietzsche’s Overman is what the holidays are meant to be about: expressions of love and caring for family and friends by acts and words, rather than by granting of material gifts. Most importantly of all for Nietzsche’s critique of Christmas would be that only after the end of belief in a mystical holiday, with a tree sacrificed for the sake of merrymakers, can humans take ?responsibility for themselves and their way in the world.?
If all this sounds dark and depressing and one-sided That’s because it is. However, there is a happy ending!
As with Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch, Friedrich Nietzsche also realized that he had failed to see the reality of human altruistic tendencies. Later in his life, as his mental health deteriorated due to syphilis, he was on a street in Turin and saw a horse being whipped by its master. In horror he threw his arms around the animal’s soft mane and strong neck and sobbed uncontrollably. With this act, the other side of cynical Nietzsche was expressed. Despite concluding that people’s will to power lay behind all supposedly selfless acts, Nietzsche still had a conception of the human emotions of compassion and caring. How could he not?
It seems to me that as young students the most important thing we learned about the holidays in school was not that we were about to have a couple of weeks off school and a bunch of presents. What we really learned was that despite various differences and difficulties, there remained the potential for real caring, real love, and authentic compassion. Happy Holidays to everyone and may the spirit of the season allow us all to better share our common humanity!