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A Defense of Christmas by Lee Harris

This profound and moving essay by Lee Harris is now only available via the Wayback Machine, and only if you know what you are looking for. Fortunately, I did know what I was looking for because I kept a link to it on a page which I saved from the end of 2003.

I did not write this essay, Lee Harris did. But I hope to preserve it for a few more decades.


Blaming Christmas is a common human failing, and not only at Christmas. It may be done at any time of the year, and it may be done in respect to any traditional institution. It is the habit of blaming the institution because we ourselves no longer take the trouble to support it. We look at ourselves, or at our friends and neighbors, and we think, “How many of us really have the Christmas spirit anymore?” But, rather than putting the responsibility for this where it belongs, we immediately let ourselves off the hook by blaming it squarely on Christmas itself. Christmas, we conclude, isn’t what it used to be. We haven’t failed Christmas; it has failed us.

This, of course, is an illusion, though an understandable one. After all, when we as children first hear about Christmas, it is made to appear as much a part of the nature of things as the eternal cycle of the changing season. Christmas is coming, like a great comet that appears each year at the exact same day, arising from the depths of the cosmos, and returning thereto — mysterious, inexplicable, transcendent, in no way dependent upon our will. We cannot bring it closer by the most intense wishing, or make it stay a day longer than it wishes.

At that tender age it never crosses our mind that Christmas is a human artifice, because our parents work hard to keep us from suspecting such a thing. They want us to believe not only in Christmas, but to accept the full gospel version of it, complete with Santa Claus and his sleigh, his workshop full of industrious elves, his perilous descent down our chimney, and even the curiously deformed reindeer whose nose emits a red beacon capable of navigating Santa through the thickest fog. And we swallow it all hook, line, and sinker. We become true believers.

But not, of course, in the eyes of those odious infidels, the wised up kids who know there is no Santa Claus. To them we are just saps and suckers, to be taunted and teased for our credulity. Yet there is something that always smacks of bad faith in the scoffing of these third-grade advanced thinkers. They pooh-pooh Santa Claus, but feel no qualms of intellectual integrity riding the bike he left beneath their tree on Christmas morning. Some even feign a belief in Santa in order to convince their parents that they are still among the faithful, lest their parents decide to indulge their child’s skepticism at the expense of his toy chest.

The problem with such skeptics is that their skepticism never goes quite far enough. For them the bottom line is, there is no Santa; he is a made up story. Whereupon their skepticism abruptly halts, and refuses to take the next logical step, which is to ask, If there is no Santa, then where does Christmas come from? If Santa didn’t invent it, who did?

To learn that your parents are “really” Santa Claus is invariably a moment of disillusionment, and one that many children must be shamed into by their more progressive peers. Yet, as in the case of most disillusionment, the course of wisdom is not to recoil from it, but to embrace it. For, by embracing it, the child may eventually come to see that he has not merely discovered that Santa Claus was really just his parents; he will discover that his parents are really Santa Claus. And that is quite a different thing — so different the child oftentimes needs decades to grasp just how truly different it is.

To learn that your parents are Santa Claus is the end of one philosophic journey; but it is also the start of another, if you are prepared to continue it. For the skeptic must now ask himself, If my parents don’t believe in Santa Claus, why have they tried so hard to get me to believe in him? Indeed, why have they saved money all year long — or, as so often nowadays, maxed their credit card to the limit — in order that I would continue to remain under such a costly illusion? Why do my own parents so empathically insist that I go on giving the tribute that is theirs to someone else instead — especially when that someone else doesn’t happen to exist, and with whom it is not even possible to score transcendental brownies points, as with God? Does this — does any of this — make sense? If Christmas is just an elaborate hoax, it would appear to be a hoax perpetuated at the expense of the hoaxer.

When the skeptical child becomes a skeptical adult, he may feel that he has hit upon the correct answer: his parents were themselves saps and suckers, hoodwinked by Madison Avenue into believing they were honor-bound to keep up the pretence that all this expensive merchandise was really manna from heaven, in order to bolster the sales of self-serving manufacturers and retailers. But, here again, the skeptic lacks the will to push his skepticism to its logical conclusion, because he fails to ask the next question: Okay, suppose my parents were just the unwitting tools of capitalism, suppose that they had been brainwashed into buying more stuff than any child could possibly need, or often want, why did they feel hide-bound to preserve the illusion of Santa Claus for me? What made them look upon Christmas as if it were a sacred duty?

A Sense of Honor

They were hide-bound because they were honor-bound. They felt that they owed their children a happy Christmas, and felt it as a genuine ethical obligation, akin to the military service that a man may feel that he owes to his nation. That is what a sense of honor is all about. And it is the origin of this sense that we must address, if we are to explain our parents’ passion for perpetuating such a bizarre delusion.

Even if they were deluded by Madison Avenue, their susceptibility did not stem from a defective intellect, but from an overfull heart: they would not have been so vulnerable to cynical manipulation if they had not been so desperate to do their duty by their children that the mere idea that they might be depriving their children one of the good things of life drove them to a frenzy of anguished consumption, but at the same time drove them to something that the timid skeptic can never understand.

In their anxiety to do right by their kids, they achieved the supreme self-sacrifice of the human ego — the doing of good without any expectation of getting credit for it. To question whether this self-sacrifice was worth it may be a legitimate function of the intellect; but it must not tempt you to overlook the most significant fact about such self-sacrifice, namely, that it happens at all.

It does, and it still continues to do so on a regular and systematic basis through much of our country, and especially at just this time of the year.

That is the heart of any great traditional institution: it is a regular and systematic mechanism for eliciting self-sacrifice from people who, without any expectation of reward or recognition, make the sacrifices they are called upon to make simply because they feel honor-boundto do it. For at the basis of any traditional institution there is a code of honor that is incumbent of all those who are called to do service for it.

The Key to Honor

Honor is a far more complicated concept than most people appear to realize. It does not arise from doing something beyond the call of duty — that is, more properly, the preserve of pride; rather honor comes from simply doing one’s duty, and yet it does not come from doing it eventually or under duress; and an example will show this.

Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones are called up to serve and defend their country. Neither is a volunteer, nor would either have ever thought of volunteering. Both are rather jumpy around guns. Yet Mr. Smith shows up for duty on the appointed day, whereas Mr. Jones takes to the hills, where, after much delay and expense, he is brought back to serve his term of service, which he does successfully.

Now both Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones had the same obligation to discharge, and Mr. Smith had done nothing supererogatory — he has simply reported for duty. Furthermore, both eventually did discharge their duty. Yet, despite of all this, Mr. Smith’s conduct was honorable, and Mr. Jones’ conduct was not. And here we have the key to honor.

Honor is doing what you have to do anyway, but doing it of your own free will, without any need to resort to threats or bribery or physical coercion. It is honor that makes most of us pay our fair share of income tax; honor that keeps most of us married despite moments of Wanderlust; honor that makes most of us look after our children until they can look after themselves, even when we would much prefer to kill them; and honor that makes parents keen that their children should have wonderful Christmas memories, when if they have to kill themselves.

Honor is something we don’t think much about anymore; and this neglect explains the otherwise baffling fact that so many of us are so quick to blame traditional institutions nowadays, and to insist that our own failings should really be attributed to the failings of whatever institution we have fallen out of the habit of honoring. For that is the essence of the “blame Christmas” mentality — the notion that our institutions should be able to manage themselves without our cooperation — the almost totemistic belief that they have a life of their own, wholly separate from ours, in precisely the same way that a young child views Christmas as the single-handed work of Santa Claus.

Institutions Worth Preserving

Institutions exist because we enact them. And they continue to exist because we continue to enact them in much the same way that our parents enacted them. Yet the problem is that often we have no personal incentive to enact them at all. Often, if we consulted only our impulses or our economic self-interest, we would not enact them at all. But that is precisely why a sense of honor is indispensable to any society that feels it has institutions that are worth preserving for more than a single generation.

No nation is rich enough to replace the sense of honor with the sense of economic self-interest; no has any nation been brutal enough to dispense with the need for honor by replacing it with fear, and none has tried, not even the most ruthless.

You do not have an army if every soldier must be dragged screaming and kicking to do his duty, nor a church if its members need guns pointed at their heads before they put their money in the offering bowl, nor a state where all must serve long prison terms before they are willing to pay their taxes. If the vast majority of your citizens are no longer willing to do their duties freely and spontaneously, then either these duties will not be done, or else force must be used to see that anything is done at all.

Thus no society that hopes to preserve its liberty can afford to lose its sense of honor — a truth that libertarians are all too apt to overlook. The invisible hand can achieve nothing if men refuse to behave honorably, as Adam Smith, author of The Theory of the Moral Sentiments,was keenly aware.

But there is a problem with honor: it cannot defend itself intellectually. A person who feels honor-bound to undertake an obligation is not doing it for a reason, and, if pressed to give one, often comes up with the most absurd nonsense imaginable. He is doing it because his code of honor makes him do it, because he could not hold his head up if he didn’t, because he would die of shame if he did otherwise.

Let this always be a warning sign that you are trifling with a person’s code of honor: when you see that the person with whom you are dealing continues to hold passionately to a conviction that he is completely unable to defend logically or, even, articulate rationally. When he feels strongly, but can’t explain why — then tread carefully.

Upholding Illusions

In our time, tragically, it is all too often the case that intellectuals, both liberal and conservative, refuse to take these warning signs seriously. By their training, they are accustomed to analyzing logical arguments and evaluating empirical evidence, and when neither is forthcoming, they are accustomed to suspect that they are dealing merely with a superstition or an irrational prejudice. Or, even more unfortunately, they apply their own dialectical skills to the pathetic attempts at self-justification offered by their less sophisticated opponents — a move that only sharpens the sense of anguished humiliation of those whom feel they are right, but simply cannot explain why.

Just go and ask the average family why they are so keen to make Christmas for their kids. Ask them to justify spending so much of their hard-earned money on a cynical contrivance of Madison Avenue, and then listen to what they will tell you. It will make no logical sense; each and every one of the reasons they put forth to explain their behavior will be transparent rubbish. Yet, refute their argument a thousand times, and you will do nothing to change their ways. They will continue to give their kids as good a Christmas as they can, and will teach their own children to do just the same with theirs, when their time comes.

Yes, they are sacrificing themselves to uphold an illusion — an illusion that they have long since seen through, but which they continue to feel honor-bound to perpetuate. What conduct could possibly be more irrational, or more glaringly at odds with the behavior of that interesting creature, the rational actor, or his cousin, economic man — especially when you see it carried among those who sacrifice most because they have the littlest reason to sacrifice at all.

Nine times out of ten, those who profit least from our society are the ones who feel themselves most honor-bound to support it; and to uphold, by their own cheerful doing of their duty, those institutions on which we all depend. They are the ones who cling irrationally to traditional Christmas, to traditional marriage, to traditional families, to traditional religion, to traditional patriotism. They are the ones who never insist on their rights, because they are too preoccupied carrying out their duties.

We may think they are dupes, but they do not. Indeed, they cannot even comprehend how anyone could possibly think this of them. For they know a secret that their more enlightened fellow citizens do not: they know that without their own irrational sense of honor, our entire society would come crashing to the ground — in which case, it would be worthwhile to ask the simple question, Who were the enlightened ones, and who were the dupes?

 Before you begin to blame Christmas for not being what it once was, or marriage, or religion, or our country, please ask yourself, Is this the fault of the institution? Or, to put it even more bluntly, is it the fault of those who, through thick and through thin, have continued to dutifully support these institutions with their day-to-day sacrifices, even though others in their society, far more prosperous and successful than they, have abused and misused them? 

written by Lee Harris, published 12/24/2003

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