Has Christmas become too commercialized? Anyone who has watched A Charlie Brown Christmas will remember how Linus, in a powerful soliloquy, explains the true meaning of Christmas to Charlie Brown: at its heart, Christmas is about the birth of Jesus.
But Yaron Brook rejects that idea. He’s the president and the executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute, an organization that promotes objectivism, a philosophy detailed in Rand’s writings and books, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.
As an advocate of objectivism, Brook believes in the morality of rational self-interest, in making your life the best life it can be and adhering to principles that will guide you in pursuing your own happiness, your own success and your own flourishing as a human being. Thus, self-sacrifice and altruism are immoral, as they involve giving something up for nothing or of lesser value. (Giving to charity can be good if it enhances your life, or if the charity’s values are values that are important to you, he says.)
Brook also believes that Christmas has become a non-Christian holiday, one separate from the ideas of sacrifice and altruism. He says it has, in part, become a celebration of consumerism. And he thinks that is a good thing. He spoke to CBC News by phone.
CBC News: Every year there seems to be a complaint that Christmas has become too commercialized and that its true meaning is being lost. Do you agree?
Brook: I think they are confusing the true meaning of Christmas. I think the question ultimately is what is the true meaning of Christmas. I think the real true meaning of Christmas is benevolence towards man, and it’s gift giving and it’s the enjoyment and celebration of life.
And I think that one important manifestation of that celebration for life, that benevolence, is the buying of gifts, is the lights and having a good time. And being consumers is part of that. People enjoy shopping, they enjoy shopping for themselves, they enjoy shopping for other people. It’s a very benevolent activity. It’s a win-win activity and I think that is the spirit of Christmas. Consumerism, properly understood, is exactly what Christmas is about.
CBC News: But isn’t it supposed to be about self-sacrifice? Isn’t it supposed to be about charity? It seems the holiday has become a celebration of materialism.
Brook: I don’t think it’s a celebration of materialism qua materialism. It’s a celebration of life. As such, the material or the materialism out there is part of life — how we make life better. We consume stuff but we consume stuff because it enhances our life and our life is not material, we experience life spirituality. But there’s no conflict, in my view, between spiritual and the material. The material enhances the spiritual — the function of consciousness is to make it possible for us to think and to produce and therefore to be able to enjoy the material world.
The material and spiritual go hand and hand, and I think Christmas illustrates that. You know you had to be productive and to make money all year to be able to have money to be able to spend it. All this is very non-Christian. And I think that’s what upsets people, that it isn’t linked to these ideas of sacrifice and self-denial, which I think are vices. I don’t think they’re virtues. So this is why I love Christmas so much, because it’s the celebration of the opposite of sacrifice, and the opposite of self-denial. It’s the celebration of success and prosperity.
CBC News: That does seem to run counter to what the message of Christmas is all about.
Brook: Yes, I think that runs counter to the Christian message of Christmas. I think our culture has rejected the Christian message of Christmas, which is a good thing.
The Christian message of Christmas is about sacrifice and about self-denial, and the fact is that American culture has always been more pagan than Christian.
Christmas is a consumer holiday, it’s a holiday of celebration. It’s a holiday not of sacrifice but of enjoyment, of fun, of pursuit of happiness, of pursuit of their own values. That’s what makes it such a wonderful holiday. But it’s clearly non-Christian, and it’s not altruistic, it’s non-sacrificial, but that’s the good in America, that it rejects those ideas.
CBC News: The message though of "buy buy buy." You don’t think that’s over the top? Are you saying there aren’t enough Christmas ads?
Brook: You walk around in New York and the big department stores are filled with lights and they’re very inviting, and they’re very warm and comforting when it’s cold outside. I think it’s so beautiful to look at and if that invites you in to purchase and to buy stuff, why is that a bad thing? It’s a good thing as long as people are doing it rationally, they’re not over-consuming, they’re not buying things they can’t afford which is always a danger.
CBC News: Do you take a dim view on Santa Claus?
Brook: No, because what I like about Santa Claus is he doesn’t give the same gifts to everybody. Santa Claus is a judger. He judges the good kids from the bad kids and gives the better toys to good kids. In the egalitarian world we live in today, where you’re not supposed to judge anybody, where you’re not supposed to say some things are good and some things are better.… there’s Santa Claus keeping a record of everything you do and evaluating you. So that aspect of it I like.
He’s very jovial, he’s very happy, he represents kind of a positive spirit. The fact that the gifts are coming out of nowhere and supposedly he’s giving them out of the goodness of his heart, I mean there’s nothing wrong with being benevolent like that. Santa Claus is a very benevolent, positive character.
CBC News: But he’s taking the time to make the toys. Isn’t he sacrificing?
Brook: He does it joyously. He’s having fun doing it He’s not suffering. He’s not a Jesus-like character who suffers the most horrific death possible. Compare Santa to how Jesus acts. Jesus is the model of morality because he’s willing to suffer, literally suffer, for our sins. What Santa Claus does is joyfully reward us for our virtues. He joyfully comes and he gives us gifts because we’re good, because we’ve done good stuff during the year.
This interview has been edited and condensed.