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I'll Be Home for Christmas

When thinking about Christmas and social control, it is easy to fall into tired analyses about the evils of capitalism or the Foucauldian surveillance of the elf-on-the-shelf. One might further lament the perverse influence of Christianity on our civil society and the ways we come together in celebration. However, in contemporary America, Christmas is more than ever a secular holiday, marking the winter solstice and giving families and communities reprieve from the banalities of their jobs, their daily routines, and their hopelessly exhausting political theater.

A key element of the Christmas spirit, often ignored by social critiques by the trigger-happy commentariat, is that of the centrality of family. Contrary to tearing down ancient rituals of our society, defending the need of family to come together in love and celebration is not tired or boring, but a social fact vital to recognize and accept as we face the challenges of today. There’s a reason “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is the title of at least three films and many musical recordings.

The ethic of family unity is a human universal and therein lies one of the primary benefits of Christmas. The family is an institution which survives today due to its resounding success as a method of social organization.

In most times and places, families were responsible for production, distribution, and consumption of commodities, for reproduction and socialization of the next generation, for co-residence and transmission of property. And families generally still are. – International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences

As such, rather than lamenting the presence of our least favorite family members at such gatherings, we should be thankful for the power of the family to provide for our social reproduction. The institution of family is a clear example of Hayekian emergent order:

We are led to do things by circumstances of which we are largely unaware. We do not know the needs which we satisfy, nor do we know the sources of the things which we get. We stand in an enormous framework into which we fit ourselves by obeying certain rules of conduct that we have never made and never understood, but which have their reason.Friedrich Hayek

A fundamental aspect of this Hayekian framework is indeed the family. And we fit ourselves into it through following the basic rule: go home and see your family at Christmas. Or invite them over to eat and drink well and celebrate the beauty and power of family relationships. Marx was wrong on many points, but perhaps most obviously on his theory of the economic sub-structure. Such a theoretical formulation is reductionist, and the concept of family is surely more fundamental than that of economics.

So the exhortations to return home to your family are not (at least not entirely) a promulgation of capitalist ideology to get you to part with you hard-earned money as the handmaiden of an exploitative economic system. They rather serve a vital function in reifying those structures which guide our social relations. Our society has advanced to this point, at least in part, thanks to valuable institutions such as the family. Even if we do not understand why, we must honor this social fact through our annual secular ritual.

Of course, this year of pandemic does not present an appropriate opportunity to have large family gatherings. Hopefully this year’s lack of family celebrations impresses upon us all the value of the traditional social institution.

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