Out of Nothing, from a Frozen Land: Santa Claus and the Disaster of Unlimited Consumption

14/12/2015 12:13 GMT | Updated 11/12/2016 10:12 GMT

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As decorations have been put up around town this week, in the north of England floods have hit Cumbria, while over in Paris leaders from island nations have pleaded with rich countries like the UK to do more to act over climate change. The arctic is thawing. The ice is melting. So is Father Christmas feeling the heat? Is the grotto installing flood defenses?

With all this going on I've been thinking about the environmental economics of the Santa Claus myth. Here is a guy who creates vast riches out of... nothing. Children are required to assume that each year he manufactures and distributes a world's worth of toys, with zero apparent consumption of raw materials and without incurring any labour costs. Santa then flies around the world without expending aviation fuel or producing carbon emissions. That his reindeer can fly is only one side of the magic: neither do they shit. They produce energy from nothing, with no waste. Their home, the mysterious icy north, is a magical bounty, one that gives without exhaustion, goods produced by an invisible labour force who need no pay, nor sustenance.

Except, as we put up Christmas trees in shirtsleeves, that world is melting.

If we ever needed an ecological reading of Christmas, it's now. We persist in sending out Victorian Christmas cards, with unchanging snow scenes depicting a comfortable glowing, bucolic world frozen in time. The truth is very different. Far from being a magical, boundless source of raw materials, our earth is very finite. The resources we use do not come out of nothing. When we wake on Christmas day, the presents at the end of our bed have not appeared from nowhere, but have been drilled from oil reserves, mined from precarious African states and milled from trees that once stood in forests.

The problem with the Father Christmas myth is not simply that he doesn't exist, it's that in the spectre of his non-existence remains the stench of a worldview that our consumption can be endless without consequence and still the ice will stay frozen, still the snow will fall in gentle, easy drifts.

It won't.

The sleigh will soon need to be a boat or 4 x 4. The smooth journey around the star-lit night sky of Christmas Eve is increasingly likely to be blighted by extreme weather events: floods, storms, balmy warm evenings, daffodils poking their heads up early, and birds confused when to fly or return.

Some years ago as friends started becoming parents I remember arguments about whether lying to children about Father Christmas was morally wrong, and this in the context of my own religious upbringing where one paternal 'big Other' was meant to give way to another, more powerful and enduring one who too had performed the miracle of creatio ex nihilo.

In an environmental crisis such as the one we are facing, I'm less worried about children believing in a mythical gift-giver who is make a judgement about their moral worth and adding or subtracting to the presents they deserve. This is perhaps damaging enough psychologically, but what is more urgent is that we desist from the lie about unlimited production and zero-consequence consumption.

My hunch is that to do this we need a reinvigorated vision of what gifts should be.

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida once theorised about the problem of giving gifts. We so quickly collapse them into mechanisms of exchange, giving in order to get. For him, something approaching the perfect gift would be one where nothing material were given and the person receiving it didn't even know that it had been given.

I think we subconsciously understand something of this: because a gift is a gift - an act of generosity - it is meant to expect nothing in return. To aid this process we 'disappear' our presents behind layers of wrapping paper. This temporary hiding of the gift removes it from the immediate level of exchange, though it does so imperfectly.

This is perhaps one of the roots of the Father Christmas myth: beyond simply hiding our gifts in paper we remove ourselves as the giver by inventing a fantasy subject who does the giving, one with whom no exchange can be made, nor any return present given.

Out of nothing, something is given, and it is in resonance with this archetype of seasonal generosity that the familiar nativity story appears each year. Silently, silently, a gift is slipped to us from the Almighty, wrapped in sheets, hidden away inside a baby's body - yet ready to perform some moral weighing of our actions.

Yet this deep-rooted 'something from nothing' attitude to gifts has wreaked destruction on the materially finite earth. The situation, scientists tell us, is critical. Among other things, to avoid disaster we need a new vision of what it means to give gifts.

In a world of religious violence, intolerant rhetoric and the displacement of so many suffering war and oppression, that we need to be generous to one another is indisputable. What we desperately need though is a form of generosity that isn't blindly impoverishing our planet, sustained by a mythical figure who can produce endless toys at no cost. What we need is to return to a form of generosity rooted in redistribution.

Perhaps what children should hear this Christmas is less of the portly Santa who can afford to give without thought of what is consumed. What might be better instead is to get back to the root myth, the story of Saint Nicolas, who in great secrecy was traditionally said to have given from his own purse to the poor in order that they might not fall into destitution.

This is the better meaning of Christmas: not that we receive from a supply that will never end, but that, in the dead of night, in acknowledgement of the limited resources that this world has, we recognise our common worth and equality and share what we have with those who have less.