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Shop Til You Drop: The True Meaning of Christmas

David Cameron's Christmas card shows that the man truly has his finger on the weakening pulse of the nation. Not a Christmas tree, baby Jesus or Santa in sight: 'It's not very festive,' tutted... How wrong is that?

David Cameron's Christmas card shows that the man truly has his finger on the weakening pulse of the nation. Not a Christmas tree, baby Jesus or Santa in sight: 'It's not very festive,' tutted The Guardian (Saturday 7 December 2013).

How wrong is that? The black and white photo of the PM, wife Samantha, and daughter Florence perfectly captures the most prevalent meaning of Christmas - nostalgia for an earlier, probably imagined, time of happy families and domestic bliss.

President Obama was criticised two years ago for his Christmas video featuring the family dog wandering through the White House.

I'm always struck when I visit the United States in December by the lack of religious imagery surrounding Christmas. It's all about family, friends and presents. The angry Conservative Right will claim this is political correctness gone wrong in a time of aggressive multiculturalism but they are badly mistaken. If there's anything Americans sanctify more than their flag and their guns, it's their families.

The nostalgia is not just for family feasting and fighting, central though those are to the proper celebration of Christmas, but about gifts given or received. As we embed ourselves in the powerful memories of a social, secular Christmas and reproduce those actions we engage in the idealised drama once more and perform essential sacred acts. We go shopping.

Gift-giving is possibly the most sacred Christmas act we can perform, and not just because it's what the Wise Men did when they arrived at the crib bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) a French sociologist who specialised in religion, influenced the disciplines of sociology and anthropology through his original analysis that gift-exchange was a social act, binding people together in relationships of reciprocity, debt and obligation.

Rituals of gift-exchange are not based on utilitarian morality or market economies linked to private property and ownership transfer. Gifts are tied to the identity of the giver, usually representing a group to which the giver belongs. These social acts, argued Mauss, have the pretence of being voluntary, innocent trifles, when in fact they are loaded with meaning and expectation.

The need to reciprocate creates a relationship in anticipation of the gift return. As they prompt acts of giving in return, gifts create a relationship between giver and receiver and ultimately promote social bonding and cohesion.

You don't have to be a church-attending, bible-believing Christian or even a "cultural Christian" to get swept up in the rush to give and receive. Times have changed from the days of 'Sunday Christians', when many people went to church but didn't otherwise practise, to 'Christmas Christians', when few people attend church apart from Christmas. Their attendance does not derive from their desire to observe a sacred moment of Christianity. Indeed, the only day of the year when Christians are strongly called, even required, to attend church is when the resurrection of Jesus is commemorated at Easter. Committed Christians attend then, but cultural Christians don't. Maybe it's time to invent Easter gift-giving.

So, holidays are coming and the shopping frenzy begins. Pour on the presents - for your dog, your sister, your neighbour. Make stuff if you can't afford to buy but give, receive and give some more. Remember, as you reach for the sticky tape, that isn't a best-selling book you're wrapping for your Dad - it's the glue that holds society together.

Dr Abby Day, Reader in Race, Faith and Culture in the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths has been studying cultural Christianity for more than 10 years. Her latest book is Believing in Belonging: Social Identity in the Modern World, Oxford University Press 2013.

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