The Lesson of Whoville Revisited: Community, Wealth, and Celebration

Posted on December 27, 2009

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In a fit of yuletide cheer and nostalgia, I watched two classics this Christmas: A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life. Thank you, YouTube!

I was struck how, in both films, wealth is closely associated with community and Christmas itself is characterized as the time to celebrate their association.

In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge’s great flaw is that he cuts himself off from love, family, and community for the single-minded pursuit of wealth which he irresponsibly hoards. When he is redeemed by the spirits, he shares his wealth and he rejoins society. In this story, the decision to do both are treated almost identically.

Similarly, George Bailey’s flaw, in It’s A Wonderful Life, is that he fails to see the true value of his life and is too quick to cut himself off from love, family, and community. When he is redeemed by Clarence, his guardian angle, Bailey’s value to the community is symbolized by the basket of cash his friends raise for him. He is the richest man in Bedford Falls because of his friends and the wealth they generate for him.

Both stories are clear: wealth shouldn’t be pursued for its own sake, nevertheless, it’s a tangible and meaningful symbol of community and Christmas is an ideal time to celebrate both.

While it is tempting to say these uniquely “Western, liberal, and secular” accounts of wealth, community, and Christmas miss the mark, I’m not convinced that assessment is fair.

For example, Jesus himself is a gift from God, his greatest miracles involve the provision of resources, and the daily ceremony that celebrates his life and sacrifice involves the sharing of bread and wine.

Moreover, it doesn’t take too much effort to find other festivals and ceremonies that seem to express the same relationship between wealth and community: e.g. the potlatch.

Even festivals and ceremonies in which the participants deny themselves material pleasures for some period of time almost always involve a feast before or after. Ascetic cults also tend to believe their present day sacrifice will be rewarded in the sweet hereafter.

Humans, it seems, like to celebrate community by celebrating (and sharing) wealth.

And, the more I think about it, the more this makes sense. The very surplus of resources we describe as “wealth” is not possible without community and community only really begins when two or more humans share resources. Indeed, the species only exists because males and females share their genetic resources and because parents share resources with their children.

I suppose one might object to the celebration of wealth and community, from the perspective of environmental sustainability, however, I think this objection also misses the mark. The health of the planet will not be addressed by renouncing wealth but by using it more efficiently and responsibly — that is, by accounting for its true costs. And, when all is said and done, I’m not convinced any environmental organization would refuse a healthy donation from a latter day Scrooge.

Because I grew up at a time when people lamented the commercialization of Christmas, the characterization of Christmas as a celebration of the relationship between wealth and community at first seemed problematic to me but, the more I think about it, this celebration makes perfect sense. Community is not reducible to wealth but wealth — and the sharing of it — is a tangible and legitimate expression of community.

It occurs to me now: that’s exactly the lesson the Grinch learns. Oh well, better later than never. Fortunately, I did not steal anyone’s Christmas to learn it. Although, arguably, I stole a few of my own Christmases over the years.

Did anyone else learn any lessons over Christmas?

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Posted in: My Life