Undercover Economist

Christmas presence

Christmas looms. Personally, I’m delighted. I have young children, they love Christmas and, therefore, so do I. If you must, by all means moan about the stress and the expense and the orgy of greed. But you are surely compelled to acknowledge that Christmas, as celebrated in modern western societies, has evolved into the perfect festival for children.

The anticipation, the decorations, the carols, the traditions, the magic of the stockings being filled, and of course the sweets and the toys – it’s hard to imagine what could beat it. (And yes: for broken families or those unable to participate without financial hardship, it can be miserable. That’s not a flaw in the festival itself, but a recognition that families need certain resources to join in properly.)

Some families, of course, choose not to take part. My five-year-old daughter came home from school last year to announce that her classmate “didn’t believe in Father Christmas”. My hackles rose in indignation at the vicious rumour, until my daughter pointed out her classmate was a Muslim. Hmm. Well, yes – I suppose it is reasonable for Muslim children to deny the existence of Saint Nick.

It’s easy for atheists to join in with much of the spirit of Christmas: dig into the turkey, pass the brandy, and go easy on the God thing. But for families bringing their children up in an entirely different religion, the whole business is a bit more tricky. And if their children have classmates who are eagerly anticipating Santa Claus, these families may feel compelled to fight fire with fire by creating a substitute Christmas.

The idea might sound strange, but three economists, Ran Abramitzky, Liran Einav and Oren Rigbi, have recently discovered evidence of exactly that. In research published recently in The Economic Journal, they explore what effect Christmas might have on the celebration of festivals in an entirely different religion: specifically, Hanukkah, a relatively minor Jewish festival which just happens to take place in December.

One clue comes from a survey of undergraduates in Tel Aviv and Stanford. The Israeli students overwhelmingly included Passover and Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, among the three most important Jewish holidays, with Hanukkah, Sukkot and Shavuot as the main also-rans. In the US, Hanukkah was emphatically on a par with Passover and Rosh Hashanah: it is simply a more prominent festival there.

The economists looked for stronger evidence than this, and found it. They discovered that the surge in Hanukkah celebrations is stronger in families with children under 18, and that this effect itself is stronger among reform Jews – who are far more likely than orthodox Jews to be living in Christian neighbourhoods and sending their children to largely Christian schools. The effect is even discernible in retail sales figures. However measured, Jews who have children and mix with non-Jews tend to get into Hanukkah in a big way, just as Christmas approaches.

It will be interesting to see whether the finding generalises.

Do Islamic festivals compete with Christmas where Muslims are an integrated minority group? What happens when Jews are a minority in Islamic countries – do they compete with the most “attractive” Islamic festivals?

Yet the other striking conclusion from all this is how gregarious our festivals are. If Hanukkah responds to Christmas, isn’t it reasonable to suggest that Christmas also feeds off itself? The bigger the fuss we see others making, the bigger the fuss we ourselves tend to make. And of course, competitive gift-giving is hardly limited to rivalries between religions. Christmas, then, in all its consumerist glory, is a self-perpetuating piece of groupthink.

I love it. But it is possible to have too much of a good thing – even at Christmas.

Also published at ft.com.