Examining people's search behaviour using Google Trends suggests that Pope Francis may be right - Christmas is being held hostage by materialism and excess. But we shouldn't forget the great work many people, communities and organisations still do.
In his Christmas message, Pope Francis dismayingly conceded that materialism “has taken Christmas hostage. It needs to be freed.” He urged followers to celebrate Christmas authentically; to recognise Jesus’ core message of simplicity, humility and empathy with the marginalised.
Very few would argue that Christmas has come to be associated with excess, over-consumption and unrelenting social pressure to spend, spend, spend. Politicians and other civic leaders are unlikely to urge people otherwise: the Christmas frenzy props up an economy reliant on consumer spending. But many people will say that Christmas still serves a vital social function, by focusing minds on social issues such as poverty and inequality (see the RSA’s Inclusive Growth Commission), and spurring people to act on the festive period’s spirit of generosity, by donating, volunteering or helping out with important causes. This side of Christmas is symbolised by the various donation appeals, stories about soup kitchens and Christmas messages from leading figures such as the Queen.
But has the pro-social, pro-empathy dimension of Christmas been hijacked by individualistic materialism? Or is Christmas, indeed, a great opportunity for people to reflect on the things that really matter?
Drawing on an (unscientific) exercise using Google Trends (see graphs below), I would agree with Pope Francis – Christmas continues to be held hostage by material excess.
Google Trends measures interest in particular search terms over time and during different periods of the year, showing how it diverges from peak periods of interest (I looked at trends over five years). Rather than spurring people to find out more about the important issues and challenges of the day, the level of interest in topics such as poverty, inequality, volunteering and charity, actually dips during the Christmas period, in some cases very significantly so. (However, while Christmas may not stimulate civic soul-searching, Google Trends confirms it is most certainly a time of charitable giving: terms such as ‘donate to charity’ see an increased interest.)
In contrast, search terms that would indicate materialism/consumerism – for example iPhone, shopping and sales – unsurprisingly see a spike. It appears that Christmas, if Google Trends is anything to go by, is a time of materialist escapism: where we forget about the worries of the world and hide ourselves in bunkers of food, drink and shitty gifts – but also give to charity to convince ourselves we’re not entirely soulless.
Disclaimer: it is not the intention of this blog to denigrate the fantastic and selfless work that so many people, communities and organisations do during Christmas. It is simply to point out, in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way using a perhaps questionable methodology, that at a macro-level there is much more we can do to capitalise on the potential of Christmas.
Google trends search: Poverty
Google trends search: Inequality
Google trends search: Volunteering
Google trends search: Donate to charity
Google trends search: iPhone
Google trends search: Sales
Google trends search: Shopping