“The Geopolitics of Christmas” is a great secular follow-up piece to my “The Wonderful Commercialism of Christmas” from a few days ago. It also illustrates an essential point left unspoken in that essay.

If anything comes clear in this excellent piece by Ian Morris, it is the degree to which hard power (e.g., the geopolitical pre-eminence of the Christian English-speaking powers since the 18th Century) shapes and changes the cultures of the rest of the world. This is perhaps the single most important argument for the continued leadership of the United States: the desire that dominance produces in others to emulate American ideas of liberty, human rights and so forth. A Chinese-led world would not only not value those things, but would see both ancient and modern Chinese values — both Confucian and Communist — as better, superior, and the way to success.

In a great many respects, that would be a much darker world indeed, not least for the Chinese. 

The Geopolitics of Christmas

by Ian Morris
Dec. 30, 2015

For Christians in Japan, 1597 was a bad year. After a decade or more of worrying that this foreign religious sect was weakening the country, Japanese officials decided to implement a final solution. They rounded up all the believers they could find, tortured them and then crucified them. To make sure, the government repeated the exercise in 1613, 1630 and 1632, driving Christianity underground for centuries. Even today, less than one Japanese person in a 100 is Christian. And yet on Dec. 25, Japan’s big cities were all lit up for Christmas. Young couples went to parties, sang around Christmas trees and feasted on Kentucky Fried Chicken before opening presents brought by Santa-san.

Turkey, which has even fewer Christians (barely one Turk in 500 follows Jesus), sees very similar scenes, as Stratfor Editor-in-Chief David Judson described in his Christmas Day column. In Taiwan, where just one person in 20 is Christian, Dec. 25 is a public holiday — Taipei is crowded with carol singers and Santa dispenses gifts in the major department stores. Even on Bali, where only one person in 40 is Christian, celebrants can buy Christmas trees made from chicken feathers.

All this would probably have delighted Christians back in 1597, but even so, Christmas is still not a truly global festival. Pakistanis also take Dec. 25 off, but they do it to celebrate the birthday of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the country’s first governor general, not that of Jesus. Somalia’s government this year banned Christmas celebrations altogether, and in Brunei, even though one person in 10 is Christian, anyone donning a Santa suit faces up to five years in jail.

Whether and how people celebrate Christmas is clearly a complicated affair, bearing only a subtle relationship to Christianity itself. In Italy and Greece, two of the most Christian countries on Earth, Christmas is one of the year’s highlights, but there are almost no signs of Santa or his elves. Even in Rovaniemi, a Finnish town that claims to be Santa’s official home, the man in red — called Joulupukki by locals — was barely known until the 1950s. Before then, the name Joulupukki referred to “the Christmas goat,” a terrifying spirit owing more to the Norse god Odin than to St. Nicholas. Dressed in goatskins and horns, villagers would find out who was naughty or nice so they could seek out and punish the sinners.

The contemporary, increasingly international version of Christmas is less a religious festival than a celebration of affluence, modernity, and above all Westernness. The history of Japan’s Christmases illustrates this neatly: still illegal when Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Edo Bay in 1853, Christmas was embraced by the pro-Western Meiji government in the 1870s, banned again in the 1930s, and then, along with baseball and rock music, seized on even more enthusiastically after 1945.

Without anyone willing it, Christmas has become part of a package of Western soft power, which the political scientist Joseph Nye defines as a set of “intangible factors such as institutions, ideas, values, culture, and the perceived legitimacy of policies.” If, as increasing numbers of strategists argue, soft power counts for more in the struggle for global influence than military and economic “hard power,” then Christmas should be a matter of serious concern to geopolitical thinkers everywhere.

Or should it? “The trouble with soft power,” the historian Niall Ferguson insists, “is that it’s, well, soft. All over the Islamic world kids enjoy (or would like to enjoy) bottles of Coke, Big Macs, CDs by Britney Spears and DVDs starring Tom Cruise” (Ferguson wrote these words in 2009). “Do any of these things make them love the United States more? Strangely not.”

I take my question for this month’s column from Nye and Ferguson’s disagreement. If, like me, you have spent the last few days tucking into turkey sandwiches and gorging yourself on Christmas cookies or mince pies, have you been doing your bit to support Western hegemony? Or have you just been living in the past as hard power — the only thing that really matters — shifts inexorably from West to East?

Long-term history suggests that the question is in fact not so simple, and that neither Nye nor Ferguson got things quite right. For thousands of years, hard and soft power have always gone hand-in-hand. No one can have one without the other, for the very good reason that each generates the other. But that said, soft power is never a package deal. No society ever swallows whole the culture, institutions, and values of another. Rather, people pick and choose, adopting and adapting those bits of a great power’s culture that seem useful or fun (such as Christmas, Coke, and Big Macs) within their current way of doing things while ignoring those bits (such as democracy, gender equality, and the rule of law) that do not.

Some of the earliest examples of the exercise of soft power are among the most informative. By 500 B.C., the city-states of ancient Greece had established a significant lead over their Mediterranean neighbors in military, financial, and organizational hard power. They used this lead not only to plant colonies all the way from Crimea to Spain and make one of the biggest land-grabs in ancient history but also to turn much of the Mediterranean into a system of markets that made Greece one of the richest of all pre-modern civilizations. Not surprisingly, Greek soft power won admirers far and wide, but since the 1980s, archaeologists have shown that to begin with, there was really only one thing that people wanted from the Greeks: their wine.

Per Vinum Influentia

I spent every summer between 2000 and 2006 directing the excavation of Monte Polizzo, a native Sicilian village occupied between about 700 and 550 B.C. by people called the Elymians. Before 700, Elymian material culture bore almost no trace of Greek influence, but by 550 almost all Elymian drinking vessels — cups, jugs, mixing bowls — were either imports from Greece or (much more often) local products that directly imitated Greek styles. By 550 the traditional Elymian alcoholic drink, barley beer, had been almost completely replaced by wine, which, like the cups and jugs, was sometimes imported from Greece but was increasingly grown locally. After 550, Elymians also adapted the Greek alphabet to record their own language, minted Greek-style coins, built Greek-style temples, and assimilated their own mythology and gods to Greek versions.

The success of Greek soft power was extraordinary and has few parallels, but Ferguson’s core point remains valid: Greek soft power stayed soft. It created no empires. Few people adopted and adapted Greek culture quite as vigorously as the Roman elite of the second century B.C.; yet although Roman senators sent their sons to be educated in Athens and wrote histories of their own city in polished literary Greek, they also showed little hesitation about using their hard power to conquer and plunder Greece. Romans burned Corinth and looted its artworks in 146 B.C., sacked Athens even more violently in 86 B.C., and snuffed out Cleopatra’s Egypt — the last independent Greek-ruled kingdom — in 30 B.C.

Reflecting around 19 B.C. on the contrast between Greek soft and Roman hard power, the Roman poet Horace famously wrote that “Captive Greece took captive her savage conqueror.” The reality, though, was uglier. The Greek superiority in soft power simply did not matter in the face of Roman superiority in hard power. In a cruel irony, Rome then annexed Greek soft power for itself, creating a fusion Greco-Roman culture and spreading it through military conquest as far as Britain and Mesopotamia.

The Romans became masters at marrying hard and soft power. They never made the mistake of thinking that soft power could substitute for hard, but neither did they delude themselves that hard power could hold an empire together. The secret, the Roman historian Tacitus suggested, was to use hard power first, robbing others of their freedom to resist, and then to turn to soft power to compensate them for their loss. “The population was gradually led into the demoralizing temptations of arcades, baths, and sumptuous banquets,” he noted of the Britons who had been defeated by his father-in-law, Agricola, in the 70s A.D. “These unsuspecting Britons spoke of such novelties as ‘civilization,’ when in fact they were only a feature of their enslavement.”

Every successful great power has understood this. Liu Bang, the first ruler of China’s Han dynasty (reigned 202-195 B.C.), is supposed to have said that he could conquer an empire from horseback but had to dismount to rule it, and over the next several centuries the Han Empire forged a highly seductive version of soft power. When Liu seized the throne, hardly anyone outside the Yellow River Valley spoke the same language he did or considered themselves to belong to a unified civilization. But by A.D. 220, when the dynasty fell, even people living south of the Yangtze considered themselves to be Han Chinese, and Confucius was revered as far away as Southeast Asia, Korea and Japan.

Similar patterns have played out in more recent times. In the 18th century, France could muster more hard power than any other state in Europe, and from Russia to Virginia, anyone who considered themselves cultured spoke French, dressed in French styles, and appreciated French cuisine and wines.

When Britain pushed France aside in the 19th century, the Royal Navy and the City of London began projecting hard power almost everywhere on Earth, but Britain’s soft power reached farther still. Much of the globalized culture with which we still live, from the role of English as the international language of science and commerce to the male business suit or the humble sandwich, was born in Britain in this era.

A new way of seeing Christmas — as a partially secular celebration of love, family, brotherhood and generosity — became increasingly important given the British middle classes’ angst over the socially corrosive effects of its Industrial Revolution, and thereby became one of Britain’s chief cultural exports to those countries that leaned toward the West. The decisive year was surely 1843, which saw both the printing in London of the world’s first commercial Christmas cards and the publication of Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol (which established “Merry Christmas” as the standard seasonal salutation).

However, the decade either side of this annus mirabilis also saw a string of long-lived innovations, including the establishment of “traditional” English carols as a key part of Christmas. A few, including “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman” and “The First Noel,” were genuinely ancient, going back to at least 1500, but now received a new lease on life. But most of today’s favorites, including “Once in Royal David’s City” (1848/49), “The Holly and the Ivy” (1849), and “Good King Wenceslas” (1853) were brand new creations. Others, like “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (words 1739, music 1840) and “Joy to the World” (words 1719, music 1839), had eighteenth-century lyrics that were now spruced up with the jaunty new tunes.

Victorian Britain’s best-known contribution to Christmas, though, must be the decorated pine tree. Famously, this was originally a continental European tradition, going back either to Tallinn in Estonia (1441) or Riga in Lithuania (1510), but its globalization began when Queen Victoria’s German husband, Albert, set one up in Windsor Castle in 1841 — although British monarchs had in fact been doing this since 1800. A craze for Christmas trees swept the country after the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family singing carols around one in 1848, and then crossed the Atlantic when Godey’s Lady’s Book reproduced the picture in 1850.

A Monopoly on Celebration

Across the next hundred years, as the United States’ hard power steadily overtook Britain’s, so, too, did its soft power, including its interpretation of Christmas. The central British idea of a festival of love, family and selflessness survived, along with many of the specifically British forms of celebration, but Americans dominated all new celebratory genres. Between 1934 — which saw the publication not only of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” but also of “Winter Wonderland” — and 1960 (“Must be Santa”), Americans enjoyed a golden age of non-religious Christmas songs. “Jingle Bells,” virtually the only Christmas standard penned outside this quarter-century, is the exception that proves the rule; when released in 1857 it was intended as a Thanksgiving song, but was repurposed for Christmas by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters in 1943.

For Christmas films, the 1940s were the classical era, giving us “Holiday Inn” (1942), “Christmas in Connecticut” (1945), the outstanding “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), and “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947), while for television the mid-1960s were the glory years, generating “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in 1964, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in 1965, and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” in 1966. British cultural entrepreneurs mounted spirited rearguard actions — “Love Actually,” released in 2003, has a good claim to be the finest Christmas film since the 1940s — but for the past 50 years Christmas has been an American export.

What are we to make of this 2,500-year history of soft power? The most obvious point, I think, is that soft power is not something that statesmen can cynically manipulate as a political tool. Whether we are talking about ancient Greek wine or American Christmas movies, soft power is only effective if people genuinely like it; otherwise, it is merely propaganda, more likely to alienate its target audiences than to win them over.

I want to close not so much with an answer to the question that divides Nye and Ferguson as with a new question. Why, throughout history, have people so consistently been attracted to at least some aspects of the cultures of those who wield hard power?

Only two theories seem to have the potential to fit all the cases mentioned in this column, but neither of them is very politically correct. First, we might suggest that people simply love winners. This is a geostrategic version of the notorious Stockholm syndrome, which holds that hostages fall in love with their captors — according to the FBI’s Hostage Barricade database, 8 percent of all hostages display some version of the syndrome.

If this is correct, people began admiring parts of Roman civilization in the third and second centuries B.C. because Rome was becoming the biggest bully on the block, and turned away from it between the fifth and eighth centuries A.D. because Roman hard power was ceasing to matter. Similarly, we would have to conclude that some aspects of American culture — including Christmas — went global in the 20th century because the United States became the sole superpower, and will lose their appeal if America loses its military and economic dominance.

A second possibility is that people adopt and adapt elements of the cultures of great powers because they correctly see that those cultures are superior to the alternatives. Ancient Greece, Rome, Han China and the modern West certainly produced better science and technology than their neighbors; is it really so unthinkable that, in their particular historical contexts, their music, art, and even their festivals also worked better than the alternatives?

If so, the British reinterpretation of Christmas in the 1840s-50s succeeded because it was exactly what industrializing societies needed, and the American version forged in the 1940s-60s succeeded even more because it was exactly what globalized, increasingly postindustrial societies needed. So long as this remains the case, conservatives need not worry about a “War on Christmas.” But as America’s hard power continues to erode and as the world continues to change, we must expect Christmas — and the whole bundle of American soft power — to erode and change with it.


— Ian Morris is a historian and archaeologist. He is currently Stanford University’s Jean and Rebecca Willard Professor of Classics and serves on the faculty of the Stanford Archaeology Center. He has published twelve books and has directed excavations in Greece and Italy. “The Geopolitics of Christmas” is republished with permission of Stratfor.