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  • Writer's pictureKatie Wilson-Ellis

The Philosophy of Christmas: Granny, Santa and Presents

As we near the end of the year, Christmas is fast approaching. Soon we’ll be watching Love Actually, opening piles of presents, and listening to our grandparents tell the same stories that they do every year. But, as a budding philosophy student, I wonder what exactly this all means? Call this my ethics of Christmas if you like, but exploring the key elements of Christmas through a philosophical lens is a way to understand the key 3 components that make up my Christmas break: family, gifts and, of course, Santa Claus.

Family, for me, is everything, especially at Christmas. And though I joke, my grandma’s stories make me just as happy as the first time I heard them. But what do philosophers have to say about the value of family? When studying any ethical theory, the consideration of prima facie obligations arises to measure its success: a prima facie obligation is defined by W. D. Ross in his moral intuitionist theory as a duty that is “binding (obligatory) other things equal, that is, unless it is overridden or trumped by another duty or duties”[1]. Furthermore, it is a duty that there is at least a fairly strong presumption of doing it. The duty, perhaps, to spend time with one's family, especially during the Christmas holidays. Perhaps there is a moral obligation to visit parents, grandparents and siblings on Christmas day, due to the prima facie duties of fidelity (e.g., if you promised to visit your grandma), reparation (making up for potential lost time spent with them when busy working over the year) or beneficence (purely to do good to your family). Although this just scratches the surface, perhaps the philosophy of family at Christmas suggests we have a moral duty of some kind to visit our family on Christmas Daywhether that be for a Christmas dinner or just a visit, the duty may be there nonetheless.

Following a moral analysis of Christmas, gift-giving appears to have a moral obligation both for and against it. Whilst of course, gift-giving can bring joy to people, it’s important we look at the motivations for giving a gift to someone. Kantian deontology puts emphasis on the motivations behind doing a moral action, not the consequences that flow from it: insofar as gift-giving, the reasons behind giving it outweigh the apparent joy the receiver gains from receiving it. If we give a gift purely with the expectation of receiving one in return, this would not be seen as a moral act. However, giving a gift purely for the enjoyment of gift-giving, or to show appreciation to somebody perhaps, would be deemed a moral act. Therefore, giving anonymously perhaps is a solution to this issueone way to ensure that gift-giving remains a moral act at Christmas time[2]. Perhaps giving gifts through the anonymous alias of “Kris Kringle” or “Santa”…

Of course, gifts are given selflessly and morally by Father Christmas: a fairy-tale-like figure who works tirelessly all year to provide us with joy on Christmas Day. Along with his reindeer and sleigh, and help from his elves, Santa is able to deliver toys to all the good boys and girls before they awake, stopping for mince pies, cookies and milk on his way, of course. Now, as my ethics of Christmas comes to an end, I propose that this belief in the story of Santa (which is totally well-founded, of course) is a way of escaping our existential existence, as proposed by Jean-Paul Sartre. “Nothingness haunts being”[3] and so, we, as a human race, create concepts, scenarios and stories of magic in order to find meaning in a perhaps meaningless world. Santa Claus is the “disenchantment” which Sartre argues he mistook for “truth”[4], like most children learn as they grow older and face the truth about Santa.

So, Santa is escapism, gifts are a selfish act and family is merely a duty we have to tick off our moral ‘to-do’ list. Yet Christmas is still a time of joy and magic, despite the work of philosophers analysing things to misery. My point is: philosophy can be found everywhere, hidden behind all the family gatherings, festive lights and Christmas treesyou just have to have the courage to peek behind the curtain of magic and find the harsh realities and questions lying beneath… or, as even I intend to do this Christmas, leave the curtain exactly where it is for now and enjoy a mince pie or two instead over the holidays!

Katie Wilson-Ellis

Editor for Ethica


[1] Garrett, Jan. “A Simple and Usable (Although Incomplete) Ethical Theory Based on the Ethics of W. D. Ross.” A simple ethical theory based on W. D. Ross. Accessed December 4, 2022.

[2] “Ask a Rutgers Philosopher: Nine Thoughts on Holiday Gift-Giving.” Rutgers University. Accessed December 4, 2022.

[3] Sartre, Jean-Paul. “1.” Essay. In Being and Nothingness. Washington Square Press, 2021.

[4] “Écrire.” Essay. In Les Mots. Paris: Gallimard, 2004.


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