THIS Christmas, my wife and I plan to watch a DVD of The Polar Express with our baby. It is a well-crafted, charming and magical film that we first saw in 2004. As we came out of the cinema into a cold, snowy Christmas Eve she asked if I’d enjoyed it. “Yes”, I said, “but it was a shame there was so much communist propaganda”.
The Polar Express is a train that picks up children who have lost faith in Father Christmas, treating them to a fantasy journey to the North Pole. The North Pole they find is portrayed as a utopia. The city is imposing and industrial, indeed the brickwork reminded me of England’s northwest – the toy factory was what the Trafford Centre wants to be, and the Town Hall from which Santa appeared looked just like the Liver Building. In the film, the children discover the central intelligence room where elves monitor the behaviour of all children in the world: video screens display every child’s behaviour, and fax machines express records of any naughtiness. Not so much Big Brother, more Big Santa.
In this version of St Nick’s domain, the North Pole’s buildings are homogenous and populated with a mass of unvaryingly attired elves. The elves are perfectly happy as equals, yet subordinate to their master. The entrance of Father Christmas is the highlight of the film, the culmination of intense longing, his form only perceptible to true believers. To great laudation he lives as total master and central planner over the efforts of his elves. All of the North Pole, his operation, and Christmas itself, is the object of his own mind.
This version of society was what Lenin intended.
But why were those kids on the train? At some point, they used the most important gift we humans possess: to question what we’ve been told by authority. And they’d realised that it is impossible for one man, on one night, to distribute presents to every child in the world. They’d said to their parents, “he’d need to travel beyond the speed of light”, and “he’d need a sleigh the size of an ocean liner,” and they were right – Christmas can’t be run by one man.
The film’s Father Christmas doesn’t exist, but the process by which our presents appear is far more romantic. There is no great, benevolent dictator with an army of workers. Instead, there are the world’s parents, millions of us, coordinating with each other, without even knowing each other, to make, distribute and exchange all of the toys in the world. The presents sat under my sparkling tree did not come from the icy idyll of the North Pole. They came from countless countries across the globe, and were produced not by uniform elves, but by many different people, all striving for a better life for themselves and their children.
So forget the Lapland utopia, for that is not of this world. Instead, rejoice at the best we can do. The tradition of gift-giving at Christmas is only possible because of an extended division of labour and globalisation. When I open my presents, it is the chain of human cooperation that I marvel at, not the benevolence of a phantom. Merry Christmas, one and all.
Anthony J. Evans is Associate Professor of Economics at London’s ESCP Europe Business School.