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Nick Lezard: Adults don't just act like children during the holidays

We are living in a degenerate, and therefore doomed, society

So how are you feeling today? Jaded, dyspeptic, hung over? Suffering from a feeling of gross satiety, the suspicion that this so-called holiday has just been going on too damn long? Well, tough, because technically, the holiday season does not end until the sixth of January. An arbitrary period – fixed, by the length of time it took the Magi to reach Bethlehem – this is actually more related to the period of the Roman Saturnalia, the week-long festival during which gifts were exchanged, feasting and drinking encouraged, sentiments of goodwill expressed, and – it's funny how this bit hasn't been handed down to us – the social order was inverted, with slaves being waited on as if they were masters. (Our slaves are kept out of sight, or do their work for us in other countries; it would be rather inconvenient to bring them all over here, wouldn't it?)

But there is something that strikes me with increasing force about this whole season: it's getting more childish. This could be simply because I'm getting older and grumpier; but I don't think so – if only because I recognise that I'm not particularly mature myself. How is it, I wonder, that the equivalent seasonal festivities of Hanukkah are so civilised, so dignified, in comparison? I remember reading, some years ago, of a Japanese department store which, in a confused attempt to either ratchet up the desire of its customers to buy more of its stuff, or to appropriate some of the exotic cachet of the West, made a prominent display of an enormous crucified Santa. The slant on the news story, as reported here, was "aren't those Japanese funny?" Thinking about it now, I would actually say that their take on the modern consumerist Western mind was particularly sharp.

This is not a rant about the commercialisation of Christmas – but this year, as a rift has opened up between what the sellers want us to buy and what we can actually afford, it has now become possible to see what the problem really is.

And that is that we are living in a degenerate, infantilised, and therefore doomed society. The reason that Christmas seems so long and drawn out by the 27th of December – let alone by now – is because it's actually been going on for nearly two months already. In that time we have been encouraged to act like children by people anxious to get us to buy things we don't need, and to get us worked up about the prospect for months beforehand. And we are complicit: for this all answers a distinct, but not exactly healthy, psychological need. And the worst thing about it, as we suddenly find ourselves being encouraged, in January sales, even by ministerial encouragement, to buy even more stuff we can actually manage without, is that our entire economy founders if this need is not addressed.

For we live now in a culture which has encouraged us to answer the supposedly long-repressed demands of the child. Psychologically speaking, we always carry the child's needs along with us, and they are primal and quite simple, really: to be suckled. You might not want to go as far as Lacan and say that every utterance is a demand for attention – but many of them are just that. And an age of instant yet atomised communication – think, for example, of the text message, which demands prompt reply, and causes distress in us if we do not get it – we are encouraged to be upset if we do not get what we want, now. And think of Facebook, where we are encouraged to believe that our very social life can be accessed without travel or effort. This is an age of instant gratification: commercial and emotional. We are losing the ability to exercise patience, to understand that there are some wishes which cannot be fulfilled. We are forgetting what it is to be Grown Up.

This is causing problems all over the place, or exaggerating problems that were hitherto containable. This season may be a particularly vivid illustration of the way we have allowed our increasing immaturity to corrupt the public sphere, but the most grievous manifestation has been the current recession, brought about not just by the incompetence of banks but our own desire for instant gratification. What brought the whole system close to tumbling down – and indeed may well succeed in doing so – was the rise of easy credit, of being allowed to buy things that you could not afford.

The child says "I want it now". It used to be generally accepted that if one continually gave in to that kind of pestering the child would turn out spoiled. "Spoiled" is not a term that we hear any more – largely because, I suspect, we are now all in the business of spoiling ourselves. And now we are beginning to see the consequences of this. Isn't it funny how the old slang term for credit – the Never-Never – echoes Neverland, the place where children never grow up?