Sunday, December 11, 2011

On the Commercialization of Christmas

This is about the time of year we begin to hear laments about the "commercialization of Christmas." Christmas, it seems, has become nothing more than a materialistic bacchanalia celebrating the worst aspects of our greed, all for the purposes of corporate exploitation. It has always struck me as odd that a holiday dedicated to buying things for other people should be denounced in these terms. The guy who otherwise spends his money on a new BMW and fancy clothes for himself, instead spends it on gifts for his relatives and friends. This is a bad thing? Money represents buying power and nothing else. The question is ultimately not whether it should be spent, but on what it will be spent. An annual celebration that involves a cultural tradition of spending your money on others seems like it should be far down our list of social sins.

Perhaps it is the whiff of excess that fuels the scolds. Christmas isn't just about buying a gift or two, but about buying a lot of stuff for a lot of people. But it is this element of excess that distinctively reflects its Christian origins. A distinguishing principle of Christianity is the notion of unmerited reward. Christ becomes Incarnate to save sinners who don't deserve to be saved. And not only that; Christ offers the greatest of all possible rewards, friendship and union with God Himself. I remember as child anticipating the cornucopia that would greet me Christmas morning. It wasn't just one or two things that would be under the tree for me, but a whole bunch of stuff. And although Santa supposedly knew who was naughty and nice, it didn't seem to make any difference as far as the amount of booty inevitably found under the tree. This is strictly in line with Christian principles: Christ grants the greatest of rewards to saints and sinners alike, so long as they simply believe in his willingness to do so. As I have remarked in the past, it doesn't really matter that you ultimately discover that the Santa in the red suit who lives at the North Pole is a myth, for someone was providing that unmerited reward, and the mere fact of its provision proves that a will capable of doing so exists in the world. This is part of what G.K. Chesterton describes as the education of the imagination that occurs when we are very young. In the innocence of youth, we are open to the association of seemingly contradictory ideas that we not only accept, but that form our perception of the world to the extent that they seem perfectly natural.  Anyone who grew up with the story of the the Nativity, for example,will forever have the association of infinite power with perfect vulnerability in his imagination. Our early experience with Santa stamps us with the idea of an infinite reward that is unmerited - a distinctively Christian fusion of seemingly contradictory ideas (isn't a reward a reward for something?)

What about those businessmen who cynically exploit Christmas for commercial gain? In this fallen world, there will always be people looking for a way to make a buck. The question is how that energy is channeled. The sort of guy who is looking to make the quick buck could be spending his time in far more destructive activities than trying to dream up the toy that every kid will beg his parents for next Christmas. This is one example of the famous compliment that vice pays to virtue. Because Christmas is about gift-giving, the businessman can't appeal to the consumer's own temptations or selfish desires; he's got to convince him that what he is selling is what someone else might like. In other words, the businessman, in order to make a profit, has got to get the consumer thinking about other people than himself.

What's really behind the complaints of the commercialization of Christmas has something to do with the psychology of a Judas, I think. Not Judas insofar as he was a betrayer, but insofar as he objected to expensive perfume being used to anoint Christ (John 12:4-6). Judas's pride prevented him from sharing in the mystery of Christ's redemptive act as did Mary. What follows is envy and the will to destroy the good of another. So he objects that the oil could better have been used for the poor. Similarly, some see the joy of Christmas expressed in others and are unable or unwilling to share it themselves. So they must find a reason to poison the fruit, and the method at hand is the condemnation of Christmas as too commercial.


Anonymous said...

A wonderful story from someone who enjoyed a "cornacopia" of gifts as a child. But what of the man who losses his job just in time to make Christmas for his children nowhere near as wonderful as it was for you. The real travesty of the commercialization of Christmas lies not in the mother or father, or even the friend who, as you say , buys gifts to satisfy their own ego. It lies in the evils of coorporate greed. Coorporations run government, bottom line, and together they have made the poor man to feel like a failure at this time of year.
I have a good job and am blessed to give my children things I never had as a child. I'm not bitter at all about this subject but I am aware of it.
Advertising and the targeting of children as consumers is a well used and quite effective strategy for the coorporations of our country , as well as importers who obtain cheaply made and grossly overpriced products from overseas and use their genius' in marketing to hypnotized our children into believing its a must have. And of course who wants to give their child the let down of the year on Christmas? So the parent is guilt tripped into buying these products. It is the same tactic as used in schools across this country every day with book fairs and "cookie "where the same books are sold to our children that can be purchased elsewhere for a fraction of the cost. But if Johnny is getting the newest "diary of a wimpy kid" then how can you possibly let your child suffer the embarassment of not being a part of the flock.
This is all in the name of my child's welfare? I think not.
It is in the name of coorpoate and political ideas and disrespect for us as a people. Imagine if We all pulled together and the only gift exchanged this year was a kind word to an enemy, a kiss to your spouse, or a hug for your children, and everyone was satisfied with that. Don't let these people shepherd you. You are a number to them and your child is nothing but a catylist for their products . Question everything.

David T. said...

I have a little more faith in ordinary people than you seem to. If folks are that easily manipulated by marketing then we are doomed anyway, aren't we? But the average man is a little more robust than that.

And even if in a perfect world everyone was satisfied with only a hug and a kind word, would gift giving disappear? Is there no gift giving in Heaven? What a drag.

In the perfect world, the Three Wisemen might leave the Holy Family with just a hearty handshake and a backslap. I prefer this one, where they left them with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh... even if they supported the villainous metals and spices industries in doing so.