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.