The Commercialization of Christmas

"There are many people who haven't merely lost, misplaced, or forgotten the true meaning of Christmas, they're trying to actively target it to destroy it. And these true Scrooges have a frightening amount of power."

-- Sarah Palin, from Good Tidings and Great Joy.

"Well, I hope you read the book ’cause I’m not saying its way too commercialized. I love the commercialization of Christmas because it spreads the Christmas cheer."

-- Sarah Palin, on The Today Show, November 11, 2013.

I am told that, in her new book, Good Tidings and Great Joy,. Sarah accuses "liberals and atheists" of scheming to destroy the true meaning of Christmas.

 As both a liberal and an atheist, I myself am greatly shocked to hear the news that I have been hell bent on destroying Christmas all these years.  Why was I not informed of this?

But I really don't wish to bash Sarah here.  Instead, I would like to simply point out that her notion Christmas is being helped along by commercialization is rather peculiar. Peculiar because so many of us -- even including at least some of us damnable liberals and atheists -- feel that the commercialization of Christmas is a somewhat greater danger to the holiday's religious and familial meanings than, say, whatever danger there might lurk in some Wal-Mart employee greeting us with "Happy Holidays", rather than with "Merry Christmas".

Of course, a lot can be said in favor of the commercialization of Christmas.  It is certainly good for the economy.  And back in the olden days, when "good for the economy" meant "good for employment", commercialization help lift the standard of living for a whole lot of families.  Then again, perhaps Sarah is right that commercialization "spreads the Christmas cheer" -- although, as I understand it, there are several studies that indicate the number of people suffering from depression peaks during the holiday season.  And, last, what child doesn't love the commercialization of Christmas, in so far as it means the gifts are piled up higher than his or her little waist?

On the other hand, if I were a Christian, I myself would be concerned with how the commercialization of Christmas might distract folks from the religious meaning of the holiday.

I've heard it said that Christians give gifts to folks on Christmas in order to imitate the gift God has given to humanity in the form of Jesus Christ.  But I suspect that bit of spin was thought up by a public relations professional tasked with justifying the commercialization of Christmas.  And even if it didn't originate as a bit of corporate propaganda, commercialization arguably distracts from the meaning of God's gift.  For God's gift is salvation.  And to think of Christmas gifts as salvation is actually to mock salvation.

Another -- and it seems to me more likely -- source for the custom of gift giving on Christmas might be the story of the Three Wise Men who brought gifts to Jesus while he was an infant.  But there is nothing in that story that suggests to me folks should go into debt in order to shower material gifts on each other.  It seems the Wise Men, being wise, did not bring Jesus more than they could afford.

The familial meanings of Christmas, as distinct from the religious meanings, arguably trace back to Charles Dickens, who -- in his story, A Christmas Carol -- reinvented Christmas as "a family-centered festival of generosity".

Yet, I think it is arguable that the commercialization of Christmas has made a shambles of that festival of generosity.  For it seems commercialization has nowadays obliged us to be generous -- even too generous -- on Christmas Day. And obligatory generosity is to simple generosity what pornography is to nudity.

For the reasons I've given -- as well as for other reasons -- I do not think of the commercialization of Christmas as nearly so compatible with its religious and familiar values as does, apparently, Sarah Palin.

But what I personally find most interesting about the commercialization of Christmas is that it is part of a larger picture.  For it seems to me the commercialization is but one aspect of -- and, at that, perhaps only a minor aspect -- of the much larger issue of consumerism. 

I suspect consumerism can be understood as a form of hedonism in which a person psychologically self-identifies with what they consume: "I am my toys", and, "The more toys I have, the more that I am".   If that's so, then it would seem to be at odds with the religious message of Christmas as a celebration of God's gift to the world -- that is, salvation through Christ.

For, at the very least, "I am my toys", has nothing at all to do with salvation.  Rather, it would seem a distraction from recognizing any need for salvation -- to put it mildly by calling it a mere "distraction".  The "distraction" of consumerism should concern anyone who wishes well the Christian faith.  Atheism does not, and cannot provide a meaning to life.  Consumerism can and does: i.e. "He or she with the most toys wins".  So, consumerism is much more in competition with Christianity on that level than even atheism is.

In short, the commercialization of Christmas can be seen as a part of a larger picture -- consumerism.  And consumerism would seem to compete with Christianity in at least one rather important way -- as a grounds for meaning in life.  It would be interesting to see how this competition plays out over the next 50 or so years.

16 comments:

  1. I don't much like the obligatory generosity either. We've tried to scale Christmas back with our extended families since it does get to be a financial burden.

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    1. Pretty well, after speaking up that we just couldn't do it all it's been a relief.

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  2. I think you're right that consumerism is a far bigger threat to Christianity than atheism. It's both less recognized and far more rampant. I'd go so far as to say that a lot of folks who target atheism as a cultural evil are really using it as a scapegoat for the real offender that is consumerism. It's so subtle and ingrained in our culture that it is the invisible elephant in the room. Great post Paul.

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    1. Thanks, Brandon! It's good to see you again. I've wondered the same thing as you have about whether targeting atheism is ever done to purposely distract us from the larger problem of consumerism. I think targeting atheism does distract us in practice, but I'm not sure it is planned to do that.

      I'm considering doing a post on the pros and cons of consumerism. Do you have any suggestions along those lines for points I could include in the post?

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    2. I agree that targeting atheism is not done to purposely distract us from consumerism. That's what I was trying to say when I said it is the invisible elephant in the room. No one talks about it, because no one sees it due to its deep insinuation into the core of our culture.

      I'd be hard pressed to come up with pros of consumerism, but I definitely think it has many cons. Just a short list would include the rapid depletion of natural resources and the environmental problems that poses, the distraction from more meaningful reflection on the deeper meanings in our lives, and the exacerbation of economic inequality that it drives.

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    3. Brandon, I'm thinking about the only pros I can think of for consumerism are the ones suggested by Anna Maria. That is, good for the economy and taxes. Other than that, I find your list of cons very helpful. Thanks!

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  3. Interesting Paul...I don't know why Sarah doesn't like the way we Pagans celebrate Christmas. After all, when the Christians decided to pick a day to celebrate their Prophet's birthday, they chose a Pagan holiday already in place. What's wrong with spending money, hanging colored lights on evergreens, and teaching our kids a fat man in a red suit will pop down the chimney on Christmas Eve and leave them goodies? Neither is there anything wrong with consumerism. It's what drives the economy and generates taxes for those ""conservative" teabaggers in the Capitol to waste on nonsense like shutting down our government for no good reason. :)

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    1. Well, you and disagree somewhat on just how beneficial consumerism is, but I will grant that it does drive the economy and generate taxes. I think those facts are more or less indisputable.

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    2. Paul...When I wrote I see nothing wrong with "consumerism," I was thinking of my children and how they spend their money, as well as how much they save for retirement. They are all well educated with good jobs, not wealthy, but well off. They give their children nice "used" cars and the latest in electronics and cell phones and I see nothing wrong with that because they are also giving them excellent educations that should afford for them to treat their children the same. I find the only thing wrong with "consumerism" are those who buy on credit beyond their means...including the United States Government!

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  4. Sarah Palin is delusional. Frighteningly powerful True Scrooges actively targeting Christmas with the intent to DESTROY it? Commercialized pimping of a religious holiday considered a good thing? WHAT'S SHE SMOKIN'??? *I want some*

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  5. Over the next 50 years, I'd love to bet against consumerism. But I'm afraid it would be a bad bet. As it is, the restaurants and stores that have an authentic, rather than hyper commercial feel, are the ones i like best, but they seem to be the onesmost likely to go out of business quickly. The Walmarts, big sports bars, and fast food-style joints seem to win every time. The system's designed for them to be the winners.

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    1. Unless the littler, off-beat stores and restaurants can find a niche market, I wouldn't expect them to last either. Which is a shame, because they are the stores and restaurants that so often have a bit of individual character and charm to them.

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  6. Well, I have been grumbling about the commercialization of Christmas since I was a tyke, and was aware even then that I was hardly first in line. I don't say that to mute your thunder, Paul, more to emphasize its validity.

    There are Christian sects that refuse to celebrate Christmas, on the grounds that anyone can be born but only Christ returned from the dead (meaning that Easter is where it's at, bro). Interesting perspective, but it conflicts fatally with the human desire to rebel against the bottomed-out darkness of winter with a festival and a release of riches.

    Which is hardly the same thing as "he with the most toys wins." In my imagination, the ideal is a big potlatch sort of thing, everyone casting what they can spare to their tribe brothers. I suppose I'm daft. In real life I'm much cagier than that, for one thing. But an ideal is an ideal.

    Unfortunately, the whole culture has been blighted by the idea of commerce for gain and accumulation of goods or cash; "spending and getting, we lay waste our powers." I suppose it seems harmless to those who think, well, people give presents at Christmas, what's wrong with making money off the exchange of Christmas presents? The bitter end of the answer to that question is someone trampled to death at the Black Friday opening of a Wal-Mart. Oh wait, they open on Thanksgiving Day now.

    I do give Christmas presents to those I cherish. I use as a benchmark any sense of urgency that might filter into my mind from promotions around the start of the season; when I feel like I might have to shop at a time when I'd rather do something else, I find the wits to say "fuck this" and go pour a stiff tot of Islay malt.

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    1. So good to see you again, Sledpress!

      Your reference of Christmas to a potlatch is an interesting one. I think any redistribution of wealth in these troubled days is probably a good thing. My main gripe with Christmas is that its commercialization seems to me to be part of a bigger picture -- consumerism. Which, so far as I understand it, involves the identification of oneself with ones toys. I see that as problematic in so many ways.

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