Sunday, December 25, 2011

Commercialism: A Crucial Component of Christmas?

Ah yes, commercialism: the perennial chestnut roasting over the Christmas debate fire. It's easy and commonplace to denounce its reach and prominence throughout the holiday season. I say it's easy because Christmas' true meaning really is to remember Christ's birth and the sublime gift that he was and is; and what with all the stress and shopping and travel and everything, it can be hard to remember much of that. I say that it's commonplace to bemoan this fact because every religious service around this time of year that I'm aware of does this to one degree or another. And this is a good thing: we all need more reminders to focus on the eternal and not put too much stock in the transitory.

But it's also easy and fun (in the mean, bursting balloons way) to point out that there has never been a golden age of Christmas, in which families did not stress out, Christ was foremost in everyone's mind, and there was no exploiting the holiday for commercial gain. Jon Stewart and Christopher Hitchens love to point out how Puritans banned the holiday in America, for one (two?). And who can really believe that children since time immemorial didn't put too much stock in the gift-getting part? But this idea that Christmas commercialism is nothing new has been especially on my mind today as I read a great (commercial) present I got today: Christmas at the New Yorker. Some examples from the 35 pages I've read so far:

  • One cartoon has a woman about to enter a scrum surrounding a "Xmas Sale $1.98" sign; she has a rope tied around her waist in the style of a mountain-climber; she's telling her husband, who's holding the end of the rope, "When I jerk twice, pull as hard as you can." The year? 1938.
  • A 1962 tidbit reads in full: "Overheard on Fifth Avenue, a cheerful soprano voice: 'It's nice to see the Christmas decorations going up. Thanksgiving will soon be here.'"
  • Searching for the center of Christmas in New York in 1962, John Updike wrote, with tongue in cheek, "We debated whether to head north, toward the great Norway spruce of Rockefeller Center, with its Currier & Ives prospect of skaters, or to head south, toward the gossamer, tree-shaped web of electric-light bulbs clinging to the front of Lord & Taylor. The latter seemed more crassly commercial, and hence more truly in the spirit of things, so south we went..."
  • The Christmas-themed cover from the Dec. 13, 1930 issue (pictured on the right), which depicts harried shoppers, frazzled mothers, and crying (presumably greedy) children with all the same fervor that we employ today to decry the same.

But romanticizing the past to make it sound rosier than the present (the so-called golden age fallacy) brings to mind two related ideas and makes me not want to pick sides in this fight.

First, there's the universal of coming-of-age process, the motif of a loss of innocence. We as humans need to remember a time that was more idyllic, an Eden to which we want to return. Christmastime is a great time to do this culturally, to wish for a more loving, caring world in which family is more central than it is now, in which money is not the true focus. This ideal is the most important thing to aspire towards, regardless of how well it tracks the historical record of centuries past.*

But the most interesting thing about this conversation is that it is really a debate about ritual. Religious-minded people want to promote "the true meaning of Christmas" (a phrase, by the way, that I truly believe in, aka those aren't scare quotes). But as this intriguing (and contrarianly-titled) blog post Celebrating the Commercialism of Christmas argues, "commercialism" of some sort is probably an important vehicle for that true meaning. The author draws the devastating comparison with Easter, which by all accounts ought to be the most celebrated Christian holiday, and concludes that the lack of both meaningful traditions and, yes, commercialism surrounding Easter doom it to an eternal second-rate status in too many people's minds.

Rituals are a vehicle for a deeper truth that serve an invaluable purpose but also come with potential pitfalls. Without any ritual truths are easily lost or thought of only in passing. Think of the proud, millennia-long Jewish tradition and how often it can die out: all too often, non-observant Jews' children will not identify as Jews, and certainly their children won't. Rituals like the passover keep their community alive. On the other hand, if too much emphasis is placed on the ritual (see, e.g., some pharisaical practices in the New Testament era) then the underlying truth can be crushed. In the Mormon tradition, temple rituals are central to our worship and are in large part what helped give Brigham Young and the apostles the nod over Sidney Rigdon in the succession controversy--the apostles controlled those, and those were what created a lasting, distinct church that would outlast Rigdon's offshoot branch of Mormonism.

I don't mean to argue that we should celebrate Christmas commercialism for its own sake, but rather that we consider whether all its secular and commercialistic trappings might not be a "ritual" that makes us really care about the deeper meaning of Christ's birth. Let's face it, the excitement of presents, both giving and getting, the beauty (and even the tackiness, at times) of the lights, the distinctive carols, the crazy stressful family get-togethers--they all make us anticipate the big day and give a greater opportunity to think about what it all means. They provide a context (and a foil!) for the extended worship of the Christ child.

In summary, ask me whether the ritual of baptism is important, salvific, and even "true": I'll emphatically say "yes." I'll quickly concede that water literally doesn't literally wash away our sins when we're baptized, but I'll still argue forcefully for the necessity of the ordinance--with an appropriate emphasis on the underlying truth it symbolizes. Likewise, ask me whether Christ's birth heralded the beginning of the most momentous life ever lived on this earth, and I'll emphatically say "yes." And now, I think I might just argue that, while decidedly secondary and not in itself of any lasting significance, perhaps the busyness of the Christmas season might just be a necessary means of promoting the celebration of Christ's miraculous birth and the eternal gift that he has given each of us.

Merry Christmas!

* A discussion of how historically accurate our discourse about the past needs to be in these regards is beyond the scope of this blog post; suffice it to say that I think the answer is: "it depends."


  1. Well, I think the point of complaining about commercialism is to remind us to place proper limits on it. It doesn't necessarily mean that we need to return to some "golden age" of Christmas, just that we need to remember the true meaning of Christmas. And I think we make it more commercial (or even just more busy) than it needs to be. Maybe that's what you're saying.

  2. Also, I don't think it's a valid comparison to compare the waters of baptism with tacky Christmas decorations and chintzy Christmas muzak...I think they are very different.

  3. I agree that the purpose of decrying the commercialism surrounding Christmas is to refocus on the true meaning of Christmas, but I don't think there is much, if any nuance, in most discussions about it. What I'm trying to say is that we need a balance (and, I guess, that that balance might be more towards commercialism than most people assume) not an unconditional denouncement of commercialism, which might actually serve to ultimately increase true worship.

    And I'm not comparing Christmas commercialism to baptism per se--that would just be pointlessly blasphemous. My point is that being dunked in water doesn't do anything on its own, but it's an integral vehicle for the conversion process. Analogously, commercialism (not in excess, but strongly present) might serve a similar function for making Christmas (and thus the underlying worship of Christ) important.

    In short, we might be disagreeing (at least in part) about semantics. when I say "commercialism" I mean buying gifts and all the elaborate decorations, traditions, and hoopla associated with Christmas--no value judgment attached; I think you are using "commercialism" as synonymous with forgetting the underlying meaning. To be clear: I don't want to forget the underlying meaning; I am open to the possibility that a healthy dose of commercialism actually enhances it! [the linked article about Celebrating the Commercialism of Christmas spells this argument out more in-depth]

  4. Well even using "commercialism" as you define it, I don't think we necessarily need it to have Christmas as a meaningful holiday. Easter does not have that commercialism and remains a vibrant and very meaningful holiday for me. Same with Thanksgiving (although that is more secular) - it may not have as many decorations, musical numbers, etc. but it is still very meaningful. So I think we just disagree.

  5. I think if you look at the underlying post, it is somewhat semantic. I do not have a problem with the tradition of gift-giving, which is a nice way to remember others. It has gotten a little crazy, as stores advertise and get about half their yearly revenues from Christmas sales (a needed boost to the economy these days). I guess the problem is with excess, as with most things. You can carry the gift giving a little too far, if all you think about is you and about the "things" you want, and forget about the underlying meaning of Christmas. But I do think the lights and gift wrap and traditions, especially the music for me, do have a nice and valuable effect in making Christmas a special time of year and helping us to remember why it's important. I love how it brings family together and helps us remember the poor.