‘It’s Beginning to Shop a Lot Like Christmas’

Christmas greetings to all! I realize that I’ve been a bit slow to post these past few days. That’s all due to the travel and family celebrating that goes on this time of year, something that has been really great. Last night I was able to spend some time with some of my friends from high school. The husband and wife whose house was the location for said hanging out are both high school music teachers (we played guitar hero and Glee Karaoke) and my friend Steve is a law and social work graduate student.

At one point Steve and I were lamenting the seeming increase in materialism and consumerism this holiday season. While this sort of thing has been ramping up for some years now, it was noticeably saturating this Christmas. What does one do to address such flagrant antithetical strains of thinking and behavior during a time set aside for recalling the entrance of God into the world (on the religious end) and celebrating the love of family and friendship (on the more secular end)?

This is not a new question, yet there seems to be little solace by way of anecdotal evidence in our culture. With concern for the so-called “war on Christmas,” which is the catch-all and still amorphous phrase used to describe many things but most often refers to the removal of “Christmas” from the public vocabulary of a secular state, much ink has been spilled. Perhaps one of the better commentaries on this matter comes in the form of the Jesuit James Martin, SJ’s HuffPo piece on this subject titled, “The War on Christmas is Over…and Christmas Lost.” In this article, Martin does a good job illustrating the shift in public grammar associated with the season of Christmas. But what really captures my attention, and speaks directly to the heart of the struggle about which Steve and I commiserated, is this line from Martin’s piece:

This was also the year when many Christians I know, who still celebrate the Birth of Christ, began to dread the season, to the point where they asked themselves an uncomfortable question: Is the one day that is still (more or less) reserved for religion (Dec. 25) worth the two months that precede it?…

For one thing, many Christians (and non-Christians) now feel completely overwhelmed with the demands of the consumerist holiday. Not news, you say? Well, the difference now is that the pressure to buy, decorate, spend, send, mail, bake, prepare, party and plan, which used to be confined to ads for a few weeks after Thanksgiving is now a two-month bacchanal in newspapers, television, radio, your mailbox, your smart phone, your email, and on the web. Anything digital (and what is not these days?) is an opportunity for an ad placement. The push to buy is everywhere and anytime. What has changed is the omnipresence of the consumerist offensive.

One of the war’s hidden casualties has been the ability of religious people to resist the commercialism and keep the day holy. The one who decides not to engage in an orgy of gift-giving, who eschews two months of bargain hunting, may feel like a spoilsport. You’re not buying gifts? You’re not sending cards? You’re skipping parties? Scrooge.

So very, very true.

Steve and I echoed this final cry in Martin’s article during our discussion last night. Steve noted that in his line of work, in the legal field, his friends and family generally presume he has a significant disposable income and so to not shower lavish gifts each year might be perceived as miserly at best or an affront at worst. I shared that as a Franciscan friar, I know that my brother friars and I complain about the increasing consumerism and materialism of what should be a high holy day, yet find ourselves capitulating to the pressure to not appear, to borrow Martin’s reference, like a “scrooge.”

I love my family and friends very much and, generally, I like giving them books and gifts that I think they will enjoy and appreciate. However, that is not the problem I have with the Christmas season these days. Instead it is the compulsory sense of gift-giving, the increased pressure and expectation that comes with the season. This is Not what Christmas is about, nor is it at all aligned with Jesus’s own words and deeds.

Yes, one of the four Gospel accounts mentions gift-giving magi, but those were gifts for the Christ child. What do we give Christ during Christmas? As Martin points out, Christ has all but been totally removed from the generic gift-giving season of “holidays” celebrated by corporate America now.

I seem to think that a better gift at Christmas would be to do what Jesus would do for others. I can’t really see Jesus “busting doors” on “Black Friday” as a sign of his love for humanity. But I can see Jesus serving the poor, sharing what he has with others, looking out for those forgotten, abandoned or abused, even sacrificing his own life for others.

While I will likely crumble under the increasing pressure to buy, buy, buy next year, I hope to hold out as long as I can to protest in any little way possible the obscenity that such consumerism has wrought on one of Christianity’s holiest days. Perhaps the first step to re-sanctifying this celebration is to really live out Advent. See you November 27, 2011!

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