We’ve just completed the first week of November. As of yet, I’ve heard no Christmas music, but I have seen at least 3 or 4 Christmas commercials, and my local mall seems to be experiencing an internal emotional conflict as to whether it still wants to decorate for Halloween (and fall more generally), or whether it wants to jump the gun and start decorating for Christmas.
One year, back a while ago (I believe I was in middle school or high school, possibly even earlier), I remember one radio station started to play Christmas music the week of Thanksgiving, and stopped playing Christmas music on Christmas day itself! For a while, I thought that was extreme; but, back a few years ago, that same radio station began to play Christmas music the day after Halloween, but stopped either later that day or the next day, before resuming to their normal schedule of delaying the Christmas music until late November/early December.
A lot of people get peeved by this. Probably because it makes it seem as if the Christmas season is too rushed, as in the case when they play Christmas music really early and stop it relatively early as well; for others, it makes the Christmas season drag out, and turns what should be a happy, joyous time of the year into overkill; or it may simply be that it is a lot of work to prepare for Christmas, and people don’t like being rushed into it before they’re ready.
All valid reasons. But, I think there is another reason to get angered at this: the battle between the spirit of consumerism and the spirit of Christianity. Now, this isn’t some anti-capitalist tirade, so just hear me out: if by “capitalism” you mean an economic system based on the private ownership of property and the free exchange of goods and services, then there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that. It does not contradict the Bible or Church teaching, and several Magisterial documents have upheld the right of individuals and private groups to own property, and how all economic exchanges should be entered into freely and equitably. But, the problem is one we have seen dominating American culture since the middle of the 20th century – namely, consumerism. By consumerism I mean the reduction of people to merely consumers and producers. The ability to mass produce goods, or to create an ever increasing diversity of products, is not the issue: it’s rather the ethos it creates. “You just haven’t lived until you’ve bought this new product.” “How did you ever get by without this new gadget?” “Think about how much better your life will be with this new cheaply manufactured, ‘Made in China’ or ‘Hecho in Mexico’ waste of time!” Consumerism, intentionally or unintentionally, makes the production and accumulation of goods the highest good that man can attain. We allow proximate goods to take precedent over ultimate goods.
The liturgical life of the Church, too, has been subjected to this sort of logic. Christmas has been, to use a Marxist term, commodified. (Again, this is not meant to be Marxist propaganda; Communism, while criticizing some of the abuses of capitalism, itself fell into the same unsound spiritual and moral dilemma, namely of reducing man to the material realm, and even going as far expressly pushing aside religion as the tool of the bourgeoisie.)
Yes, people hold celebrations on Christmas, as they should. And they will need people to sell them decorations, food, presents, etc. There is nothing wrong with that. But, it has almost become a stereotype (a stereotype, unfortunately, employed by the same people who commodified Christmas in the first place to distract you even more from the meaning of Christmas) that people get so caught up in the craziness of preparing for Christmas, the awkward and uncomfortable feelings brought about by being with your in-laws, and being so consumed by the act of giving and receiving gifts, that we forget the real purpose of Christmas.
And what is the real purpose of Christmas? “It’s about family!” No, not really. Spending time with your family is a good way to celebrate Christmas, but it’s not the purpose of Christmas. You spend time with your family on the two major holidays surrounding Christmas (Thanksgiving and New Years’). If Christmas is only about spending time with your family, how is Christmas different than these other holidays? “It’s a celebration of giving!” Good, getting ever so slightly closer. But wrong. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you can begrudgingly force out of them a short, meek little, “It’s about Jesus, I guess.” That’s good, but there are a little over 50 Sundays in the year – that means, 50 different times of the year when we have to go to church and think about Jesus – plus feast days throughout the year specifically commemorating different aspects of Jesus’ life and identity, including feast days commemorating the Jesus’ circumcision, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension, as well as the Last Supper, the Wise Men visiting Him on the first Epiphany, and feast days commemorating His Presence in the Eucharist and His Kingship.
You may then hear someone tepidly saying, “It’s about His birth.” DING DING DING!!! WE HAVE A WINNER!!!
Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy spending time with family, getting gifts, and the food. While some of the secular Christmas music can be tacky, it still never ceases to get me in a good mood. So, on a subconscious level, I associate all of these things with Christmas, and that’s part of the joy I associate with Christmas. And I’m sure this is true with many of you, too. But, when was the last time you ever heard anyone discuss in depth, or seen anyone contemplate, the notion that Christ became man to save us from sin? When was the last time people centered the Christmas season around reading the infancy narratives, or the beautiful meditation upon the Incarnation found in John 1, or St. Athanasius’ statement that “God became man so that man could become god”? Is it commonplace to see Christians in the West use the Christmas season as a time to contemplate the newfound union between God and humanity that has been made possible by the coming together of human nature and the Divine nature in Jesus? Considering that only a little over one-third of Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox Christians, and only about half of Evangelicals go to church every week, and also considering that religious literacy tends to be low among Americans, including and especially among Christians – I doubt this is the case for anyone outside of certain devoutly religious circles.
And therein lies the problem: the Christmas season has been stripped of its very essence. It’s been deprived of much of its spiritual meaning. And, what more are we to expect from a culture that, for the most part, has a very sterile spirituality? Religion, particularly Christianity, as played a major role in American culture no doubt. But, over the course of the past few decades, we’ve seen the coming together of several different trends: the rise of consumerism, the decline in involvement in organized religion – which was only made worse by the rise of certain ideological trends which have certain anti-religious currents [feminism, relativism, secularism, the gay rights movement] or certain more general behavorial trends which have only fanned the flames of anti-religious sentiment [i.e., the increase in the use of contraception or out-of-wedlock sex]) – much of which is exacerbated by the fact that religious education programs have dropped the ball in teaching the past two or three generations, and the fact that religion has often attempted to appeal to the lowest common denominator to attract more followers. This has lead to the rise of a lot of shallow, feel-good theological and spiritual systems, and has made atheism – while still a tiny minority – much more influential than it once was.
What we see now is a culture made up of a lot of people who don’t know a lot about religion, and who don’t really care – or, more precisely, they care enough to, at some point, ask questions about religion and spirituality and to have some sort of opinion on this matter, but who are not really involved in religious organizations, who aren’t invested enough in religion to actually act upon their religious obligations on a regular basis, and who don’t like being told what to do or what to believe by institutions – but, for some reason they want to celebrate Christmas. Maybe it is because they have fond memories of it from childhood. Maybe it’s the result of living in a culture that still has some semblance of a Christian ethos. Maybe it’s just a matter of them being attracted to the general feel of that time of year. I don’t know. But what we are left with is a society of people who, for the most part, desire to celebrate Christmas, and have some understanding of why they celebrate Christmas. Due to their lack of proper education, what little they do know about the Christmas spirit is reduced mostly a vague, fuzzy set of ideas we call “the Christmas spirit.” This is then bogged down by the spirit of consumerism, which, seeing Christmas celebrations as an opportunity for profit, direct our attention away from the truth behind the Christmas spirit and towards the gift-giving, the food, the celebrations, which become an end unto themselves.
Let’s take, by contrast, the Jews. I don’t know how things are faring within the Jewish community when compared to the Christian Church, but there is some evidence that things aren’t much better: according to the survey linked above, only 19% of Jews as of 2014 attend weekly religious services, even though, like with Christianity, this is something that is mandated in their religion by virtue of Divinely-revealed precept. Within Judaism, you also see shades of adherence to the traditional way of doing things: from the very liberal Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism to the more moderate Conservative Judaism to the traditionalist Orthodox Judaism, and even within the latter movement there exist degrees (from those with very traditional spirituality and worship but who otherwise are very assimilated into mainstream modern society, to the Hasidic movement, to fundamentalist or borderline-fundamentalist sects with separatist tendencies). Modernism has with Judaism, as with Christianity, plagued numerous and untold numbers of faith communities. (There is just as much of a “cultural Jewish” phenomenon as there is a “cultural Catholic” or “cultural Christian” phenomenon.) Nonetheless, go to any Jewish individual or family with even a modicum of involvement in or education about their faith, and they can tell you the reason why they celebrate the Passover, or Hanukkah, or any other major celebration. And there are certain mechanisms in place to ensure this: during Passover celebrations, it is a practice for families to engage in special meals, during which the head of the household recites a series of ritual prayers and, at some point, summarizes the Biblical stories surrounding that laid the basis for the Passover. Hanukkah, to provide another example, really makes no sense without understanding the larger historical events that laid the basis for it.
Now, part of the reason why Hanukkah or Passover has not been commodified, at least not to the same extent as Christmas, is because Jews are a tiny minority within the United States. But, could another reason possibly be because it is more difficult to commodify these holidays? Could it be that Jews have sufficiently kept their gaze on the deeper spiritual basis for these holidays, something which Christians have forgotten? This would require an in depth analysis of the current spiritual state of contemporary Judaism, as well as unfounded hypotheses concerning what the Jewish community would have been like had, let’ say, Judaism and Christianity swaped places. But, I think it’s a possibility.
And we as Christians need to do the same thing. We need to refocus our attention on that which lays the basis for our faith, lest our faith become merely a cultural phenomenon devoid of any spiritual meaning. The concept of the Eternally-Begotten Word of God assuming flesh in order to save us from sin so that we may be reconciled to God, and thereby spiritually renewing mankind so as to become by grace what the Son is by nature, namely sons and daughters of God, inheritors of the Kingdom, and partakers of the Divine life – that can’t easily be commodified. But, gift-giving and celebrations, when separated from their deeper spiritual meaning, can be more easily commodified. And this brings us farther and farther away from the true meaning of Christmas, and that which is meant to elevate our minds towards God and His salvific plan becomes nothing more than an opportunity to indulge the passions. Something meant to celebrate our salvation becomes an occasion for that which we were meant to be saved from.