For me, Christmas is one of these traditions.
I know what you’re thinking: how could anyone have anything negative to say about Christmas? It is, after all, supposed to represent the best that humanity has to offer. And occasionally you do, in fact, hear some talk about that little baby in the manger, or about peace, human fellowship, and compassion for those in need. But the original message of Christmas, which I admit is pretty dandy, has gotten completely lost in our contemporary American incarnation of the holiday.
We now begin to celebrate the Christmas season the day after Halloween. Ghouls and goblins quickly give way to manger scenes and plastic Santas for the front yard. The Christmas season has become an excuse for overspent Americans to squander the little funds they have left on crap that they and their families clearly don’t need. Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, which is nominally the “official” start of the Christmas shopping season, is the largest shopping day of the year, with parents waiting all night long to save a few pennies on some mass produced garbage that they think will show their neglected children that they still care about them.
Christmas has made purchasing power identical with love. The more gifts you buy your children, the more you supposedly are showing that you care about them. Those who can’t afford to buy gifts or simply choose not to are viewed, according to our American ethos, as deficient parents and defective citizens.
One would think that in an economy like ours, which is in deep economic crisis, Americans would reevaluate this need to consume, save their money, and focus on the deeper spiritual values that the season is supposed to have. But this doesn’t seem to be the case. This current holiday season was replete with all the usual stories of insane shoppers shoving, trampling, and pepper-spraying each other in the never-ending quest to get the best bargain. Spending is on the rise again and savings rates are dropping once more. This may be fine and dandy for retailers, but it is disastrous for the long-term economic viability of the average American family.
This year, in his Christmas message, Pope Benedict XVI attempted to remind Christians that there is something more to Christmas than the quest to get the latest electronic gadget. “Let us ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season,” he said from his pulpit at St. Peters, “and to discover behind it the child in the stable in Bethlehem, so as to find true joy and true light.”
These are very beautiful sentiments to be sure, and like Charlie Brown, I too wonder if the true mean of Christmas could ever be restored. But I honestly don’t think that it is possible at this point. The holiday season has become so intrinsically intertwined with materialism and consumption that I doubt that we can ever return to a more innocent time when the season was a celebration of religious faith and family commitment (if there ever even was such a time). It seems to me that Christmas has become so irredeemably corrupted that it’s probably best just to put the entire holiday to rest once and for all.
I can hear the reactions now: “What! Eliminate Christmas! How could anyone even suggest such a horrible thing?”
It’s reactions like these, which I encounter every time I mention my idea of “just saying ‘no’ to Christmas,” that has made me realize that this idea is probably not going to gain any widespred traction any time soon. So, in the interests of reaching some kind of concord with those who simply cannot live without the magic of Christmas, let me propose a slightly less radical idea: just say no to presents at Christmas time. Celebrate the holiday with your family and friends, focus on the religious and social aspects of the season, but eliminate the need to buy any gifts. If Christmas really represents something more than an opportunity for Americans to spend money they don’t have on stuff they don’t need, than this watered-down proposition should make perfect sense.
In fact, the concept of a gift-free Christmas is starting to find supporters. The Canadian Mennonite Church has developed a wonderful site on just this topic called Buy Nothing Christmas that offers some attractive options to the usual Chritmas splurging. Another interesting site, called No Gift Christmas This Year, even has an e-card that you can send to your friends and family informing them that you will be spending time, rather than money, on them this year.
But I know already that, even this idea, is probably too radical for most Americans.
So let me propose a third option: The $100 Christmas. That’s not $100 per person; that’s $100 for everyone you have to buy presents for. The nifty thing about this idea is that you can still show your appreciation for people by giving them something at Christmas time without turning the holidays into a mad buying orgy. Everyone will feel loved and appreciated and no one will go into debt during the holidays. What’s not to like?
Of course, very few Americans would even take this idea seriously (my parents actually yelled at me when I proposed the idea to them a few years back), which substantiates the very point I have been making: Christmas has been irredeemably corrupted by consumerism and the only viable option at this point is to “just say ‘NO.’”
Like any addiction, consumerism is a hard habit to break, especially at a time of year like Christmas when shopping and faith seem to be incestuously intertwined. One day perhaps—and that day is probably not far off—support groups will become available to help people get over their need to spend their hard-earned money at Christmas time. Perhaps there will even be a special pathology recognized in the next issue of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders called “Christmas shopping mania” and pharmaceutical companies will begin to develop a pill to help us get through this season with our wallets intact.
Until then, however, the burden lies with each of us individually to do all we can to resist the temptations to “buy into” the crass materialism of Christmas. I can’t guarantee that your family members will be happy if you make this commitment, but you probably will find that the entire Christmas season suddenly becomes much less stressful than it’s ever been.
And who knows, you might suddenly discover the true meaning of Christmas that seems to elude most Americans at this time of year:
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”