If there’s one thing I dislike more than the rampant commercialization of Christmas, it’s everybody complaining about the rampant commercialization of Christmas.
Yes, I realize you may have seen Christmas decorations at your local Walgreens well before Halloween this year. And yes, the cheesy Christmas music playing in Starbucks and my barbershop and everywhere else annoys me too. (Frankly, that Mommy-kissing-Santa-Claus song gives me the creeps.) But please spare me the gauzy romanticization of some pure, pre-commercial American Christmas past.
Maybe it’s because ours is the most untraditional and coldly utilitarian of cultures, but whether we’re liberals or conservatives, Americans have this terrible tendency to sentimentalize a lost innocence that never really was. Our constant griping about Christmas is a perfect example.
As much as we like to pretend Christmases past were pure and perfect, the holiday was celebrated in some places and ignored in others until the late 19th century. Before that in the U.S., most businesses and schools remained open, and even Congress routinely convened on Christmas Day. And you know all that nostalgia about old-time New England Christmases? It’s claptrap. The Puritans once banned the celebration of Christmas, not only because it lacked biblical foundation but because of all the drinking and adult tomfoolery associated with it.
The modern, nationally celebrated Christmas we know today emerged at a time when Americans were urbanizing, factories were expanding their production and mass consumer culture was being born. While Christians happily went along for the ride, it was these demographic and economic forces -- and not a religious movement -- that elevated Christmas to its current status, and not coincidentally made the giving of store-bought goods its particular focus.
In his fascinating 1994 study, “The Modern Christmas in America,” historian William B. Waits had little to say about religious influences in the making of contemporary Christmas. Why? “The reason is simple,” he wrote. “Religion has not played an important role in the emergence of the modern form of the celebration.”
This isn’t to say that those who celebrate Christmas don’t extract spiritual meaning from their holiday traditions. But in addition to that, or regardless of it, the very commercialism that we complain about is the reason for the holiday’s vast popularity. And the implicit tension between giving and getting, generosity and consumerism makes Christmas a cultural paradox.
That’s why for the last 100 years, plenty of reformers and religious figures have been at war with Christmas writ large. In 1880, the earnest editors of the New York Times condemned the “extravagant” expenditure and “vulgar ostentation” of the celebration. In 1912, the Sunday-School Times magazine worried that “commercialism has come in and Christ has been crowded out. There was no room in the inn for the mother of Jesus when the great birthday came.” Does this all sound familiar?
For a century, the widespread fear that consumption was trumping religiosity inspired movements to make Americans think more about social justice and the poor during the holidays. In 1906, the National Consumers’ League launched a “Shop Early Campaign” to oppose longer store hours before Christmas for fear that employers and shoppers would spend less time with their loved ones. In 1912, the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving, or SPUG, fought to end the odd social custom of workers having to buy gifts for their bosses. (Aren’t you glad they won?)
For the last four years, a Christian movement called the Advent Conspiracy has encouraged believers to donate money to the needy rather than spend it on lavish gifts. Its four basic tenets are worship fully, spend less, give more and love all.
While I sympathize with these activists, I fear their campaign too will go the way of the Shop Early Campaign. Their passion notwithstanding, they’re no match for a $450-billion marketing juggernaut whose seasonal tally helps determine the course of our national economy.
Don’t get me wrong; I’d never discourage the purists from raising their questions. After all, contention itself confers importance on an issue in America. And the paradox inherent in modern Christmases is worth grappling with.
The very fact that the battle to save Christmas is joined year in and year out -- and has been since we started down the gift-giving, Black Friday, mallification path of excess -- seals the deal. If the tension lives, the true meaning of Christmas does too, no matter how deep the tinsel gets. And that ought to give everyone at least a little comfort and joy.