Packed and well-lit shopping malls. Traffic jams. Massive holiday ad campaigns. A scorched earth debate about whether or not there is a “war on Christmas”. The time of year has arrived again. Santa Claus and his elves arrive in our most vivid of imaginations.
An Episcopalian, Thomas Nast, basically invented the American incarnation of Santa Claus with his 1823 poem, “A Visit from St Nicholas“. In the 1890s (and maybe before that) Santa Claus started appearing in malls and parades and other functions. I love and enjoy the character of Santa Claus but there is a certain poetic irony within a capitalistic society about one of the patron saints of American dwelling in department stores in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Within me, there is a tension regarding Christmas (done American style) that I contemplate seemingly every year now. How much does our enormous addiction to materialism in America obstruct a genuine meditation or encounter with Jesus Christ at the time of celebrating His birth into the world?
Christmas, in our larger society, has become massively consumeristic. I don’t even have to necessarily give examples. People take this fact as a given because that truth is all around us in the aforementioned department stores, shopping malls and articles we read about increased internet vendor traffic. Bloggers even write defenses of the “commercialism” surrounding Christmas which I run across every year. Rod D Martin, describing himself as a “philosopher capitalist”, is one of those blog writers and at the end of 2015 published an article entitled “The Wonderful Commercialism of Christmas”.
He begins: “Since long before I was born, people have been decrying, bemoaning, lamenting the so-called commercialism of Christmas. Stop it. Right now.” He continues later in the piece: “Our culture’s celebration of Christmas – like that of the Wise Men – entails working long hours entirely for other people’s gain. It focuses even unbelievers upon ‘doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ It emphasizes the goodness in out-giving others, frequently anonymously, not for any gain of your own but for their pure benefit and joy.”
At what point does commercialism (and the materialism that it directly implies) threaten to overshadow the core of what Christmas is about? Indeed, in the core of ourselves, when does commercialism become an idol that threatens to derail our minds from a more substantive meaning to Christmas?
Are Americans (and we’ll say middle to upper class) really brought happiness by the accumulation of more and more material possessions? Is the stated goal in “out-giving others” that I’m going to bestow more physical items on another person then they give to me and therefore, I should feel happier?
The blog article continues: “What is decried as commercialism is actually a great service: first, promoting Christian thought and action, and second, helping me to actually serve in an effective, thoughtful way. Some who accept my assessment of their effect will still question the advertisers’ motives. But a system that encourages right action even when the heart is impure is an incredible achievement, a brilliant advance upon the savage selfishness of most of human history.”
Yes, the advertiser’s motives are a question and a system that encourages right action out of people with impure hearts is bankrupt. All throughout the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord Jesus taught us that the heart (and thereby center of a person) is the most vital aspect of their morality. Why people do what they do (axiology) is of primary importance in defining righteousness. In other words, if I have hated someone, I have murdered them (Matthew 5:21-26). If I have lusted after a woman who is not my wife, I have committed adultery even without a physical action (Matthew 5:27-30). The entire point is the heart of a person.
I want to be clear. I’m not saying Martin is totally wrong. His note on giving anonymously squares with Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:1-4). He also writes: “It (Christmas) particularly highlights ‘the least of these’: children certainly, and in an age when the very young are routinely discarded once born or murdered even before that; but also on the jobless, the homeless, the shut-in, the widow, all of those whom society normally might ignore.” Certainly, this strikes me as important that this time of year we remember those who are on the margins of society or dehumanized by culture to varying degrees. This elemental idea was a core of Jesus’ ministry all throughout the gospels.
There is another teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that I will quote here: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also…No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matthew 6:19-21 and 24, ESV)
One of my friends, Brian Davis, a few years back told me about a movement called “The Minimalists“. There are many different trails of what they talk about related to American materialism and the many ways this can leave us soulless, dissatisfied, carried away from truly meaningful things and empty. In the brief parts that I have read, their compelling philosophy mirrors Jesus’ wisdom in the Sermon on the Mount. There are sacred ideals and experiences that transcend the shallow accumulation of junk that myself and our culture often pursues.
So, yes, I still give physical presents to my children, wife and other family members and they to me. Yes, we all still enjoy the towering magic that is Santa Claus. I wrote this post not to invent a legalism that suggests that “thou shalt not give material gifts” or “thou shalt get rid of the American incarnation of Santa” but to ask myself (and anyone who reads this) to be more mindful about how we can be distracted from the most crucial and fundamental realities of our lives. Let us ask ourselves the question: when does American materialism, that has infected Christmastime, distract me from a powerful encounter with Jesus, precious time with my family including my kids and celebrations with my friends?
Before the crowded department stores, the well-lit malls, and the color coordination of Christmas lights in suburban residences, the first Christmas happened on a dark night. Most scholars believe Mary was 12 or 13 years old when she became pregnant with the Son of God. An out-of-wedlock pregnancy that could have cost her life at the hands of religious oppressors. A man (Joseph) she was betrothed too planned to divorce her quietly as to not subject her to public humiliation. Then came angel visitations and visions of what was happening. With child, Mary and Joseph set out for Bethlehem as a murderous, despotic King ordered the murder of babies under the age of 2.
There was no room at the inn and so Jesus was born in the most lowly of circumstances, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in the manger. A scene that probably has encompassed millions of impoverished families for ages that never makes the headlines. Yet, the identity of this baby, God in human flesh, was (and is) the hope of the world. A helpless infant who could not speak but could only cry. Whose brain, like every other child’s (like my son Reuben), was in the process of laying down those neural pathways which would develop his cognition and inform his perception of the world as he grew older. The dark world, ensnared by its own trappings, would have the opportunity for spiritual freedom.
Christmas reminds me of these sobering truths as I still struggle to grasp with all the rich meanings that the holiday represents.