It is a couple of days after halloween in America and that means it’s time for Christmas. I know we still have Thanksgiving to celebrate between now and December 25 but let us be honest; getting together with family and friends to share a meal and be grateful to Yahweh or Allah or the Great Universal Consciousness or Nobody In Particular for the good things that we enjoy has little to do with the next two months. Christmas, American Style, is the king of holidays, and since Christmas is such a dominating event in our American calendar I think that it is deserving of a great deal of study and discussion. More astute observers and writers than I will, no doubt, rise to the occasion, but the marketplace of ideas is open for business and I propose to put my wares up for sale on my own table in the corner.
Christmas is first and foremost a religious holiday, but it is not a Christian one. We have long been told that the birth of Jesus of Nazareth was piggy-backed onto pagan holidays of Greco-Roman and Germanic origin to facilitate the adoption of Christianity by those pagan peoples, and I will not argue one way or the other on that score. Jesus may or may not have been born on December 25; it really does not matter to me. Jesus, the twelve disciples, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and every other giant of the Judeo Christian faith could have been born on December 25 and it would still not be a Christian holiday. To be sure, Christians place great importance on this holiday, and being a Christian myself I greatly enjoy getting together with friends and family and celebrating the Incarnation with food and drink and fellowship and worship, both private and communal. But again, that has nothing to do with Christmas in America.
Christmas in America is one of the high points of the religion of consumerism. I call consumerism a religion because it answers some of the same questions that other religions do: What is wrong with my life? What must I do to make it right? What does the restoration of a perfect world look like? Most other religions are looked at with suspicion in America and excluded, one way or another, from the Great Conversation which takes place in government, academia, the media and elsewhere. Consumerism however, because it denies its own existence and camouflages its trappings, is given full rein. But there is a priesthood and a hierarchy, doctrine and dogma, and there is an inquisition to deal with heresy when it rears its ugly head. I propose to examine briefly that priesthood, its dogma, and the inquisitorial arm of the faith and show how it is in play at Christmastime in America.
The priesthood of Consumerism may be found in every city and town in America where advertising agencies produce commercials for television, radio, newspapers, mailers and even at movie theaters. The high priesthood however is found on Madison Avenue in New York City. There, the high priests are concocting the dogma which will sink into the subconscious of the American public and convince many that Mountain Dew is for the edgy and cool, retirement with golf, horses, beautiful homes and eternal sex lives should be the norm, and that all the girls are crazy about a sharp dressed man. OK, the latter was a ZZ Top song but it fits very neatly with what I am agruing, as anyone who has seen a particular men’s clothing outfitter’s commercials can verify. Just as a priest, pastor or imam will instruct his or her congregation that certain life and thought patterns and behaviors are the key to happiness and union with the Greater Good, the high priests of consumerism and their lesser acolytes exist to instruct the American consumer that the want of happiness and fulfillment in their lives stems directly from their failure to purchase the right material products in the proper amount.
And that is certainly the dogma of the Church of Consumerism; your life is wanting because you do not possess the latest electronic devices, or highly-processed snack foods, or razor, or whatever. Highly seductive visual images connect the purchase of these products with the amorous attention of beautiful women and handsome men, or with a group of these almost impossibly perfect people having a wonderful time on a beach or in a bar or on a city street that could be in your own home town. These priests have pinpointed and magnified our natural feelings of insecurity and inadequacy and tied the correction of these shortcomings to the purchase of the right products, which just happen to be whatever they are selling. If the priests do their jobs well the consumer will come to identify the act of buying itself with the act of perfecting their lives. Then, the idols we serve will have a steady stream of worshippers coming to make their sacrificial offerings, and it only will remain for the idols to divide up the pie.
And is there an inquisition? You can be absolutely certain that there is indeed and inquisition! Go to a middle or high school and see what the student who is wearing the wrong shoes or clothing can expect from his or her classmates. Go to the toney Hamptons or to uber hip Portland Oregon, or super cowboy Texas and see how it plays when you don’t live up to expectations. Or closer to home, go into a living room on Christmas morning and watch the demeanor of the children who did not get the phone, X box, or clothing that would have lifted them out of the relational doldrums in which they find themselves relative to their peers who’s parents clearly love them more.
Christmas is the time when all of these forces which operate all year particularly come together to create a perfect frenzy that would warm the heart of any priest of Cybele. Conditioned by the priests and their dogma, wives are looking for material proof of the love of their husbands. Children are looking for their protector to give them the accoutrements that they need to fit into their society, and husbands are looking for a way to navigate this minefield and come out on the other end financially drained but relationally intact. And all of this is portrayed as fun and something that you can hardly wait to do again next year.
I admit that I have bowed out of this holiday and no longer pay it any mind. I am comfortable with sharing my life with my family and friends, and I find it vastly more enjoyable to give gifts to people who really need something than it is to give somebody another sweater which will be forgotten by the time the NCAA Championship football game is played. Finding people who really need gifts is not at all hard to do if one digs a very little. There are many people in my community who have little, and people in the world who have nearly nothing. A goat, a few chickens, or a well of clean water means a great deal more to them than a diamond ring would mean to my wife (which is considerably to her credit). This Christmas, as I have for many Christmases past, I will worship at a church far removed from the Church of the Holy Consumer.