Who’s holiday is Christmas?

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.

Here Comes Santa Claus

Behold, the holiday season approacheth, and when we say “holiday season” we mean, by and large, Christmas.  Thanksgiving is a big deal to be sure, and grocers and home decor retailers look forward to that day with breath bated and fingers crossed.  Halloween too is a financial bonanza for candy retailers and, a few years down the road, dentists and bariatric surgeons.  But Christmas is the holy grail of the holiday season.  All of the business concerns mentioned above plus a galaxy of other purveyors of toys, clothing, tools, jewelry and every other conceivable commodity up to and including fruitcake lick their chops and compete with each other gladiatorially for their share of the mega billion dollar pie which will be divided up between Thanksgiving night and Christmas Eve.  Even the President’s economic policies will be celebrated or panned according to the holiday fervor that will be expressed at cash registers and internet shopping sites these next two months.  And all of this is to celebrate – – – Christmas?

Many have lamented the commercialization of Christmas before and it is not my intention to harp on that theme now.  Christmas in America is, well, Christmas, Xmas, The Holliday Season, or whatever anyone wants to call it, and I will not presume to lecture anyone about how they should conduct themselves during this time.  My primary sphere of interest as concerns this season is to be found in how I conduct myself at this time, and I now propose to describe the manner of my celebration and the reason why I choose to celebrate in that manner.

To begin with, Christmas is the time when I pay special attention to the fact that Jesus was born.  You know, Jesus.  The Jewish kid born to a homeless couple two thousand years ago who had a short but remarkable career preaching that God loves the little, overlooked folk and pointed out that the authority for His teaching lay in the fact that He was actually God Himself.  Well, part of the Trinity really, but we’ll set that aside for now.  I don’t really know just what day Jesus was born on, and frankly I don’t care.  December 25 is as good a day as any, so it is just fine with me.

The whole concept of gift-giving is an interesting topic all by itself, but again I will limit my comments to why I give and how I chose to do so.  Jesus and His life provide my model.  Somewhere between Christmas day and two years later some really rich guys showed up and gave some very expensive gifts to baby Jesus.  I would bet that Jesus was not like the baby in the commercial that is trading stocks; He no doubt squalled and nursed and pooped in His diapers just like any other kid does.  Jesus’ parents almost certainly converted that gold, frankincense and myrrh into hard currency and used that money to pay the bills and finance their flight to Egypt to avoid the murderous soldiers of the paranoid King Herod.

Later, Jesus was famous for distributing funds to the poor and needy of the province of Judea.  He made a point of the fact that He didn’t have a place of His own to lay His head, but depended on the generosity of others as He passed out the gifts and offerings which came in as a result of His preaching and teaching.  Judas the betrayer even complained that a very expensive vial of perfume that a follower broke over Jesus’ head could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor, although many suspect that Judas had his hand in the till and really didn’t care so much about the poor after all.  Still, Judas’ complaint points out that the usual pattern for Jesus was to eschew luxury and pass on to the needy the things that they needed to survive one more day, and that point brings the whole topic of giving to my own personal doorstep.

My inclination is to celebrate Christmas the way the Three Wise Men did and the way Jesus did Himself.  As regards the Three Kings of Orient, I am as rich as they were in the eyes of poor people living in Africa, Asia, Latin America on reservations in the United States and elsewhere.  One little pot of gold probably didn’t stretch the Wise Man who brought it to Jesus, and a check for one or two or three hundred dollars to brighten the life of a family in Chad or Bolivia wouldn’t really stretch me all that much.  Heck, I spend that much every two weeks for groceries.  More than a new sweater for my wife, a computer game for my granddaughter, or a Made In Washington gift box for my brother, a gift to a family in Africa of rice, millet, some chickens or a goat and a few, and I do mean few, dollars to spend on something just for fun for a change, is a gift that I believe to be worth giving.

At home there are myriad individuals, groups and agencies who are dedicated to making life better for the shadow people living at the margins where I don’t have to see them in my comfortable middle class world.  These individuals, groups and agencies are blessed by every dollar given to them and they, in turn, bless the very people who Jesus came to minster to and hang out with.  Instead of a toy or some other item which will be forgotten by the time that the Super Bowl is played, money given to these recipients will truly fulfill the definition of a gift in my estimation and will be worth the effort of giving.

There will be elements of stress in this holiday season for me.  Many people cannot grasp the point of my gift-giving philosophy, and the label of ‘Scrooge’ will inevitably be invoked.  I do not intend to be the negative manifestation of Scrooge at all.  Rather, I hope to channel the Scrooge who emerged from the ordeal of the three visitations and lived a life of giving generously to those who were truly in need.  Also like Scrooge, I purpose to give to my family, my friends, and my community the gift of myself; my time, my relationship, my friendship, and my genuine interest in their lives.  But then, why should I wait until Christmas to do that?