George Will

Today's problem, in addition to the toll taken on the body by seasonal wassailing and gorging, is shopping that includes stocking up on ``retaliation presents." They are used to counter unexpected gift-giving by persons not on your list, which by now includes family, friends, the stockbroker who got you out of Enron in time and the person who cleans your gutters.

The first Americans included a number of Cromwell's fellow travelers, who, like him, saw the long arm of the papacy behind Christmas festiveness. It was, they thought, a short slide down a slippery slope from liturgical ``smells and bells" to jingle bells and mulled cider. But in a delicious dialectic, the modern hedonistic Christmas emerged from the cultural contradictions of Puritanism.

Puritanism inculcated Scrooge-like asceticism, deferral of gratification, green-eyeshade parsimony and nose-to-the-grindstone industriousness. But those led to accumulation, investment of surplus capital and, in time, prodigies of production and a subversive -- to Puritanism -- cornucopia of material delights.

Soon there were department stores, those cathedrals of consumption. Against their plate glass windows -- prerequisites of ``window shopping"; precursors of the holiday shopping catalog -- were pressed the noses of the Puritans' descendants.

Those noses no longer detected a sulfurous stench of damnation wafting from the stores' perfume counters. Those counters, you may have noticed, are strategically placed on the stores' first floors, to start the shoppers' pleasure synapses firing.

The Wal-Mart stampede style of Christmas was a long time coming. It was, for example, not until 1885 that federal workers were even given Christmas Day off. Which, come to think about it, is odd. Here in modern Washington, Christmas Day is one of the minority of days that are not like Christmas elsewhere -- not devoted to the lavish disbursal of gifts.

At least a portion of the government's largess can be considered a gift because part of the cost is debt that will be paid by others. By future generations. They are not consulted, but surely they will pay cheerfully, in the Christmas spirit.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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