In defense of the 'commercialism' of Christmas

Posted: Dec 21, 2004 12:00 AM

Every year, as predictable as the arrival of the winter solstice is the arrival of criticism about the commercialization of Christmas. We are told by well meaning killjoys that Christ and all religious meaning have been taken out of Christmas because Americans spend too much money on Christmas gifts and because stores have rendered Christmas little more than a great time to sell product.

If there is a better example of people complaining about something that is overwhelmingly good and wholesome, I would like to know what it is.

During one period of time each year, the great majority of Americans feel obligated to buy presents for their friends and relatives. Imagine that! What an awful thing!

This is beyond silly. It is actually harmful.

Here is the key rule governing criticizing: Before you criticize something, imagine its alternative.

Imagine that Christmas came around, the stores put up no Christmas decorations and no one bought gifts. Would we be a better society? To me, and I suspect to most Americans, the question is rhetorical. Of course we wouldn't. Why on earth would we be a better society if Thanksgiving to Christmas were no different than a month in October or August? Not having a special time of year such as Christmas time, a major part of which is gift buying, would be an incalculable loss to society.

Do some people spend too much money? Yes. But the solution to the problem of some people spending too much on Christmas presents is encouraging those people to spend less, not discouraging everyone from buying Christmas presents.

Spending one's money on presents for people is one of the nicest traditions in society and ought to be cultivated, not discouraged. People who don't buy Christmas or Chanukah gifts aren't particularly noble; they are usually particularly cheap. Or naive: When I raised this topic on my radio show, one woman called in to tell me that she doesn't spend any money on Christmas gifts for her grandchildren, instead she sends them poems she wrote. If there is a grandchild in the world who would rather receive Grandma's poetry than a tangible gift, I want to meet that child.

Furthermore, how much is "too much"? The term is so subjective as to border on meaningless. If one goes into such debt that he seriously depletes his savings or risks bankruptcy, one has spent too much. Otherwise, the term is simply an act of judgmentalism that may reflect more on the judge's generosity of spirit than on the person judged.

Another objection is that some people spend out of obligation, not out of purely loving or altruistic motives. Wow. This is a real eye-opener. You mean people sometimes do altruistic things out of a mixture of motives?

If we were to encourage only altruistic acts that come from pure love, few people would have children or get married, almost no gifts would ever be exchanged, and goodness would essentially come to an end. It is none of my business to judge why other people give Christmas gifts. It is only for me to appreciate the fact that they do.

And what about children? Various religious commentators warn that children will lose the real meaning of Christmas or Chanukah if they associate it with getting gifts. This is another corker. What child who waited all year and then all Christmas Eve to see what he or she would get for Christmas thought primarily about the theological implications of Christmas? Isn't it enough that some of the happiest memories of a Christian child are associated with one of the two holiest days of the Christian calendar? Would it really religiously benefit a child to receive no gifts on the day celebrating the birth of Jesus?

I received the biggest gifts of my childhood on Passover. My grandfather gave me expensive gifts (like a portable typewriter) for "stealing the afikoman," a ritual of sheer bribery devised by the rabbis many centuries ago to keep children awake as long as possible through the lengthy Passover Seder. Believe me, I thought a lot more about what I would get if I stole Papa's "afikoman," the matzo set aside for dessert, than I did about God liberating the Jewish slaves. But the "commercialism" of the Seder eventually worked, and I came to love Passover and believe that God took the Jews out of Egypt.

Finally, dear critics, Christmas is greatly honored by all the gift giving. Would you rather see gift giving associated with Halloween, for example? Wouldn't that signify that this society had now become overwhelmingly secular, if not pagan?

When you buy Christmas gifts, you bring joy to the recipients, you feel good about giving, you have spent time thinking about what the recipients would like, you keep many businesses alive, and most of all, you honor the holiday. It is incredible that all this is not obvious to everyone who cares about Christmas and about American society.