There is nothing more predictable and cliche than the yearly denouncement of consumerism at Christmas. The Pope condemned the commercialization of Christmas at the Christmas Eve Mass last night and President Monson bemoaned the commercialization at Christmas at the annual First Presidency Christmas Devotional this year.
I think this yearly antagonism toward commercialism is wrong-headed and misguided. It ignores the nature of holidays, and ultimately, human nature as well. The criticism is generally based on the idea that in all the consumerism and commercialism we lose sight of the “true meaning of Christmas” and forget what Christmas is really “all about.” Nothing could be farther from the truth.
If you think about holidays for a moment, you will quickly realize that holidays are made by the traditions that surround them. Holidays with no traditions are not really holidays at all. The best holidays are the ones with the best (and most) traditions. Thanksgiving revolves around a big dinner, Halloween around costumes and trick-or-treating, the 4th of July around fireworks, Easter around baskets of candy and egg hunts. In a real sense, these traditions are the holiday. The second tier holidays have less traditions or traditions with a more limited appeal: St. Patrick’s day and wearing green clothes, Valentine’s day and giving chocolate to our wives and mistresses, April Fool’s day and playing tricks on people. Then there are the holidays with no widespread traditions surrounding them other than getting the day off school/work: Memorial day, Labor day, Columbus day, etc.
The impact of the holiday is directly proportional to the traditions that surround it. The impact is not just due to the existence of a tradition, but the nature of the tradition itself comes into play. Traditions that require more planning will have a bigger impact simply because we spend more time and attention getting ready for the holiday. Traditions with wide appeal will lead to a bigger holiday (costumes are funner than wearing green, which helps Halloween over St. Patrick’s day). There is additional weight to the holiday when the thing celebrated is of deeper significance (compare Memorial Day and Labor Day). It adds weight to the holiday when the traditions are congruent with the thing celebrated (Valentines Day+, Easter-).
It is instructive to compare the holiday observance of Christmas to Easter. Arguably, Easter is the holiday with the greater religious significance, but Easter is vastly surpassed by Christmas in our cultural and religious lives generally because of the differences in the traditions surrounding them. Easter traditions are obviously much less extensive than those at Christmas. The Easter traditions do not have a very wide appeal (Easter egg hunts are only fun for kids and even then not that fun. Peeps are treasured by a few sick souls, but most of us realize they are vile). The Easter bunny has no meaningful connection with the resurrection of Jesus. Most of Easter revolves around candy which is entirely commonplace. There are few if any beloved Easter songs. The question is: with Easter being less commercialized, is our observance of Christ’s resurrection more meaningful, pure, and complete than our observance of Christ’s birth? I think the answer is an emphatic and obvious “no!” Those who decry the commercialization of Christmas just fail to see the way Christmas is enhanced and embiggened by the traditions they denounce. If they had their way they would destroy the very parts of Christmas they themselves love.
Let’s think about how great Christmas is as a holiday. It has tons of traditions surrounding it including the most obvious tradition of gift-giving. We spend tons of time figuring out what we are going to give to others, purchasing gifts, and wrapping gifts. As a result we spend a whole month thinking about Christmas, seeing signs in every store that it is the Christmas season, and hearing Christmas songs when we are shopping. Most families have traditions surrounding their Christmas meals. Christmas has the best (and by far the most) holiday songs of any holiday. The traditions of Christmas have immense appeal even across religious and cultural boundaries (I was just talking with someone at work from another country who is not Christian and not American but will be observing a host of Christmas traditions this year because his children have been swept up in the cultural observance of Christmas and are demanding it!). The traditions surrounding Christmas are wonderfully congruent with the thing celebrated. This last point deserves its own paragraph.
Easter is the poster child for holidays with traditions that don’t match the thing celebrated. Its Bunny and colorful eggs don’t remind us at all of the resurrection of Christ. Attempts to link the two are strained and weak. Christmas, to the contrary, is positively enhanced by the tradition of gift-giving (which is the target of the anti-commercialization crowd). Giving gifts to others is a huge part of the Christmas spirit that everyone loves. In giving gifts we focus on the people around us and we have to think about them and what they might want (there is no standby gift of flowers/chocolate like on Valentine’s Day). Gift-giving spills over to a focus on lifting up the weary and oppressed. My largely atheist and non-Christian group of coworkers pool money every Christmas season to adopt-a-family and provide presents for a family in need. More people visit nursing homes during the Christmas season than at other times of the year.
Could this spirit of giving exist without all the consumerism and buying of gift? Sure, it is logically possible, but I would point out that it doesn’t accompany Easter. I think a big part of the reason is that as we anticipate a wonderful Christmas morning for ourselves with presents and fun, we think of others and want to give them some of the same Christmas cheer we anticipate. Santa, as opposed to the Easter Bunny, is a perfect secular stand-in for Christ as he keeps track of who is naughty and nice, dispensing gifts to all good children (which turns out to be everyone) and coal to the naughty. It is simply no stretch at all to see in Christmas giving a shadow of our Savior who gave himself and his Father who loved the world and gave his only begotten Son.