by Regis Nicoll | The fight over Christmas has been raging ever since the slaughter of the innocents by King Herod. Yet the story endures—not only because it speaks to our greatest need and deepest longing, but because it is true.
Black Friday, 6:15 AM. The checkout lane was already twenty persons deep, but worse—it hadn’t moved in five minutes. As I scanned the other seven lanes, they were no better. Resigned, I took my place in line clutching the electronic gadgetry I had snatched up in my bargain-hunting frenzy.
As everyone knows, deep mark-downs await the deal-hungry consumer on the day after Thanksgiving. But the experienced shopper knows the real deals go to the “doorbusters”—those gritty individuals who forgo shaving, makeup, and even breakfast to be the first in the door. Of course the scarcity mentality of a disheveled and hungry horde can lead to some pretty uncivil behavior…
The lady behind me, also bothered by the slow lane, settled into the queue sighing, “Well, at least this is orderly—not like the first store.”
“First store? It’s only 6:15. What time did you start today?”
“Four. I tell ya, them folks was crazy … pushin’, shovin’, and grabbin’ stuff left and right. They even started fightin’ after a guy broke in line … two of ‘em rollin’ in the aisle … crazy folks!”
“It was ugly! I got no complaints now. Believe me. Them folks was crazy!”
As I listened, I recalled a scene from Jingle All the Way (1996) with Myron Larabee (Sinbad) and Howard Langston (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in an aisle-rolling melee on Christmas Eve. In their determination to grab up the season’s most popular toy, the warring duo resort to lying, stealing, wrestling, and even bomb threats. Why? As Howard’s son explains, “Johnny’s gonna get one. So is everybody else I know. Whoever doesn’t is going to be a loser.”
The “L” word seems to bring out the fight in us. While Jingle is hyperbolized for the sake of humor, there is much truth in its caricatures.
Let me first say that Christmas is my least favorite holiday: not for what it represents, but for what it has become: a heavily marketed secular event in which the pressure to wow family and friends with presents, decorations, and Christmas dinner is enough to unravel all but the most determined Martha Stewart wannabe.
Indeed, for many folks the holiday’s months-long juggernaut can lead to post-Yuletide trauma, as the good news of “For to us a child is born” is buried in the rubble of discarded gift wrappings, turkey scraps, and unmet expectations.
For businesses, Christmas sales account for up to 50 percent of annual profits. Consequently, the season is a “make-it-or-break-it” time and retailers must be ever creative to avoid being a year-end “loser.”
One of the most prevalent schemes is “Christmas creep”—the continued expansion of the holiday season. If you’re like me, you barely recall the time when stores waited until after Thanksgiving to put out their Christmas merchandise. Today, many stores begin their retail campaign the day after Halloween and some shortly after Labor Day.
Not surprisingly, the resultant holiday overlap can lead to some awkward product placement. For instance, in Rite Aid stores Halloween merchandise was displayed across the aisle from Christmas items in symbolic tension.
Another strategy is to design obsolescence into products. How many of us have electronic or computer devices gathering dust which, although just a few years old, lack connectivity or compatibility with newer products and software? This tactic is optimized by introducing the latest techno wiz bangs during the Christmas season. Even the film industry gets in on the act by releasing their big wave of blockbusters and Oscar hopefuls after Thanksgiving.
Over the last several years, though, a new marketing ploy has been gaining momentum.
What would have seemed lifted out of a Dr. Seuss story just a decade ago is a real life drama today. After generations of growing consumerism, Christmas has become a perennial target of those who are intent on stripping away all religious references and symbols from the public square.
The stories are familiar: city injunctions against nativity scenes, school bans on Christmas carols, plays, and cards with religious messages, the renaming of Christmas break to Winter break, and so on.
In the retail world, the “C” word is avoided in the belief that a welcoming atmosphere and healthy bottom line depend on a religion-free marketplace.
The “grinching” of Christmas—robbing it of its Object and true meaning—is necessary to make ever more space for commerce.
But as the push to co-opt Christmas as a season of partying and corporate profits continues, Christians should reclaim a vision of it in keeping with the highest ideals of Christianity: peace, good will, charity, and love—ideals at diametric odds with the indulgent consumerism that characterizes the season today.
Consider the tradition of gift-giving. What began in the fourth century as the charitable giving of essentials to the needy has become the exchange of non-essentials among the not-so needy. Thus, the outward emphasis of the original tradition has taken a decided inward turn: from unilateral charity to reciprocal gift exchange.
What’s more, driven by media hype and escalating expectations, too many of us end up spending too much, with money we don’t have for things we don’t need. Not only is that a bad exercise of Christian stewardship, it fuels the materialistic push towards a Christ-less Christmas.
That is not to say that Christians shouldn’t exchange gifts. It only means that the Christian ideal should be balanced toward true charity and that gift exchange should be well within the means of the giver.
Reclaiming a Christian vision extends to other Christmas traditions as well. Take the Christmas tree, for instance.
Despite its pagan origin, the Christmas tree points heavenward, inviting us to turn our gaze to Christ who was nailed to a tree to become the Tree of Life. It also evokes the Vine, through whom life courses out to connecting “branches.” Its red and white decorations bid us to rejoice as those who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” And its piquant scent and evergreen color stir our senses, directing our thoughts to the life that is ever new and ever-lasting.
The fight over Christmas has been raging ever since the slaughter of the innocents by King Herod. Yet the story endures—not only because it speaks to our greatest need and deepest longing, but because it is true.
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
∼ Charles Wesley (Hark! The Herald Angels Sing)
Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. His new book is titled Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.