Is Capitalism Ruining Christmas?

Catholics are seriously annoyed at the way the holiday season is changing. If you are among them, you are probably already annoyed at this article, because I didn’t say Christmas season. It is Christmas, for goodness sake, so why can’t we just say that? I received an e-mail the other day from headlined, “The 12 Days of Holiday,” and the official greeting we get from store clerks is “Happy Holidays.” In fact, there are cases in which corporate higher-ups have ordered employees not to say “Merry Christmas.”
All of this represents a shift in the culture, no question about it. But who or what is at fault? From time to time, you hear dark warnings about how this is due to the influence of “the Jews” or the infiltration of American life by “radical Islam.” But more generally, another enemy has emerged: commercial society. As usual, capitalism — easy enough to blame for all things we don’t like — is coming in for a beating.
For Catholics, Christmas begins at midnight on December 25. Before that, the season is Advent, which lasts for four full weeks. It is a time of penance and expectation, and our liturgy directs our thoughts to St. John the Baptist and his prophecies of the coming Messiah, of Mary and her special role, of the imagery of dew drops from heaven coming. There is a great build-up to Christmas.
We refrain from putting carols on our CD players, from dressing the tree (or even purchasing one), from decorating too much — and we certainly face the annual conundrum over Christmas parties. Do we indulge or not?
But none of the social problems compares with the assault of commercial promotions that begin not after Thanksgiving, but following Halloween. It shocks our sensibilities, and we feel a strong desire to denounce the commercial sector for its greed.
Think again. What we need to realize is that capitalism is responsive — to an extent greater than any other institution — to the values of the public. Americans loves Christmas in every way. We love giving and receiving gifts. We love the music. We love the sense of contentment and happiness and the family time that comes with it. We love the office parties, the elves, Santa, the reindeer, and all the holy images of Mary and Joseph and the babe in the manger. It is a common wish on film and in popular culture that Christmas should last all year long.
This is precisely what the commercial marketplace is fulfilling. This isn’t an imposition, a desire to loot people as much as possible for as long as possible. On the contrary, all this hysteria reflects the effort to give people what they want — and that happens to be a long-lasting Christmas.
Of course, there is a sectarian issue here, too. The Protestant tradition of the English Reformation — and the Puritans in New England — was vehemently against Christmas. As famed 19th-century Protestant English preacher Charles Spurgeon wrote in 1874:
We have no superstitious regard for times and seasons. Certainly we do not believe in the present ecclesiastical arrangement called Christmas. First, because we do not believe in the mass at all, but abhor it, whether it be sung in Latin or in English; and secondly, because we find no Scriptural warrant whatever for observing any day as the birthday of the Savior; and consequently, its observance is a superstition, because not of divine authority.
Well, times have changed. Protestants have gone crazy for Christmas, though they have never really understood its liturgical dimension. Because Christmas was never part of their liturgical history, they’ve never comprehended its subtleties. It is a day for them — a season that ends after midnight, December 25. While Advent has made a comeback in many Protestant circles, it too has been absorbed into the overall Christmas milieu.
All of this is to say that the problem of a “commercial Christmas” isn’t with capitalism as such, but with the values of the consuming public. And those values are decidedly with the dominant Evangelical culture. There is no sense in blaming “the Jews,” “Islam,” or capitalism. The problem — if there really is one — rests with the deracination of our Evangelical friends. Bless them, for they are doing their best.
Now to the equally substantial issue of the loss of “Merry Christmas” as a seasonal greeting. For starters, let’s be clear that the phrase has not, in fact, been lost to commercial society. A quick Amazon search for “Christmas” turns up many thousands of items — hardly a surprise, since Amazon is out to do business in this niche market. And get this: A Google shopping search turns up more than 4 million hits! This is hardly a loss of the word.
But what about the use of “Happy Holidays” in greetings and salutations from marketing e-mails and the like? Firms try to cast the broadest net possible. Not everyone is a Christian, and some people aren’t drawn to the idea of Christmas at all, so it makes sense that Christmas be commercially subsumed under the broader rubric of the “holy days” generally.
This isn’t a conspiracy, but just good customer relations. True, it makes some people angry, but you have to appreciate the difficulty that this conundrum presents for business. They want to contribute to the spirit of the season, if only to make a buck. But no matter what they do, there is trouble waiting. I promise you this: The instant it turns up that they are losing more revenue by saying “Happy Holidays” than by saying “Merry Christmas,” the policy will change.
But don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. Our society is ever more religiously diverse, and it is the genius of a free economy that it can absorb many traditions and still retain the peace among them all.
Still, if you aren’t satisfied with this argument on capitalism’s behalf, there is something you can do. There are many vendors that specialize in Christmas. They sell cards, trees, ornaments, icons, books, and a million other items that are Christo-centric. There is nothing wrong with favoring them over the mass market. Capitalism has provided room for them, too, so you can do your part by buying from them.
A final word: Christmas is the worst time of the year to enter a holy war. Make your peace with religious diversity. Come to understand the driving forces behind a free economy and thank God for it. Christ was born into a world that did not yet celebrate Christmas, and the kings from the East had to lie to the magistrate about the recipient of their gifts. Christmas can survive and thrive even if it is not culturally dominant. To be free to practice our faith should be our prayer.


Jeffrey Tucker is managing editor of Sacred Music and publications editor of the Church Music Association of America. He writes a bi-weekly column on sacred music and liturgy for Crisis Magazine and also runs the Chant Cafe Blog. [email protected]

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