Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
To deride "the commercialization of Christmas" today is to embark on a useless campaign that sounds both quaint and "dated." It is to evoke a platitudinous cliche that evaporates more-or-less simultaneously with its very utterance. It may provoke a sympathetic sigh or knowing nod of the head from your neighbor, but the conversation will have to move forward for it to be of any significance.
As a priest, it is a theme that I may raise in passing - almost as a pastoral obligation - but not one to any longer spend much time or energy on. The utter obviousness of claiming that Christmas has become commercialized is what renders its articulation almost meaningless. At best, we may only shrug our shoulders when reminded of the contrast between the manger and the mall, and perhaps sheepishly mutter: "What can one do?"
If there ever was a genuine battle within American culture over this issue, it has long been determined that consumerism has triumphed over any and all forms of resistance - religious or otherwise. Who would have imagined any other outcome when the virtues of capitalism are proclaimed with an almost evangelical intensity in our society? When the almighty dollar is at stake, the Almighty God may well be forgotten.
The almost gleeful and naked consumerism that characterizes this time of the year has clearly swept aside any forms of dissent or discontent. The lunacy of "Black Friday" and "Cyber Monday" are mere exclamation points that "seal the deal" and both events are here to stay, and most likely to expand further into our minds and pockets in the near future. It seems as if only deaf ears are being addressed by some still courageous voices crying out from the wilderness in honor and remembrance of the One born in poverty. In a thoroughly secularized society that is proud of its diversity, Christ has long been effectively removed from Christmas.
But we already know all of this...
To me, the far more significant question is how do the countless members of our society who claim to be Christians deal with the rampant and unapologetic "commercialization of Christmas?" Apparently by participating in it at a pace and with a level of eagerness equal to those for whom the birth of Christ means absolutely nothing. Can anyone detect any discernibly different consumer patterns during Christmas displayed by Christians and non-Christians? Do Christians buy or spend less? Are self-designated Christians also found in those lines (pushing and shoving) with non-Christians on "Black Friday?" Are Christians in any less numbers strapped to their seats in front of their computers on "Cyber Monday" spending hours scrolling through a mind-numbing number of sites in search of a deal? I admit to having no data or statistics, but intuitively I can only imagine that Christians are, to say it again, eager participants in the consumer-driven madness of the Season.
Who is to blame for this state of affairs? If we live in what is historically a Christian society, how can we answer other than by saying: Christians! To perhaps soften that a bit, at least in terms of a slow cultural acquiescence over time. Legal battles over public Nativity scenes are beside the point. And I say this while I simultaneously wonder: living in 21st century America, could it be otherwise? The level of resistance required to be liberated from any of this would aspire to the level of the heroic. It could be interpreted as being downright sectarian. It could even cause great distress for our children.
Actually, I am not writing in order to offer an alternative approach as a kind of Christian antidote to curb the consumer within. I must acknowledge that I am a co-consumer with all the rest. Consequently, this is not a condescending Christian denunciation of "worldly people." I am simply trying to take an honest look at "what is" as we approach the Feast of the Nativity. I am sure that there are Christians who have devised well thought-out strategies that are meant to instill different "values" in their children at this time of the year. I must respect that. And, as anything else "under the sun," those strategies are probably accessible on the internet for those who want to do the necessary research.
My more immediate concern is that for us, as Orthodox Christians, there may exist a certain "bipolarity" in the uncritical assumption of the practices and patterns of a secular Christmas and our own ecclesial commitment to piously "attend" Church for the Liturgy on December 25. We can effortlessly move from one to the other without the least sense of an inherent tension between the mystery of the Incarnation occurring within the simple setting of the cave outside of Bethlehem; and the (excessive?) gift-giving to follow which may be obscurely - if not unconsciously - patterned after the gift-giving of the Magi. Will the Gift get lost amidst all of the other gifts? If such is the case we, as Christians, must realize that we have forfeited any moral high ground. And, while we are at it, we probably need to admit that we, as Orthodox Christians, with a festal calendar that celebrates "the twelve days of Christmas," now basically treat the feast as "one and done." The frenetic pace of the pre-Nativity season renders us exhausted on the first day of the Feast.
Therefore, I do believe that any Christian attempt to deride the "commercialization of Christmas" by Christians who participate in that very commercialization borders dangerously close to hypocrisy. We are better off at turning our criticism inward as we continue to shop and spend with the best of them. Self-reflective criticism will be much more fruitful in the long run and helpful for the well-being of our souls. Perhaps that could lead to some conscious attempts to alter entrenched attitudes and patterns and bring a greater sense of balance back to the Season.
The counter-commercial response is not, of course, to watch one more Nativity film. Nor to make sure we drive by the local church with its "live" Nativity scene replete with little lambs and a stoic donkey. Those are fine family activities, but we must go much deeper than this. We must take seriously the words of Christ: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matt 6:21).
Our modest goal - though fruitful indeed in its consequences - is to "save some space" in our minds and hearts for "the Coming One" whom we hope will be born in those very same minds and hearts, thus taking flesh and becoming incarnate in and to the world through our lives in all of their diversity and fullness. Perhaps we could offer our minds and hearts to the newborn Christ as our gifts in response to Him coming among us as a light shining in darkness. For without Christ all is darkness. Or, as C.S. Lewis described Narnia when under the spell of the bad witch, it was always winter but never Christmas.
So, even if the phrase the "commercialization of Christmas" has been reduced to a platitudinous cliche, our own annual immersion into that commercialization may render a periodic reminder of some spiritual benefit. With just a minimum of serious thought, Orthodox Christians should not find it difficult to order their priorities in favor of Christ. After all, the miracle is in the manger, not at the mall.