Every year the Christmas season starts a little earlier. Now it starts at least as early as the day after Halloween (All Saints Day), when the Halloween stuff goes on clearance and the stores get ready for the next holiday. Since Thanksgiving lacks the consumer cachet, the stores jump right to Christmas. The official “buying season” begins sometime Thanksgiving evening (as opposed to “Black Friday”), allowing the consumerist side of Christmas to makes itself felt. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m no Grinch. I love Santa, all the carols (secular and religious), and I even enjoy the giving and receiving of gifts.
I also understand that in a consumer-driven economy, which for better or worse the United States happens to be, we must buy if we and our neighbors hope to have jobs. I understand that most retail businesses make all their profit during this end of the year season. If they don’t do well they can’t afford to hire or even stay in business. Yes, I understand all of this to be true, but I also understand that this consumer-driven holiday season has nothing to do with Jesus or the holy season of Christmas. These seasons may share a name, but that’s all they share. In orientation and purpose they are far apart – the story of the Magi not withstanding! But I’m also aware that there is a strong dark side to all of this. It’s easy for the season be consumed by a consumerist mentality.
So, what should Christians make of this holiday that takes its name from Christ? Should we be offended by the consumer side? Should we be offended if people say “happy holidays” instead of Merry Christmas? Although there is an ever increasing chorus of “complaints” about businesses that refuse to say Merry Christmas and that schools no longer sing carols, what does this have to do with the sacred/holy season of Christmas? And are we really witnessing a “war on Christmas” being mounted by atheistic-liberal-secularists? Indeed, is this a sign that Christians are being persecuted, as some suggest?
As we hear this growing refrain, should we not stop to ask the question: What hath Christ to do with this consumer-driven holiday season that draws its name from Jesus’ birth? I mean, what does Jesus have to do with getting the latest I-Pad or Kindle Fire or X-Box or Barbie doll? Does the trinket have less value if the clerk says “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas?”
I wonder if perhaps we’ve confused two very different seasons that happen to be running on parallel tracks. So, if we can pull ourselves out of this consumer-driven season for a moment and consider the story of Christmas as told in Scripture, perhaps we might see things differently. Consider that according to the two leading versions of the story, we don’t hear about Joseph and Mary throwing a big birthday party, with lots of presents and cake and ice cream. No, as the Gospel of Luke tells the story, Mary and Joseph are forced by the Empire to return to Joseph’s ancestral home to register for a census. Because there’s no room for them in the inn, they’re forced to make do with lodgings in the stable, along with the animals. And as for Matthew, well, there are gifts, but there’s also an escape and a slaughter – the latter at the hands of the Empire’s proxy king. In the teachings of Jesus, we see no suggestion that we should indulge in consumerism. In fact, Jesus seems pretty clear that God has called him to preach “good news to the poor,” and the news isn’t a prosperity gospel nor is it a call to pull yourselves up from bootstraps. I don’t remember reading anything about the need for giving tax-breaks for “job creators.” I do remember him saying that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom.
So what do we make of this call to put Christ back into Christmas? Which Christmas are we talking about? As for me, the Christ that connects with Christmas is the one I meet in worship on Christmas Eve and in the lives of those who struggle to make a life for themselves in difficult times. Although I do believe Christ to be present in the mall, I don’t think Christ is present in the consumerism celebrated at the mall!