A weak defense of the consumer’s Christmas

December 3, 2009 | 27 comments
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My co-blogger Sharon put up a most enjoyable post a few weeks ago. I liked it so much that I’m going to pay it the compliment of differing with one or two of its points. (In blog etiquette, after all, quibbling is the highest form of flattery.) Sharon points us toward a Christian anti-consumerist movement called Advent Conspiracy, which takes as is raison d’etre an apparent cultural contradiction. “What was once a time to celebrate the birth of a savior has somehow turned into a season of stress, traffic jams, and shopping lists,” the site’s copy reads. “What if Christmas became a world-changing event again? Welcome to Advent Conspiracy.” The premise here, as I read it, is that a pure, primitive Christmas, free from material excess, has been corrupted by a modern consumerist ethos that turns Christmas into a vulgar carnival of getting and spending. At heart it’s a narrative of apostasy.

Advent Conspiracy’s counter-cultural vibe is a hip standout, but the group’s basic message is one we hear from many corners every December. The message must resonate with a certain American experience. Philip Kennicott adds a twist to usual lament :

Every December, we regret the increasing commercialization of Christmas, as if we’re slipping further and further from some ideal understanding of the holiday (last seen in a Dickens story or film by Frank Capra?). But let’s be hardheaded and pragmatic about the facts. Christmas isn’t devolving from some Christian fantasy of love and regeneration. That ship has left the harbor. No, it’s evolving into the perfect, five-week spectacle of Americana, with all our best American gadgets and gizmos on display, with all of our basic habits of the heart—desire, acquisitiveness, competition—perfectly exercised. Black Friday is the first day of the American Saturnalia, a festival of capitalism and technology and American self-love all rolled into one.

Christmas isn’t falling from grace, Kennicott suggests, but ascending toward a state of perfect American self-actualization. Well, maybe. I suspect that if Christmas is indeed becoming more commercial, the cause lies not in some inherent quality of American moral character but rather on the American consumer’s changed prospects in a globalizing economy. Fifty years ago we would have bought more if we could have.

But I share his implied critique of the apostasy narrative, and this is my central point of flattery difference with Sharon. It’s probably not the case that an ardent religious observance of Christ’s birth preceded and then deteriorated into a spectacle of material indulgence and excess. As an historical point, the two probably originated together. Kennicott mentions Dickens, and that’s not a bad place to start an investigation of modern Christmas. A Christmas Carol has been credited with rescuing Christmas from a dour Puritanism, and while that may overstate things a bit, it probably is fair to call the Carol a kind of cultural ur-text for the holiday. A few years ago I did a little study of A Christmas Carol, and it was striking the extent to which both impulses—the religious and the consumerist—co-existed in the text. Ebenezer Scrooge’s story is a quintessential Christian conversion narrative, but the story is also an extraordinary paean to material abundance. This is no accident, of course; the two themes inform one another closely. The images of abundance symbolize the richness of rebirth in Christ, the living water that springs eternally, and Christian bounty in turn provides a resolution to the material problem of malthusian scarcity that lurks in the background of the story.

Dickens’ accomplishment in Carol can be understood partly as a relocating of feudal traditions, with their old notions of noblesse oblige, to a newly industrialized urban context and its new structure of class relations. The old feudal Christmas itself, its manorial feasts and communal merry-making, has a long history. The roots of Christmastime excess go very deep. And if the old Yuletide celebrations appropriated certain ritual elements from ancient pagan observances, there is also some basis in Judeo-Christian scripture for an ideal of abundant excess in connection with religious devotion. In one gorgeous poem, for example, Isaiah describes “a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.”

So call this a weak defense of the consumer’s Christmas. It’s a weak defense, because I’m ready with a hundred caveats. Isaiah’s “fat things” are full of marrow, and so our abundance should be full of meaning: empty consumption merely for its own sake never was joy. And as Chesterton observes, the special appeal of Christmas depends on the contrast between a bountiful feast and the bleak midwinter: if we indulge our consumer impulses without restraint all year, then Christmastime bounty means nothing. Nor should our seasonal abundance be entirely retail: music and food and beauty and fun and, crucially, reverence and awe and worship are all a part of the joy. I suspect that Sharon and I really are very close together in our sense of how the holiday should be celebrated. But this year my Christmas mise-en-scene will include a feast of fat things, a panoply of rejoicing and plenty fit for the King of Kings.

27 Responses to A weak defense of the consumer’s Christmas

  1. Dan on December 3, 2009 at 6:43 am

    Let’s not forget that Jesus wasn’t even born in December. That, for me at least, really deflates the whole “let’s celebrate Christ’s birth!” aspect of Christmas. And why was December 25th picked as the false day to celebrate Christ? I mean, just look at Wikipedia to see the history behind Christmas, and see that most of what we still practice during the celebration we call Christmas comes from Roman, Scandinavian, and Pagan celebrations. It’s kinda hard for those who fight the “war on Christmas” to defend Christmas as a celebration of Christ when there is so much fakery in that battle.

    In any case, for me, I’ll just go on with life stuck in that constant annual battle between the forces of Christianity and the forces of materialism; hopefully along the way teaching my daughter to learn to serve others in their time of need.

  2. Matt W. on December 3, 2009 at 9:35 am

    Dan: Kevin Barney had a great post about that over at BCC a few years back that blows Wikipedia out of the water. December 25th is a great day to celebrate christmas.

    What I love about all the “evil consumerism” of Christmas is that it is people making purchases of excess to give them away. To me that isn’t evil, but extremely beautiful. It is what Christmas is all about. “God so loved the world, he gave…”, Christ giving his life, the Magi, and the widows might, all rolled into one.

  3. Matt W. on December 3, 2009 at 9:36 am

    er, widows mite, that is…

  4. Dan on December 3, 2009 at 9:56 am

    Matt,

    Yeah, I remember that post. I only mention wikipedia because it was a decent enough and accurate enough portrayal. Obviously Christmas is more complicated than most tend to think about it, most likely because it’s really not that important.

    In any case, I’m not one who is so bothered by the materialistic Christmas we experience these days. It is what keeps our economy going, jobs provided, and thus food served at the dinner table to hungry kids. Sounds good to me.

  5. Bob on December 3, 2009 at 9:56 am

    Didn’t it all start with the -Three Wise Men- bringing gifts?
    I do miss the old Christmas movies, the new one do nothing for me. But I do have my old Christmas (1940s) music to fall back on
    And oh yea– I’ve come to like my Tamales on Christmas morning (S/CA).

  6. Researcher on December 3, 2009 at 10:18 am

    “…a feast of fat things…”

    Do you mean the frosted sugar cookies, the Italian nut balls, shortbread, stollen, oliebollen, chocolate fudge, pralines, spekulatius, marzipan, Panettone, mince pies, eggnog, and all the other holiday specialties which tend to be rather high in saturated fats and cholesterol?

    (Not to mention the traditional turkey or ham dinner, or tamales, for those who prefer their “fat things” delivered with that Southwestern chili flavor.)

  7. Catania on December 3, 2009 at 10:33 am

    Yeah, it is easy to lament about the materialsim of Christmas. I tend to have to opposing opinions. I like to get my kids stuff. I like to see them happy. I also know that stuff won’t make them happy, and that Christmas – even if it isn’t Christ’s real birthday is a nice time to stop and think about his Entire life and work.

    It has helped that in past years, I’ve been too poor to make Christmas extravagant. We’ve had presents, but nothing excessive.

    Now, I like to continue with the simple christmases. But to make it seem more fun, I use it as a time to do a lot of food storage re-stocking. (I promise that my Girls look forward to the 3 month’s supply of nutella they always get in their stocking!) – oh – and Santa also delivers cleaning supplies to the girls (in addition to a toy). It helps keep them on the “nice” list.

    All in all, I agree – holidays are okay, even ones where we may be consuming more than normal – as long as it is in contrast to our usual lives. Nice post.

  8. document on December 3, 2009 at 10:57 am

    “(Not to mention the traditional turkey or ham dinner, or tamales, for those who prefer their “fat things” delivered with that Southwestern chili flavor.)”

    You’re making it harder on me to be a vegetarian through Christmas season…:)

  9. Dave on December 3, 2009 at 11:05 am

    Nice discussion, Rosalynde. I don’t feel any particular need to defend the consumerized Christmas, any more than I feel a need to explain why there are football games on Thanksgiving or fireworks on the Fourth of July. That’s just how we do things in America circa 2009.

    A visitor from the Netherlands recently shared her approach to Christmas. Presents are exchanged and opened on December 15, allowing everyone to focus on Jesus Christ, etc., on December 25. I don’t know if that is a family tradition or a Dutch tradition, but it is a simple and workable solution to the problem of a celebration of stuff overshadowing a celebration of God.

  10. reader Rachel on December 3, 2009 at 11:34 am

    The key is to be able to enjoy abundance without succumbing to gluttony. Any time there is too much (gifts, toys, fudge, fat things) it becomes impossible to savor anything. When the focus is on getting more, giving more, there is never enough, and nothing is valued.

  11. Hunter on December 3, 2009 at 11:38 am

    Rosalynde: I really enjoy hearing and reading your thoughts. I think you have a wonderful way with language. But after hearing your Mormon Stories podcasts, and after reading this post above, I’m afraid that my response to your Advent Conspiracy take is simply that I think you delight in being a contrarian.

    No?

  12. Grace on December 3, 2009 at 11:59 am

    Levi-Strauss wrote a little gem of an essay called “Father Christmas Executed” which, although written in 1952, was created in response to the same cultural strife over the “meaning” of the holiday and the consumerist traditions surrounding it.

    http://varenne.tc.columbia.edu/texts/levstcld093fathchri.pdf

  13. Rosalynde Welch on December 3, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    Hunter, is this like the liar’s paradox—if I answer “yes,” then I’m not really a contrarian after all?

    I blame it all on grad school.

  14. Hunter on December 3, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    [laughing] I promise I wasn’t trying to trap you, Rosalynde! But, yeah, I blame my own contrariness on law school.

    OK, rather than just leave it at that, I’ll try and offer an alternative to your defense of a “consumerist” Christmas. For me, the answer to this question lies not in rejecting abundance, or even lavishness, in our Christmas celebration. Rather, part of the answer relates to the contextual environment of those “fat” celebrations. It’s all about context. For me, that context comes in the form of paying attention to the fundamental notions of the Christian concept of Advent (whether you adopt all the sectarian notions or not). The purpose of Advent is that it focuses our minds on preparation for something better to come. The plentiful Advent scriptures — which also presage the second coming of Christ — then put a Christmas celebration in proper context, and also give the holiday real relevance. The holding back and looking forward to Christmas during Advent then figuratively releases all the energy for a guilt-free (and yes, consumer-filled) Christmas. Bring on the gifts!

    So, yes, it’s good of you to recognize the historical inter-relatedness of consumerism and our North American Christmas traditions, but let’s not stop there. Give Christmas more relevance by adopting some of the principles behind the season of Advent. Or to paraphrase Billy Joel badly, I’m just in an Advent state of mind.

    Or maybe I’m just being a contrarian.

  15. Rosalynde Welch on December 3, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    I like it, Hunter. You’re not exactly anti-consumerist, but you’re anti-anti-anti-consumerist. And that is a position I can get behind (provided it has sufficient caveats, of course, another vice I acquired in graduate school). I’m trying to figure out how I can incorporate a bit of austerity into our family traditions. Ideas?

    Grace, what a fun little piece, thank you very much for bringing it to my attention. I am truly a Casaubon at heart, and Levi-Strauss is right up my alley, the key to all mythologies & co. I’ve had an interest in Lord of Misrule rituals since I encountered Bakhtin in college.

    Fun comments all, thanks. Researcher, your list is thorough but not exhaustive. Pfeffernusse, monkey bread, reindeer cheese, and raspberry sticks. It would be an inductive feat of truly Baconian proportions to catalog all known fattening holiday treats. Don’t forget that Black Swan cake. I’ll be happy to peer review when you have a draft ready.

  16. Frank McIntyre on December 3, 2009 at 4:32 pm

    “I’m trying to figure out how I can incorporate a bit of austerity into our family traditions. Ideas?”

    We moved half the Christmas budget to an end of school party (and gifts) in May. It is a marginal reduction in the Christmas overload, but it helps. Also, we can get the summertime toys at the right time.

  17. Hunter on December 3, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    My advice for us Latter-day Saint families trying to incorporate a little of the spirit of Advent is to keep it simple and just tweak what you already have in place. For example, if you read the scriptures daily as a family, replace your normal reading with scripture passages pertaining to the Advent-events (primarily from the N.T. of course, but not the nativity story), as well as scripture passages pertaining to Advent themes (e.g., Christ’s second coming, the world in darkness, Christ as light of the world). You can find and print out a quick and easy scripture-reading schedule from many different websites. Another idea is, if you sing a nightly hymn, replace it with an Advent hymn (we are currently using the singable “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light”; and of course, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” works great). The very fact that you’re doing something different will make an impression. And you never even have to call it “Advent” (although we do).

    On a side note, I can’t believe I’m actually giving ideas or advice to the honorable and much esteemed Rosalynde Welch. I think my head is going to explode.

  18. Jacob J on December 3, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    I think the commercialism is wonderful. A holiday without traditions is not a holiday. It’s not like the majority of people are going to sit around and contemplate the birth of Jesus more purely if we didn’t buy stuff for each other. Quite the contrary, they would think about the birth of Jesus less. What tradition would be better than gift giving? Door-to-door threatening the neighbors for candy? Hunting for hard-boilded eggs? I think gift giving is perfect and I think it is awesome that for one month a year our whole society revolves around this holiday with lots of things to keep it in the front of our minds.

  19. Peter LLC on December 4, 2009 at 6:23 am

    It’s not like the majority of people are going to sit around and contemplate the birth of Jesus more purely if we didn’t buy stuff for each other. Quite the contrary, they would think about the birth of Jesus less.

    I don’t see how your second sentence follows.

  20. Adam Greenwood on December 4, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Rosalynde W., characteristically sound an insightful your post is. Focusing on consumption is not the point of Christmas, true, but anti-consumerism is as much a focus on consumption as consumption is. Mormonism does not reject the material, nor natural delights, and Christmas isn’t a remembrance of Christ’s birth, its a *celebration* of it.

    That goes for my Christmas indulgences, anyway. Other people who do more than me are obviously missing the reason for the season and I enjoy sneering at them.

    :)

  21. Velska on December 5, 2009 at 4:40 am

    What I love about all the “evil consumerism” of Christmas is that it is people making purchases of excess to give them away.

    Balderdash! People calculate are very aware of the value of the stuff they get from their friends, and if it’s less than what they gave them, they’re offended.

    When did gluttony cease to be a sin?

    Our current Christmas traditions in the “western” world are an adaptation of the Scandinavian Yule (originally Jul(e)), that is a pagan festival of fertility, when people tried to ascertain a plentiful new year by offering foods to gods, and by participating in gluttony and sexual rituals in reckless abandon. And the evergreens were there to symbolize fertility (green plant life in midwinter was to them a symbol of the hope of life after the brutal winter).

    You could read Joseph Frazer’s Golden Bough; it gives a more entertaining picture of that than Wikipedia.

    OTOH, I have nothing against celebrating the birth of the Savior. But I don’t do it by fattening the wallets of the “gods” of consumerism. It may be that spending money is the patriotic thing to do in a recession/depression, but one could spend it in something semi-useful instead of gazillion tons of tinsel.

    Easter has the excuse of falling at the same time (approximately) as the Jewish Pesach, but the name gives it away as another pagan fertility rite thinly veiled in Christian meaning by giving a little lip service. The lip service used to be more visible, with most people going to church. What else were they going to do in a time, when the church (meaning the medieval Catholic Church) controlled most people’s lives to surprisingly great degree.

    When Christianity was to become a religion of the masses after Constantine declared it a state religion, the bishops, who by that time were surprisingly corruptible by secular authority and money, converted several pagan rituals to Christian celebrations by giving them a thin coating of Christian liturgy. They did that to avoid outright rebellion against the forced conversion to a strange religion.

    Naturally, there were people who sincerely bought all that Christian rhetoric.

    When I converted to the restored gospel, I decided to leave the false traditions of my fathers behind. These pagan rituals clothed in Christian rhetoric were some of them. Since then I have given slack to people, who sincerely believe in their Christian value.

    Let’s face it, there are a lot of sincere people.

    I don’t mean to criticize sincere people, but there are also a lot of people, who sincerely believe that the more stuff they buy the better people they are. Think of it whatever you will.

  22. chanson on December 5, 2009 at 9:36 pm

    Very interesting post! I wrote a little bit about how the Christmas celebration evolved from feudal roots (in my post on Santa Claus is Coming to Town), and I’m not sure how I managed to neglect mentioning the role of A Christmas Carol

  23. Jacob J on December 5, 2009 at 10:54 pm

    Peter,

    I don’t see how your second sentence follows.

    I didn’t intend for the second sentence to be a conclusion from the first, it is just my own prediction based on my observation of holidays. The ones with lots of tradition and comercialism seem to get more attention and focus overall, which includes more attention and focus on the meaning of the holiday as well.

  24. Robert C. on December 9, 2009 at 8:40 pm

    Rosalynde, great post. (Have you read The Black Swan, or am I misreading your comment #15?)

    Curiously, D&C 52:8 adds the modifier “that a feast of fat things might be prepared for the poor” to Isaiah’s passage. Any thoughts on how this verse might change how we might but a uniquely Mormon spin on Isaiah’s phrase, without becoming overly Puritanical?

  25. Robert C. on December 9, 2009 at 8:42 pm

    D&C 58:8, sorry….

  26. Esther on December 9, 2009 at 8:46 pm

    I loved your post! I did a paper in college on A Christmas Carol as religious conversion story on secular terms so I appreciated your insights. I feel the need to address the comments that followed.

    I think there are fewer people calculating their Christmas input vs output than some may imagine.

    Also, I would argue that Americans have known, most for well over a year, the pagan roots of holidays like Christmas and Easter. This is not a news flash. Those who still knowingly celebrate do so because whatever it once may have meant (fertility rite or whatever) it means something different now. You are going to have to give me some slack, because I sincerely believe that a holiday that encourages such an outpouring of love and generosity, socially and culturally and in the name of Christ, regardless of the occasional glutton, has definite Christian value.

  27. Ben on December 11, 2009 at 11:44 am

    Rosalynde, I just shot you an email about this post. Let me know if you don’t get it.