Dried-out evergreens abandoned by the curb. Bright red boxes of Valentine’s Day candy in the windows of drugstores. Parking meters unwrapped, twinkling lights gone dark, and the airwaves saturated with Top 40 hits in place of carols. The first week of January is here.
I love wintertime, I love watching snow fall, and I love sitting indoors snug and warm on a chilly day, so I don’t mean for these images to convey despair or despondence at the end of the Christmas season and the arrival of winter proper. I only wish to point out the startling speed at which the transition is accomplished. Everyone seems to forget that Christmas has twelve days. Radio stations that have been playing Christmas music since before Thanksgiving revert to their ordinary repertoire at 8 PM on the day itself. And Valentine’s candy? I still haven’t put the batteries in my Hess truck.
Just as the frenetic pivot from Santas to Cupids is a perennial feature of the coming of the New Year, so too is widespread condemnation of the crass commercialism of the holiday. The absurdity is not revealed in full until the sudden appearance of heart-shaped boxes right after Christmas, but we are warned throughout all of Advent to ward it off, and to remember the real “reason for the season.” Linus Van Pelt laments the fact that Christmas is “too commercialized” (and also “too dangerous,” though for reasons peculiar to his relationship with his sister and her fist). His iconic speech to Charlie Brown on what Christmas is all about stands as a shining counterexample to the claim of many Christians that the media are out to hide the original meaning of the holiday.
In his sermon at this year’s Midnight Mass at St. Peter’s, Pope Benedict exhorted the world’s Catholics to look beyond the “superficial glitter” of the season and to “discover behind it the child in the stable of Bethlehem, so as to find true joy and true light.” And it’s not as if the message falls on deaf ears. Given the pervasive hardship wrought by the Lesser Depression, it seems that there is a great appetite among Catholics (and all of our other Christmas-celebrating friends) for ways of experiencing the joy of the holiday without the attendant budgetary strain. This message of resisting commercialism is so timeless and so deeply internalized by so many people – even if not practiced by the same – that it just feels intuitively right to a great many of us that any and all efforts to pare back holiday spending are morally laudable. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is a contradiction inherent in this thinking.
On the one hand, it is in the best interest of a given individual or family to find ways to do more with less at Christmastime, and to resist the temptation to buy a lot of expensive gifts. As a nation though, we rely on consumer spending to drive economic growth. Economists finally seem to be saying that our bleak employment situation is starting to improve in earnest, and that holiday sales this year were probably robust enough to protect us against the threat of another downward spiral. The fact of the matter is that the more that shoppers buy, the more new employees that businesses will hire – and the more families that will breath a sigh of relief upon finally having a regular paycheck once again.
The eminent British economist John Maynard Keynes dubbed this dilemma the “paradox of thrift.” He observed that while any one person may make himself better off by saving for a rainy day rather than spending, a whole economy will be made worse off if all of its participants opt to save more. Less spending means fewer jobs, smaller incomes, and more unemployment, thereby negating any positive effect of the increased “thrift.”
Pope Benedict is certainly right to encourage us to engage in some introspection when it comes to our attitudes toward Christmas. This is not to say, however, that all ways of resisting commercialism are created equal. If we simply forego the gifts and leave our money in the bank, we are certainly doing a good thing. But what of the broader impact? We may not think of buying toys or socks for our friends as a form of charity, but doing what little we can to make sure that a store clerk has money to put food on the table is indeed a more noble act than many of us realize.
We certainly should not buy frivolous things that we don’t need and won’t use, but we should be conscious of the fact that our choices have ramifications beyond the ones that we see right in front of us. Taking what we would have spent on shiny electronics and putting it into savings is one way to show our anti-materialism, but using that money to purchase canned food for a local food bank may do more tangible good.
Commercialism can easily get out of hand, but there’s nothing innately wrong with commerce. By all means, stuff the stockings and trim the tree when next Christmas rolls around, knowing that someone may be able to keep their job because of it. But at least keep that tree decorated until Three Kings’, and hold off on the chocolate hearts until February. They only dry out anyway.