An old Christmas rerun aired the other day. Children gathered round to receive gifts. But there was a catch: to obtain the brightly wrapped treasure, the children had to recite one verse from the Bible – from memory. Most kids didn’t have any Bible verses memorized, so an older kid snuck and whispered verses in the children’s ears. One smart alec even recited a less…wholesome verse from the Old Testament. While this scene may give many Americans warm fuzzies, it is not the kind of scene that would be portrayed by modern American TV shows. It raises the question: does this scene hark back to an era where Christmas in America, as Dr. Seuss so aptly put it, meant “a little bit more?” Have Americans lost the deeper meaning of Christmas?
Or are people just regurgitating stereotypes of holiday commercialization?
Usually, answering this self-reflective question about whether we have lost the meaning of Christmas pits two concepts against each other: commercialism and wholesomeness. But while lots of finger wagging occurs, neither concept is generally well defined . Take commercialism for example. It is usually defined no more clearly than this: that commercialism = bad. Or, more specifically, that the more commercialism there is the less wholesomeness.
In addition to being ill defined, there is generally not much thought given to whether this dichotomy is fallacious. Are the two mutually exclusive? Can wholesomeness not exist in the same space as money? Or is there ever a way for earning or money spending to be wholesome?
People are not much more clear on wholesomeness than they are on consumerism. While some speak of putting Christ back in Christmas, others prefer keeping it secular. Yet, religious or not, most Americans seem to feel Christmas should have meaning of some sort. But what, exactly, is this yearly festivity supposed to mean?
Furthermore, how does one measure the meaningfulness of a particular Christmas season? Is it how happy everyone is? How few presents were received? How little was spent? How many religious ceremonies were attended? How environmentally friendly our gifts are? How many charities were donated to? How much time was spent with family? How many coffee shop cups have reindeer on them?
How would we know if we, as a society, had reached Christmas enlightenment? And are we really as bad off as we say we are?
Defining wholesomeness and commercialism
Christmas wholesomeness, while not completely agreed upon across the board, isn’t too complicated. It generally falls under at least one of these three categories:
- Good deeds / charitable donations
- Worship / spirituality
- Time with friends and family
Commercialism, on the other hand, is generally tossed together with consumerism and materialism into a big salad of shallowness without any clear delineation. But these concepts are not exactly the same.
Consumerism focuses on the rising number of products being purchased, and how this rise is good for the economy (see capitalism). Materialism, is about caring for possessions more than ethics or ideologies.
Commercialism, on the other hand, is more about an excessive focus on profit.
Most Americans don’t have to worry about this kind of commercialism over the holidays in the most rigid sense of the word, since they are generally spending money rather than earning great big profits. Unless, perhaps, receiving amazing gifts counts as profit. Yet, Americans may become somewhat more materialistic over the holidays as their attention shifts to gift giving and receiving. And, well, as for holiday consumerism, it may actually be a wholesome thing since it boosts the economy every year. This can only be helpful to the poor and society as a whole.
But these three words are often used interchangeably, as a larger concept with negative connotations. This Scroogey mosaic of concepts is what we will be referring to when we use the word “commercialism.” Commercialism in this sense, then, usually manifests itself in relation to:
Notice that simply having, earning, or spending money is not a category.
Does American Christmas Lean Toward Commercialism or Wholesomeness?
Sometimes, America gets a bad rap. Stereotyping and prejudice take many forms. Americans, for instance, are perceived as being materialistic and self-centered. While it is good to take constructive criticism, it is also important to realize that Americans too can be unfairly type cast.
The fact is that Americans give to charity more over the holidays. As of 2012, a survey reported about half of the surveyed charitable organizations recieved the most donations from October to December. Just last year, Americans broke previous records of total yearly donations, a large majority of which came from individuals rather than corporations.
And donations are only one way people find meaning. Americans prioritize spending time with family more over the holidays. Internet searches for church services even spike in December, with rises in church attendance. While there are incidents of blatant, petty commercialism such as fights over products in stores, Americans have not lost that warm spot in their hearts for something deeper. We still hear the occasional touching story of holiday goodness, even in these modern times.
Good deeds Americans have done so far for Christmas 2018
For instance, this year someone who is undoubtedly on the naughty list slashed an inflatable black Santa in someone’s yard. While this reveals the ugly underbelly of society on one hand, the beauty of it is that the neighbors on that block committed to buy – yes buy – inflatable black Santas for their lawns to stand in solidarity with their neighbor.
That is just one example. Here are a few notable others:
- Family Christmas display raises money for cancer research.
- A boy scout raised $6,500 for pet welfare.
- “Father Christmas” priest travels the country performing random acts of kindness.
- Santa rides Harley Davidson motorcycle to nursing home to deliver presents.
Doing good during the holidays
Does the season present us with temptations of avarice and the like? It does. But with these temptations comes the opportunity to conquer them and replace the evil that entices us with goodness. It’s almost fitting that this dichotomy exists during a holiday meant to celebrate goodness. Being good without temptation is easy. But mix temptation with a call for betterment, and the possibility of becoming a stronger force for good arises. What good deed have you done this Christmas season?
By Valorie Broderick