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Is Capitalism Ruining Christmas?

December 23, 2008

Tags Free MarketsMedia and CulturePhilosophy and Methodology

Many Christians are seriously annoyed at the way the holiday season has changed. If you are among them, you are probably already annoyed at this article, because I didn't say Christmas season.

It is Christmas, people point out, so why can't we just say that? I received an e-mail the other day from Amazon.com headlined, "The 12 Days of Holiday," and the official greeting we get from store clerks is "Happy Holidays." In fact, there are cases in which corporate higher-ups have ordered employees not to say "Merry Christmas." The idea that there is a "war on Christmas" has been promoted by Bill O'Reilly and other red-state talking heads for years, and they intend to fight back by demanding that private enterprise make Christmas overt and with legislation requiring governments to use the phrase "Christmas tree."

That a shift in the culture has taken place is beyond doubt. But the idea that there is some war going on is completely nuts. In wars, there is always an enemy to be destroyed. Who or what is the enemy in this supposed war? You hear dark warnings about how this is due to the influence of "the Jews" or the infiltration of American life by "radical Islam." But more generally, another enemy has emerged: commercial society itself. As usual, capitalism—easy enough to blame for all things we don't like—is coming in for a beating.

Another criticism against commerce is that it has dissed Christmas by commercializing it. The critics don't seem to realize that this is actually the opposite of a war. Commerce is bombing us with x-treme Christmas starting the day after Halloween! So are the shock troops fighting back against the "war on Christmas" congratulating capitalism for this? Not at all! They attack commerce for its greed. No matter what the merchants do, they are in big trouble with the kvetchers.

What we need to realize is that capitalism is responsive—to an extent greater than any other institution—to the values of the public. Americans love Christmas in every way. We love giving and receiving gifts. We love the music. We love the sense of contentment and happiness and the family time that comes with it. We love the office parties, the elves, Santa, the reindeer, and all the images of Mary and Joseph and the babe in the manger. It is a common wish on film and in popular culture that Christmas should last all year long.

This is precisely what the commercial marketplace is fulfilling. This isn't an imposition, a desire to loot people as much as possible for as long as possible. On the contrary, all this hysteria reflects the effort to give people what they want—and that happens to be a long-lasting Christmas.

Now, to many sectors of Christian opinion, the problem goes much deeper. In the Roman Rite, Christmas does not actually begin until December 25th. The time prior is a different season: Advent, which is a time of penance and preparation. In the Eastern Rite that uses the old Julian Calendar, Christmas is celebrated on January 7, but there are splits within this rite too, with people who prefer the new form that syncs East and West.

Meanwhile, the idea of fully embracing Christmas is actually a relatively new one within Protestant circles. The Puritans of New England banned it and punished anyone who celebrated it. It was also true in England after Reformation sensibilities intensified. As later as 1874, the famed 19th-century Protestant English preacher Charles Spurgeon wrote,

We have no superstitious regard for times and seasons. Certainly we do not believe in the present ecclesiastical arrangement called Christmas. First, because we do not believe in the mass at all, but abhor it, whether it be sung in Latin or in English; and secondly, because we find no Scriptural warrant whatever for observing any day as the birthday of the Savior; and consequently, its observance is a superstition, because not of divine authority.

Times have changed for this tradition, almost to the point of making up for lost time! All of this is to say that the problem of a "commercial Christmas" isn't with capitalism as such, but with the multiplicity of values of the consuming public. Given that there is no universal agreement on when Christmas should be celebrated, when these celebrations should begin, when they should end, or whether we should be celebrating it at all, there is no sense in blaming capitalism or some dark forces in society. One can't insist that the whole of society celebrate Christmas your way and no other way, not so long as a free economy permits a multiplicity of traditions to express themselves.

Now to the equally substantial issue of the loss of "Merry Christmas" as a seasonal greeting. For starters, let's be clear that the phrase has not, in fact, been lost to commercial society. A quick Amazon search for "Christmas" turns up many thousands of items—hardly a surprise, since Amazon is out to do business in this niche market. And get this: a Google shopping search turns up more than 4 million hits! This is hardly a loss of the word.

But what about the use of "Happy Holidays" in greetings and salutations from marketing e-mails and the like? Firms try to cast the broadest net possible. Not everyone is a Christian, and some people aren't drawn to the idea of Christmas at all, so it makes sense that Christmas be commercially subsumed under the broader rubric of the "holy days" generally.

This isn't a conspiracy, but just good customer relations. True, it makes some people angry, but you have to appreciate the difficulty that this conundrum presents for business. They want to contribute to the spirit of the season, if only to make a buck. But no matter what they do, there is trouble waiting. I promise you this: the instant it turns up that they are losing more revenue by saying "Happy Holidays" than by saying "Merry Christmas," the policy will change.

But don't expect that to happen anytime soon. Our society is ever more religiously diverse, and it is the genius of a free economy that it can absorb many traditions and still retain the peace among them all.

Still, if you aren't satisfied with this argument on capitalism's behalf, there is something you can do. There are many vendors that specialize in Christmas and appeal to every conceivable sensibility. They sell cards, trees, ornaments, icons, books, and a million other items. There is nothing wrong with favoring them over the mass market. Capitalism has provided room for them, too, so you can do your part by buying from them.

A final word: Christmas is the worst time of the year to enter a holy war. Make your peace with religious diversity. Come to understand the driving forces behind a free economy and thank God for it. Christ was born into a world that did not yet celebrate Christmas, and the kings from the East had to lie to the magistrate about the recipient of their gifts. Christmas can survive and thrive even if it is not culturally dominant. To be free to practice our faith should be our prayer.


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