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Eric Heavner: Can commerce and Christmas get along?

From the commentary: Christmas can be too commercial, the pleasures of feasting and exchanging gifts should be enjoyed, not denigrated as incompatible with the holiday. Body and spirit ... are one.

Customers visit the American Mall dream mall during Black Friday on Nov. 25, 2022, in East Rutherford, N.J.
Customers visit the American Mall dream mall during Black Friday on Nov. 25, 2022, in East Rutherford, N.J.
(Kena Betancur/Getty Images/TNS)
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Critics on their social media soap boxes have spent the past month loudly proclaiming that Christmas is too commercial. The nub of their complaint is that the true meaning of Christmas is lost amid the buying frenzy that marks the holiday. They claim the essence of Christmas lies not in gifts, decorations and festive eating and drinking, but in non-material things, such as celebrating the birth of Christ, reconnecting with family and friends, or spreading peace and “good will” toward others.

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Seventeenth-century Puritans made it a criminal offense to celebrate Christmas, finding the raucous gatherings sinful. Author C.S. Lewis condemned Christmas as a “festival of excesses.” “Peanuts” character Charlie Brown, spying Snoopy’s ostentatiously decorated doghouse, bemoaned commerce’s infiltration into the holiday.

And just as surely as snow will fall on Christmas Eve in the movie “White Christmas,” complaints that Christmas is too commercial will fall on deaf ears. Last Christmas season consumers spent $886.7 billion. And, except for a brief pause during the Great Recession of 2008 to 2009, Christmas spending has increased every year since 2002. And while there are some signs that inflation has taken a bite out of this year’s holiday spending, it’s minimal at most.

Consumers spend on Yuletide celebrations because spending is as American as Super Bowl Sunday. For good or ill, we live in a commercial society. Much of our lives are enmeshed in commercial transactions, in getting and spending. And these activities shape our habits and values. Can we really be expected to jettison our commercial values for a few weeks every December, only to embrace them again in January?

Besides ingrained habits of spending, our commercial-oriented celebrations are rooted in tradition. Many beloved Christmas stories feature the very material indulgences — feasting, partying, over-the-top decorations, gift-giving — that purportedly ruin the spirit of the holiday. Christmas in these stories partakes of both material and spiritual life. In one of the first Christmas stories (the Gospel of Matthew), wise men follow the star to Jesus and offer him, not wishes of peace and good will, but gifts of “gold, frankincense and myrrh.” Gifts figure prominently in the legend of St. Nicholas, which forms the basis of Santa Claus and our custom of exchanging presents.

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Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” portrays spending as a sign of spiritual renewal. Miserly Scrooge, the archetypical Christmas villain, is saved from his hatred of all things Christmas by a visit from three spirits on Christmas Eve. Scrooge’s newly found Christmas spirit, however, is manifested commercially, by a liberal application of money. He tips a boy lavishly, buys the mother of all turkeys for Bob Cratchit’s family, raises Bob’s wages and donates generously to the poor.

The Christmas perennial movie “It’s A Wonderful Life” similarly features both spiritual and commercial redemption. When protagonist George Bailey is saved from suicidal despair by a guardian angel, his spiritual redemption is quickly followed by a monetary one. The townspeople rescue George’s bacon by forking over the cold cash needed to keep his failed bank solvent.

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In Dr. Suess’ children’s book “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” the evil Grinch steals food, gifts and decorations from the good citizens of Whoville, hoping to cancel Christmas. When the Whos celebrate anyway, the Grinch realizes Christmas is “a little bit more” than things. But it’s only when the Grinch returns the stolen gifts and decorations that the Christmas party really gets started. In the great feast that ends the story, the material trappings of the holiday grease the spiritual celebration.

Christmas consumerism can, of course, get out of hand. Excess can transform any virtue into vice. Witness a recent CW Network TV special, “Greatest Holiday Commercial Countdown 2022,” which presents, without embarrassment, an entire show of holiday-themed advertisements. When commercials masquerade as entertainment, a moral line is crossed: Commerce becomes the purpose of the holiday, not a means to its enjoyment.

While Christmas can be too commercial, the pleasures of feasting and exchanging gifts should be enjoyed, not denigrated as incompatible with the holiday. Body and spirit, at least in this life, are one. Perhaps the best way to keep the Christmas spirit (however defined) is by celebrating material and spiritual life in due proportion. That’s the lesson many Christmas stories teach.

Eric Heavner teaches political science at Towson University. This commentary is the columnist's opinion. Send feedback to: opinion@wctrib.com.

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