Let’s leave Christmas to commercialism

Today marks the 20th anniversary of my first published article, which appeared in The Vancouver Sun on Dec. 22, 1989. Enjoy.

The Vancouver Sun
December 22, 2009

Christmas, to all intents and purposes, has become spiritually bankrupt, much to the displeasure of those for whom Christmas is a deeply religious event. The imperative of gift giving has all but obliterated Christmas’s religious aspect. Notwithstanding its original intent, Santa Claus, not Jesus Christ is the de facto king of Christmas.

One can argue the relative merits of the religious Christmas over the secular Christmas but what is clear is that it serves neither the needs of the religious or the non-religious. In order to liberate the spirit of Christmas from the frenzy of consumerism, which is the reality of Christmas, I propose that the observance of the birth of Jesus Christ should occur on Thanksgiving and that Christmas should be left to Santa Claus.

Christmas is not large enough to accommodate both the moralities of consumerism and Christianity; one of them must give way to the other.

No doubt Christians would argue that Christmas itself should be made more Christian at the expense of Santa Claus. This solution, however, is unacceptable. Christian piety cannot legally or ethically be imposed on all citizens. A just society, which guarantees freedom of worship to its citizens, must also necessarily guarantee freedom of non-worship.

Moreover, this approach would not solve the problem of the commercialization of Christmas. It is clear that the spiritual strength of Christmas can only be rediscovered in a contemplative, spiritual environment free form the cacophony of materialist self-indulgence. The occasion that is most suited to this is Thanksgiving.

Looked at from a strictly Christian perspective, Thanksgiving fosters the “Christian” virtues of compassion, respect, gratitude and charity toward the disadvantaged among us. In short, Thanksgiving can be said to embody the “spirit of Christmas ” —peace on Earth and good will toward men. But perhaps the best thing that can be said about Thanksgiving is that it is a holiday that is true to its principles, and in which everyone, religious or non-religious, can participate.

Moving Christmas celebrations to Thanksgiving is not as strange as it may seem because it is based upon precedent. It is common knowledge that Jesus Christ was not born on December 25, but toward the end of March, around the same time of year he was put to death. The early Christians, in order to escape persecution from the Romans, moved the celebration of Christ’s birth to December to coincide with the celebration of the winter solstice. The camouflage offered by the pagan celebration afforded the early Christians some measure of security.

Therefore, because December 25 is an adopted date, a move to Thanksgiving should not pose any theological problems. Besides, is redundant to have two Christian holidays within the span of two months.

The need for some reform of Christmas is obvious. When we buy gifts, how many of us truly believe that such gifts represent a voluntary expression of love in the name of Jesus Christ? It is cliché to remark on the headaches, expense and anxiety we experience amid the pressure of fighting for last-minute gifts, and trying to decide what to get for everyone. It is not that you so much want to buy someone a gift as it is that society expects you to buy a gift.

The societal compulsion to spend is particularly conspicuous concerning childrens’ toys. Advertisers spend a great deal of time and money telling our children what it is they want for Christmas. Children then expect to be given lots of ridiculously overpriced presents for no other reason than they asked for them. The cult of greed fostered by the gift getting season makes any attempt to teach our children anything about the spirit of giving impossible.

In a sense, though, this is to be expected. Given the growing irrelevance of Christian mysticism to a world able to separate biblical myth from historical fact, the act of perpetuating the Christmas tradition of gift giving on religious grounds is dubious.

The tragedy of Christmas consumerism is that it is so necessary. The machinery of our economy is as dependent upon Christmas as an alcoholic is upon his liquor. The establishment of a self-sustaining economic dynamic of Christmas calls into question the very rationale of gift giving as voluntary expression of religious piety. It is monstrous to maintain that the cultural imperative to spend obscene amounts of money on merchandise should have any connection to a holiday that purports to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, one of the world’s most famous ascetics.

My proposal would return Christmas to those for whom it has meaning, On Thanksgiving, Christians would worship Jesus modestly and instill oral values in their children. No other religious group imposes its celebrations on the rest of society, so why should Christians?

The other effect of moving Christmas to Thanksgiving would be the end of the holiday season as the private celebration of Christians, an act that formally excludes other religious groups and those who choose not to subscribe to a deity or theological belief. Christmas, instead of a religious holiday, would become a thoroughly secularized event in the name of harmony and mutual understanding. Let us call it: “Saint Nicholas’s Day.” On this day, people, if they chose, would give and receive gifts in the name of Saint Nicholas.

As a virtually non-religious figure, Saint Nicholas would enable non-Christians to participate in the spirit of gift giving, particularly to the underprivileged and homeless. Perhaps in this manner, we can learn that charity, compassion and understanding are not the private property of one religion.

Simply put, Christmas and gift giving are observed for the sake of tradition. For both the religious and non-religious, Christmas must be reformed. The December holiday season should be a time of celebration for all.

Happy Saint Nicholas’s Day!