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Issue Date:  December 17, 2004

Black Friday, White Christmas

Why we should be grateful for the commercialization of Christ's birth


Every year after Thanksgiving we’re bombarded by the complaints of Christians who talk about how Christmas has become commercialized. I, on the other hand, absolutely rejoice in it.

The glorious frenetic energy that marks Christmastime and the money it represents shouldn’t be confused with materialism. Materialism is defined as the attitude that the pursuit of money and the accumulation of physical possessions constitute the greatest good in human society and in our personal lives. As such, it is the exact opposite of what is popularly described as the “commercialization” of Christmas.

The commercialization of Christmas should not be confused with the secularization of Christmas. The latter refers to the downplaying of Christian values and culture in Western society. But the commercialization of Christmas is only an indication of how pervasive and dependent modern Western society has become on Christianity, in this case, economically.

The Friday after Thanksgiving is dubbed “Black Friday” because it is the first day in the year that retailers nationwide are “in the black” after having operated “in the red” for the previous 11 months.

This year’s Black Friday weekend produced $22.8 billion in sales for America. During that weekend, 133 million shoppers rampaged, sometimes literally, through stores hunting sales on prospective gifts. Statistically, the average shopper spent $265.15 that weekend. This translates to about 10 percent of the $220 billion expected in total Christmas sales this year.

In total, Black Friday garnered $8 billion for retailers this year. Retailers absolutely require the money generated during this period to keep them solvent. In fact, the income from the Christmas season accounts for a quarter of total annual retail sales.

Put differently, Christianity and its total disregard for self to the benefit of others is the sole cause for the success of the U.S. economy and, by extension, the economic health of the entire world. The entire economy of China would collapse for want of selling toys and clothes to gift-giving Christians around the world. The same can be said of the Japanese electronics industry and clothing manufacturers from the nations that supply us with those items. Capitalist excess? Hardly. Instead I would suggest it is capitalism that bends to our Christian principles. If we instead allowed the less principled people in our society to create a holiday in which we felt pressured to buy presents for ourselves without regard for our loved ones -- that would be selfish.

Because Christmas has been “commercialized,” retailers bend over backward to make sure they are associated with our holiday. At what other time of year do you see television commercials that make any reference, however indirect, to Jesus Christ?

Christmas is about giving, not keeping. Do those who decry gift-giving during Christmastime similarly fault the Prodigal Son’s father for feting and regaling his son with costly gifts (Luke 15:11-32)? Do they disparage the widow for wining and dining her neighbors at her mite-finding party (Mark 12:38-44)? I presume they also have a complaint to lodge against God for lavishly handing out gold crowns to undeserving martyrs (Revelation 20:4). The less said about the Three Kings’ presents of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn Jesus, the better (Matthew 2:11). As more reasonable Christians will gladly point out, gift-giving is a part of our belief and not some kind of aberration from which we need to extricate ourselves. Since humans do not live simply in a world of Platonic ideals, we use physical objects to represent the love we hold for others.

I have to wonder if those Christians who complain about the giving of gifts aren’t doing so simply because they don’t want to stick a crowbar into their wallets. Methinks the Grinch doth protest too much! Certainly all sane people would agree that inundating one’s children with so many presents that they buckle under their sheer weight is not in keeping with the Christian message. Similarly, buying impossibly expensive presents in order to impress someone isn’t what Christ was aiming for when he walked among us.

The purpose of our Christmas celebrations is to share joyous times with friends and family and to recall the priceless gift we received in the Christ Child. Clearly, love cannot be bought. Nor should gifts be given out of guilt or to impress others. But, just as clearly, this doesn’t exclude all gift-giving. If one buys a present to express love for another human being, to show our thankfulness and to surprise him or her, this is the height of Christian love, not its dearth.

To those who decry the “commercialization” of Christmas, I say, “Bah! Humbug!” Let the cash registers ring! Bring on the schlock! The over-decorated houses! The tedious Christmas office parties! Even that infernal fruitcake that has made the rounds a few times too many.

Angelo Stagnaro is a writer and teacher in New York City.

National Catholic Reporter, December 17, 2004

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