With the Thanksgiving season over, the whole country is now wrapped up in the Christmas season. It used to be my favorite time of the year. A lot of things change for us as we get older and wiser, but for me, nothing changes more than how I see the world. I’m of the belief that the world itself doesn’t change much at all. We live, we learn, we die, and the world keeps on spinning. What changes is not the world, but us. As we change, our perceptions of the very same things we saw at the ages of 10 and 20 look very different than they once did.
Why then do I say Christmas used to be my favorite time of the year? The answer is simple. Christmas now is much the same as it was ten and twenty and thirty years ago. What’s different is me. In childhood, Christmas was all about Santa Claus and presents, family gatherings, breaks from the tedium of grade school, all good things in a world that often seemed harsh. It was a wonderful magical time of year when people celebrated being good, and being good to each other. I eagerly awaited the appearance of Charlie Brown and The Grinch on television. I loved getting presents, and shopping for presents for family and friends. It all seemed good and wonderful, and how could a celebration of love and generosity and peace on Earth be anything but good?
As a child, everything was new, so I only saw whatever was on the surface. At the beginning of our lives, whatever is first placed in front of us becomes our reality. This is, I believe, one of the most iron rules of the human experience. It’s only when we get older that we begin to see that things are seldom simple, that we look beneath the surface. As I got older, I started to see many inconsistencies. No matter how strenuously people are reminded by our stories how Christmas is really about Jesus and giving and peace, they still got up Friday morning after Thanksgiving and stormed the malls to be the first to get the best price on the newest and greatest stuff. I started to see stories about people fighting one another over children’s toys and people being literally trampled to death in the stampede. I learned about economics and marketing and advertising and how many stores and entire companies were dependent upon Christmas spending. I saw a lot fewer people being nice to one another and a lot more people trying to wring as much cash out of one another as possible. With so much dissonance, I began to ask questions. How can we possibly sustain the belief that Christmas is about peace and love and still participate in this perverse ritual of consumerism? Why do we do this to ourselves? What is Christmas really about?
What I see now, when I look at the Christmas season, is greed, and consumerism, and most of all, materialism. All these are things I see as profound flaws in our American society and culture, and why I believe our civilization has passed its zenith, and is becoming a civilization in decline. Celebrations and holidays embody the values and beliefs of the peoples and cultures that create them and honor them. Both the holidays themselves, and the way we celebrate them, are pieces of our collective soul as a people. In them, we see the best, and the worst, of ourselves. So it is with Christmas. In the values that Christmas is supposed to stand for, love, peace, generosity, we see the best in ourselves. In our behavior, the buying, the selling, the stampede of consumerism, we see the worst of ourselves.
One can plausibly argue that Christmas is both good or bad, or both at the same time. As with many such debates of values and morality, there’s room for decent people to disagree. I personally am tired of the quest for profit being used to justify all the various ways that corporate America deceives and exploits the American consumer. At Christmas, what I see, in the seasonal advertising, the Black Friday sales, the marketing campaigns, is the cold and calculated attempt by large organizations to encourage people to buy more than they need, and spend more than they can afford. Beneath the veil of generosity, is the reality that when we spend money giving gifts to each other, we don’t really enrich each other. We mostly enrich people who don’t really need any more enrichment, and organizations whose behavior is not at all consistent with the values that are brightly displayed in their ad campaigns. I don’t trust corporate America, and that distrust leads me to question the entire Christmas season.
Still, all that says more about me than it does about anything else. It says a lot about how I have come to see the world as I’ve grown from childhood, and on through adolescence, and into early then middle adulthood. To quote an old Bob Seger song, “I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then”. That’s what I mean when I say that the world doesn’t really change much, but how we look at it does. I’m not going to stand on a soapbox and tell anyone to stop celebrating Christmas. I’m not going to start a campaign to boycott this store or that one because they say ‘happy holidays’ instead of ‘merry Christmas’. I’m not going to tell people to strike or refuse to show up for work if their employer decides to open on Thanksgiving (something I consider a most odious and disgusting practice). People have a right to their own opinion, just as I do.
What I will ask is this. If you’re planning on giving me something this holiday season, buy from a local small business. Some place where the owner is actually in the store would be my preference. That way the money goes to local people creating jobs for Americans right here in our hometowns. If you don’t like that idea, then don’t buy me anything. I personally consider myself very blessed. I have more than I need and I am very grateful for that. If you’d like to express your generosity in another way, then donate to your favorite charity. There are so many to choose from. You could just think of me and put a fifty into the bell ringer’s can. There’s plenty of people who need money and gifts a lot more than I do. Most of the people who make the most off the Christmas season don’t really need any of it.
With that, I’ll wish everyone a hearty Merry Christmas early, and whatever you believe, and however you celebrate, try to make that celebration something that reflects those beliefs that we’re all supposed to cherish at this time of year. Try to make it something worthy of the season’s founder.