About 20 per cent of US retail sales happen around Christmas. Perhaps, economically at least, this news would be positive, if it were not for the fact that at the end of the year, 14 per cent of Americans have unpaid instalments since the previous Christmas. The spending trap is catching on to others, not just Americans. The Capgemini advisory group estimated this autumn that Brits would spend £6.4 billion on online holiday shopping alone. The volume of internet sales will increase this Christmas by 16 per cent compared to last year.
The online industry signals a new trend: earlybird shopping. According to a press release from giftsguideuk.com, one-in-four store customers started Christmas shopping in November. More than 75 per cent of them said the decision to buy early was motivated by the desire to catch the early-season discounts.
Luxury for all
Of course, the definition of excess is different for different people. For you and I, “splurging” may look like purchasing a Dyson Airwrap, La Marzocco espresso machine or Versace handbag. If you’re rich and/or famous, it’s a very different matter. In 2015, Kanye West bought more than “150” gifts for Kim Kardashian. The year prior, Justin Bieber bought himself a brand-new jet for Christmas, estimated to have cost US$60 million. Or, if neither of those examples impress you, how about Dmitry Rybolovlev’s gift to his 22-year-old daughter Ekaterina? Nothing special—just a cool US$88 million apartment in Manhattan.
In a 2007 speech, Pope Benedict XVI condemned the “materialistic mentality” of “the way Christmas is lived and perceived today”. Protestants have also felt the need to change the way they celebrate Christmas. In 2005, several Protestant megachurches in the United States closed for the holidays to allow staff to spend time with their families. However, their decision drew criticism, partly because that year Christmas fell on a Sunday, which meant cancelling two services.
However, discussions about consumerism and the secularisation of Christmas have a longer history. Throughout the Christmas tradition, there have been several periods and cultures in which people have complained that the holiday has become a monument to extravagance, contrary to its original purpose.
In the 17th century, the Puritan priest Cotton Mather gave a famous speech against the holiday, which had become an occasion for “crazy fun”, “long meals” and “heavy drinking” suitable for worshipping “Saturn or Bacchus”—nothing new under the sun, except that the priest’s speech produced legislation that forbade the celebration of Christmas. The ban was in effect in the Massachusetts Bay Colony between 1659 and 1681.
Even after the ban was lifted, the problem did not end. After numerous court appeals in 1789, Congress agreed to hold the celebration again. It wasn’t until 1870 that Christmas was declared a public holiday.
In the same century, Oliver Cromwell and Parliament banned the celebration of Christmas in England, also due to the secularisation of the holiday. An additional reason was the origin of the name “Christ’s Mass”, which reminded English Protestants of a Catholic past they wished to forget. Between 1642 and 1660, it was illegal in England to celebrate Christmas with secular events.
What is clear in history is that despite attempts to stifle Christmas, it has survived—the good and the bad. Secularisation failed to completely swallow the holiday but did diminish its spiritual impact.
Various contemporary attempts to restore the authentic spirit of Christmas have relied on updating its relevance to the present. In 2010, such an attempt was made to adapt the story of the Saviour’s birth to the language of the internet. The history of Jesus’ birth was reconstructed with the help of 140-character messages, posted daily on X (formerly Twitter). Share Creative, a UK-based advertising design company, partnered with the Evangelical Alliance to produce a social media campaign focusing on the event behind Christmas. Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, the magi of the East and King Herod were the biblical characters who tweeted daily updates. Huw Tyler from Share Creative explained that the campaign’s organisers wanted to tell “the Christmas story in a way that is not only accessible, but also fun and relevant to the internet generation”. This is true. Through originality and courage, the campaign managed to refresh the story of Jesus’ birth. However, it cannot make up for the lack of that warm and meaningful Christmas that most Christians remember.
Where’s the Christmas of old?
Interestingly, each generation has felt the loss of true Christmas. How many people browse their memories to find at least a glimmer of that hope that permeated the childhood celebration? In the cold light of day, the loss of true Christmas is a timeless refrain for which no solution can be found. Many will agree that the external imposition of a Christmas behaviour doesn’t work. Looking even at the experience of the laws issued in the time of the Puritans, it is obvious that secularisation is not removed by legislation. Others will look to solutions like the one proposed by Share Creative and conclude that they risk trivialising the grandeur of the birth of Jesus.
The wonder of meaning
In addition to its true meanings and origins, the commercial Christmas also dispenses with the simple joy of spending time with loved ones. Christmas movies, despite their soft script, emphasise the dissatisfaction of many with the way they spend their Christmas (for a deeper dive, check out this article). Movies are often a narrow mirror, in the reflection of which almost no-one can find themselves, but which everyone desires.
The problem is that the perfect family that smiles at the happy ending of a Christmas movie, surrounded by gifts and an aura of happiness, is as fake as a shopping mall Santa’s beard. On the other hand, the prospects of spending Christmas with family makes some as happy as would a holiday in a Siberian gulag. The following are a few suggestions that can prevent celebrating with others from becoming an unpleasant duty, and hopefully provide more joy.
• Identify the disappointments you usually experience during the holidays. Sometimes people associate Christmas with “traditional suffering” and hate the holiday because they anticipate drudgery during this period. In many cases, people cannot accurately identify the cause of their pain and as a result, it is difficult for them to find a cure. They thus perpetuate their negative state.
• Understand that people can disappoint but that this is not necessarily a relationship dead-end. Christmas disappointments often are all about people. For some, Christmas is a time when we have to deal with the disappointment that our loved ones do not understand us, do not respect us or do not love us as we would like. Christmas can put into the spotlight problems that already exist in relationships. The answers to these problems do not necessarily come during this time.
• Give up too-high expectations. Unrealistic expectations about gifts, artificial desires inspired by movies or holiday slogans that proclaim instant positive change can all cause frustration if assimilated as fragments of reality.
Change often requires time and effort and does not happen overnight, even if that night is Christmas Eve. While it may be helpful to remember the spiritual value of the Christmas of old, more is needed. In order for reform to last and not be affected by circumstances, it must make sense. If the image of the vulnerable Son of God lying in a manger captivates the minds of us more than endless lists of gifts, and if we could learn how to respond to Him, then things could really change.
Baby Jesus, in the arms of His mother, is a powerful image. Christ’s coming to earth as a man speaks of the priceless value that heaven holds for mankind. We forget, and this is why Christ’s journey from God to human for the good of all humankind needs to be constantly remembered. Pompous speeches should be left aside, because the birth of the Lord must remain a celebration that transforms people from within.
Alina Kartman is a senior editor at Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network. A version of this article first appeared on their website and is republished with permission.