Among our many honored Yuletide traditions is complaining about the commercialization of Christmas. Or, better yet, the commercial racket of Christmas. It’s entrenched in two of our most iconic Christmas stories: A Charlie Brown Christmas (Charlie Brown won’t let commercialism ruin his Christmas!) and Miracle on 34th Street. (Imagine a New York accent with me: “Make a buck, make a buck …”)
I’ve no use for this tradition, because I have no sympathy for the complaint. I’m not even sure what people are complaining about. Do they think people should be high-minded enough to celebrate without spending a good sum of money? Do they think the junction of commerce and Christmas dirties up the holiday? Does it bother them to see businesses making money off of Christmas? (Wait till they find out that doctors make money off of sick people!)
I’ve wondered if what some people mean by “commercialization” is valuing and emphasizing material things over spiritual things, but if so, they’re confused; the proper term for that is materialism.
If Christmas sometimes feels cheap, it’s not because it’s commercial; it is the eternal instinct of humanity to celebrate things – birthdays, weddings, harvests, religious holy days, anything worth celebration – with some combination of music and food and gifts and decorations. Wherever possible, this involves money. Maybe the angels know how to rejoice in spiritual things in purely spiritual ways, but we humans must be allowed our material celebrations.
There is always a danger, of course, that material things will trump, or even drive out altogether, the infinitely more important spiritual things. But I don’t think even that is the principal reason for the dullness that can make even a believing Christmas stale. We know perfectly “the reason for the season”; we remember often; it is in the songs we sing, the decorations we put up, the sermons we hear. But for all that, isn’t there a time for all Christians when we just don’t feel Christmas?
What leaches joy from Christmas is sometimes no more complicated than the fact that we have grown used to it. We always grow used to things, and then we forget how wonderful they are. We’ve forgotten that we live in our own fairyland, that it’s incredible that the sky is blue and leaves are green and birds fly. We’re inured to the massive complexity of life, complacent to the notion that we are at every moment careening through space at unimaginable speeds. Scientists tell us the whole universe balances on the knife’s edge where order and life are possible, prophets and saints promise us everlasting glory in God’s name, and we believe and go on our way.
We lose the wonder. All our lives we hear the Christmas story, and we grow used to that, too: used to God being born in a stable, used to the nobody shepherds being sent by angels to see Him, used to wise men appearing from no one knows where to worship a newborn Jewish king, no one knows why. And though we remind ourselves how wonderful it all is, some Decembers we can hardly feel it.
But if wonder can be lost, it can also be regained, and often in the most unexpected moments. Anyway, the truth matters more than our feelings about it. The story of Christmas is no less marvelous in the two thousandth year (and on the two thousandth telling) than it was that first night. We have the good news of great joy, every bit as much for us as for the shepherds; we have the Savior, helping us this very day. Emmanuel came, and now God will be with us forever.
So Merry Christmas.