And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that bought and sold in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money changers, …”
Now that we are entering the final month of another year, the holiday season is upon us in full force. Actually, it started this year in the last days of October. At least, that is when I saw the first commercials heralding the great buys that were available for Christmas gifts.
Yes, they still refer to Christmas in those ads, rather than the more inclusive, politically correct, “holiday period.” But it’s all a sham, isn’t it? I mean is anyone really celebrating Christmas when they stampede the malls and department stores on Black Friday and flood the Internet on Cyber Monday and throughout the season with purchases of everything from gift cards to diamond rings? Christmas has become the biggest boon to capitalism and to those who profit from consumerism since the industrial revolution made commodities of all types readily available to whoever had the ability to buy them.
Christmas wasn’t always this way. Even in my youth (the post WWII, Eisenhower years), at least an equal amount of spiritualism, if not outright religious messaging, commanded the attention of the media. Film versions of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” were ubiquitous on television. Of the two most popular, I preferred the 1951 version, starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge, but the 1938 “oldie,” with Reginald Owen as the miserly misanthrope, also had admirers. The holiday was also recognized in shows that celebrated the birth of Christ and that reflected the history of Christendom. I remember, in particular, a documentary that detailed the composing of the classic Christmas hymn, “Silent Night.” I also remember the Hallmark Hall of Fame’s network broadcast of the Gian Carlo Minotti’s one-act opera, “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” which was a staple during the holidays in the 1950s. Can you imagine such a broadcast today (other than, perhaps, on PBS)?
These were the early years of television, of course, when commercials were regarded as brief interruptions that “paid the bills” instead of the staples to network broadcasts they have become today. But the difference in tone was also significant. Christmas was a time of reflecting on the lessons of Christ’s life, even if you weren’t particularly religious or were of a different faith. And, speaking as one who has long been agnostic on religious dogma, isn’t there something to be said for a belief system that preaches peace and love?
I just wonder what Jesus would think of the way we celebrate his birthday now. If he was offended by the money changers in the temple, I doubt he would be pleased to see his birthday turned into a money-changing mega-gala. Think about it. The “celebration” now includes the massive use of credit that results in levels of personal indebtedness that seem impossible for an economy to bear. The government reports that the average level of debt for each American household is now $137,000 and that the total of all personal debt in the U.S. is over $12.5 trillion. To put that latter number in perspective, consider that the national debt is less than twice as large.
In other words, we, as individuals, owe more than half as much to lenders and financial institutions as the country as a whole does to the rest of the world.
Devout Christians, those with a conservative eco-political perspective, will point out that Jesus also said something to the effect of “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21) and that Paul, in his letter to the Romans, also said, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1). But I’m not talking about laws passed by Congress here or executive orders issued by the President. My concern has nothing (well, very little) to do with the controlling philosophy of the government. It’s all of us, the 300-plus millions of us who populate this country who have turned Christmas into a glorified birthday party for each other and ourselves. And, in the process, we’ve become more greedy, less giving, more selfish, less loving.
Let me be clear about my view of the holiday season we have now entered: I don’t like it, except for the parts I do like. I think I have already suggested the aspects of it I don’t like. What I do like is the sense that people are just a little more appreciative of each other, a little more tolerant of minor mishaps and accidental intrusions. For example, if you bump into someone at the mall during the holidays, you’re more likely to get a smile and a “Merry Christmas,” than a grunt and a “watch where you’re walking.” I like that part of the Christmas spirit, and I’m glad it still exists (although I’m told that shoppers on Black Friday are known to push and shove maniacally to get to the front of the line).
There is also something to be said for the opportunity Christmas presents to tell those near and dear to you that they are important to you and that you care about them. Yes, we should be doing this and saying this every day and always, but we don’t, because, I suppose, as Thornton Wilder wisely noted in “Our Town,” people are just too busy to really notice each other most of the time. But at this time of the year, and especially as the actual holiday draws closer, we tend to be more in tune with those feelings. Call it a lingering sentiment from the days of yore, when accounting for friendships was far more significant than the accumulation of things. And so, I’m not unalterably opposed to the exchange of presents (as tokens of friendship) or to the holiday parties and social gatherings that allow expressions of affection and appreciation of fellowship.
I would just like, very much, to end the war on Christmas, which I define, not as the one Fox News decries, but as the one that denigrates (or ignores) the essence of Christianity (the aforementioned message of peace and love) for the worship of material acquisition and financial wealth. And for those who wonder how an agnostic can so thoroughly appreciate the deeper values that Christmas should celebrate, let me say that not believing in a supreme deity doesn’t make me blind to the need represented by Christ’s message.
We live in perilous times. Christmas should provide us with hope that we can overcome our baser instincts and build a better future. We may not be able to reclaim the true spirit of Christmas, but we can at least remember its message. Or, as Dickens’ Tiny Tim would say, “God bless us, everyone.”