Christmas Unwrapped: Consumerism, Christ, and Culture

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Christmas Unwrapped: Consumerism, Christ, and Culture

  1. Review

    The day after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping/retailing day of the year, inaugurates the beginning of the Christmas season, which extends through Christmas Day to New Year’s Day, andsome have said, ends with the Super Bowl. The season is wrapped in many images and experiences, including family gatherings, the singing of carols, lighted trees, shopping, gifts given and received, films such as It’s a Wonderful Life, holiday concerts, Santa Claus, etc. Most peopleassume that these and other wrappings, to one degree or another, are facets of the celebration ofthe birth of Jesus who is called the Christ. However, when Christmas is unwrapped, by thiscollection of essays from the perspectives of cultural studies, biblical studies and theology, one discovers that the season has had a variety of meanings and significance in western culture.

    Christmas Day originated when the church used the stories of the birth of Jesus to place a "thin Christian veneer" over the pagan holiday celebrating the Winter solstice. In the Middle Ages, Christmas was a "peasant celebration" marked by heavy drinking and carnality, "a kind of December Mardi Gras." In the seventeenth century, reacting against such festivity, the Puritans in England and later in America, suppressed Christmas. Then during the nineteenth century, in America, Christmas became "family centered" with an emphasis upon the giving of gifts by parents to children. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that Christmas began to be celebrated in ways that contemporary Americans would find familiar. Finally, in the twentieth century, Christmas has become the celebration of the "religion of consumer capitalism," serving some of the functions of religion, such as fostering values, promoting community and providing meaning for the members of a society.

    As the unwrapping continues with an exploration of the twentieth century cultural context of Christmas, we are reminded that Hollywood has helped construct the American Christmas with such popular films as Holiday Inn, Miracle on Thirty?Fourth Street and It’s a Wonderful Life. These films "have in common with the icon of Santa Claus a view that what is of ultimate importance is independent of the Christian narrative and wholly in conformity with consumer capitalism." When the unwrapping is completed, one sees that "the problem of Christmas is embedded in an economic and cultural environment that extends throughout the entire year" re-enforcing habits of consumption which are important to the health of consumer capitalism. One is left with the obvious conclusion that the celebration of the birth of Jesus is definitely not thereason for the Christmas season.

    In the biblical studies and theological reflection essays, a radically different picture of Christmas can be seen. The stories of the birth of Jesus, in the beginning of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, are seen in the historical context of the first century C.E. during the reign of Caesar Augustus and his client King Herod Antipas. The picture begins to come into focus, in the light of the festival of the Roman emperor as Savior of the world, which began to be celebrated throughout the realm around the time of the birth of Jesus. The gospel of the birth of the Roman emperor as imperial savior of the world was, Richard Horsley suggests, celebrated in a festival, which resembles the Christmas holidays. In radical contrast, Horsley writes, "The newly born Messiah of Israel, laid in a feeding trough, was the very opposite of a symbol of power that determined people’s lives. He represented the hopes and aspirations of a subject people to be free from the exploitations of an imperial system that controlled their lives and drained away the produce of their labor that they needed to support their families and maintain their community life." Horsley devotes two chapters to a comprehensive interpretation of the nativity stories found in Matthew 2 and Luke 2:1-20 which have an "anti-imperial agenda" in the life and death political struggle between the Kingdom of Caesar and the Kingdom of God as proclaimed and practiced by Jesus.

    It is obvious that the American wrappings of the Christmas season violate the biblical understanding o f the nativity stories of Jesus. But if we, as Christians, have some clarity about the meaning of Christmas, in what ways might that impact our celebration of the season? That is a question that needs exploration. To entirely opt out of the consumer capitalist Christmas is to risk social shame if not excommunication. Some have suggested that churches consider the possibility of establishing an alternative time, like the summer, the time when Jesus was probably born, for the celebration of Christmas. Then there is a growing movement for families setting a maximum of one hundred dollars for the purchase of gifts and several times that amount for gifts to charity. Some have begun the practice of making gifts or buying gifts from local artisans and/or Mom and Pop stores to support the local economy. Whatever is done, the point is to resist the domination of the "kingdom" of consumer capitalism in the name of the one who "is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." (Luke 2: 11 )

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