Radio Freethinker

Vancouver's Number 1 Skeptical Podcast and Radio Show

The Christmas Tug-of-war between Big Business and Big Religion

Posted by Ethan Clow on December 13, 2010

Is Christmas getting too commercial?

That’s a question that many, many, people will ask themselves as they do battle over the last tickle-me Elmo and Xbox Kinect between now and Christmas eve at their local mall and super store. The question will get asked so much and let’s face it, it’s been asked every year; probably since the modern Christmas began.

To me, the question has become so devoid of meaning it hardly seems worth asking anymore.

Last Thursday I was invited to participate in a panel discussion at the Vancouver public library after a showing of the documentary “What would Jesus Buy?”

The film follows a charismatic fellow dedicated to stopping Americans from shopping till they drop during the holiday season. His shtick is to dress up like a revivalist preacher and give public sermons outside malls and Time Square shouting “Stop Shopping!”

"Stop Shopping!"

 

It’s funny the first time you see it. However it quickly loses its charm for the other 90 minutes.

I figured that I would be asked questions related to the secularization of the holiday and whether has led to a more commercial Christmas. Or something.

Far from it, I got on stage with two other speakers, a writer on the subject of commercialization and a former Anglican priest. I got asked one question about advertising but the organizers seemed more intent in polling the confused audience. There were a few questions that audience members tried to ask but never made it to our equally confused panel of “experts.”

Frankly I’m still a bit baffled at the invitation but nonetheless I did get to tell people about the Extraordinary Claims Campaign.

On the actual topic though, commercialization of Christmas and all that, I have this to say: so what?

Like everything else in western civilization Christmas has slowly become more secular over the years. This has resulted in less control of the holiday from religion and more given to the free market of ideas. Nowadays, Christmas is more associated with Charlie Brown specials, Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola than Christianity or any of the dogma the Christian faith attaches to December 25th.

And I’m certainly not going to suggest that’s a bad thing. I think the great thing about secular holidays is the freedom people have to celebrate any way they want. If you want to go to midnight mass or hold a nativity scene on your front lawn, go for it. If you want to send yourself into debt buying your kids Xboxes and doo-dads, it’s your money. If all you want is to stuff yourself with pizza and beer and play drunken poker…heck, enjoy yourself!

The one thing I don’t want to see is people telling other people they’re “doing it wrong.” Beyond dangerous or criminal things, it’s not really fair to claim to have some sort of holiday authority to degree what is and what isn’t Christmas. Which is to say, that Christmas isn’t above skeptical inquiry. I do think we are often far too quick to silence any criticism of Christmas because, well, it’s just so sacred.  It really isn’t. But that won’t stop people and pundits from shouting SCROUGE when someone voices distaste for the overly festive season. And it won’t stop claims that there is an atheist “war on Christmas” every time a non-believer questions the Christian dogma that goes along with the holiday.

But surely, I would admit, people getting trampled in malls by throngs of people trying to save 20% on sweaters isn’t a good thing? Yah I agree. I think people spend way too much on material things over Christmas. And sure I think the world would be a better place if instead of getting that extra blu-ray box set of the Simpsons people donated their time in a soup kitchen or something.

But, it comes as no surprise to me, that people aren’t entirely prone to critical thinking.

Making rational decisions about how much to spend on gifts is difficult not because of super-subliminal advertising by Wal-Mart but rather because of the simple reality that people don’t associate skepticism with shopping. How else can we explain the confounding sale of ear-candles?

What’s interesting to me is the notion that the answer to over commercialization of Christmas is returning it to its roots of Christian dogma. I don’t really understand that logic. Despite Jesus’ known distaste for money in the church, Christianity is rolling in affluence. Consider the Catholic Church, its headquaters are in a palace in its own state.

Jesus gets pissed

Not to mention that there are few more ardent defenders of capitalism than Christianity. During the Cold War, Christianity became a shining example of all the good in the world compared to the dirty godless Communists. They were all too happy to encourage the rise of consumerism during its holidays because that was the democratic way.

Equally interesting about the whole “return Christmas to its roots” is that Christmas isn’t Christian at its roots. Not only does the holiday not even fit well with its own mythology, Jesus’ birthday is disputed among theologians, in addition the nativity scene is described in the bible in two different and sometimes contradictory way.

Feasting and celebrating in the middle of winter is common across cultures, as is sun worship. Many scholars suggest that the winter solstice as a celebration has contributed the most to our current winter celebration. There are also a number of Roman holidays that occurred around the same time as well as several pagan celebrations that have been assimilated and appropriated into the current tradition we now have.

It’s very difficult to seperate the supernatural from the holiday, if not impossible simply because so much of the holiday is a mash up of different belief systems and cultural meme’s from across the world.

Likewise, as our society has continued to evolve and change, we’ve added more to our holiday including a large chunk of modern consumerism. Is it too much? We may think so but in reality what we’re dealing with here is a very fluid and mutable occasion. Without an organized religion to tie us down to celebrating Christmas one way and one way only, we’re free to experiment and do whatever we want to enjoy it or ignore it as we see fit. Some people will want to use Christmas as an excuse to buy big screen TV’s and shower their family with expensive gifts. This particular way of celebrating no more validates or devalues other forms of celebration. It’s simply a choice to focus on one particular area.

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