Wednesday, November 13, 2013

On Commercializing Christmas

Every year about the beginning of November, or in some cases even before Halloween, Christmas decorations, music, and other fare begin appearing in malls, stores, ads, and even the radio and television.  Ever year about this same time, these same appearances are decried as too early and manifestations of the sad and widespread commercialization of Christmas.  As that time of year comes upon us once more, I think it worth it to think critically about the entire phenomenon of commercializing Christmas.  What is it?  Where lies that line, the crossing of which constitutes a commercialization of Christmas?  How soon is too soon to bring out the holly and the jolly?

If we wish to consider things thoroughly, the first question we need to ask is whether or not its even acceptable for stores to have Christmas decorations at all.  Now there are at least 2 different perspectives from which to approach this question: the Christian, and the secular, each with its own criteria. As the Christian perspective is the one I am interested in, and because those unhappy with the commercialization of Christmas are most likely to approach things with a Christmas perspective as well, it is from this perspective which we will approach the question.  Moreover, it would not be incorrect to say that those coming from a secular perspective and unhappy with early or proliferous Christmastide fare are generally not so much concerned with the commercialization of Christmas as they are with being exposed to it more than they would prefer.

In any case, with a resounding no we can insist that there is nothing wrong with stores having Christmas decorations, music, and other tidings.  In fact from the Christian perspective it is a good thing that they do.  Christ ought to have a presence in every aspect of society, and so it is laudable that stores visibly celebrate Christmas during the Christmas season.  Indeed, when businesses do not display a certain Christmas spirit, for example by wishing people "Happy Holidays", they are rightly chided.  Christ’s reign ought extend over businesses as much as over the rest of the world.  This is the Christianization of commerce: businesses honoring Christ and His teachings, and celebrating Him.

Now, here we need to make an important distinction, for there are at two ways that a business can celebrate Christmas.  The first is in accordance with its authentic spirit.  That is, businesses can honor the season according to the bounds that are intrinsic to the season.  This involves many things, including making a renewed commitment to practicing justice in our lives, remembering the birth of the Lord, and celebrating that birth during the period of time assigned for it.  When a store or other business does these things, then it is participating in the Christianization of commerce, and that is a good thing.  Doing good for employees, offering customers discounts in the spirit of giving, and erecting visible symbols in honor of Christ’s Incarnation would mark such a Christianization of commerce.

On the other hand, a business may choose to celebrate the season in a way not in accord with its authentic spirit.  A business which uses the occasion of the Christmas season as an opportunity to participate in unjust practices, to exploit their customers, or which takes advantage of its employees would not be in accord with the authentic Christmas spirit.  Rather, businesses which, instead of honoring the Christmas season distort it to meet their own ends fall into that common moral foible of treating God’s creation as objects to be used rather than subjects to be honored. 

One common example of this would be putting up a Christmas tree in early November rather than respecting the timing defined by the season itself.  Rather than making way for Christ to bring His presence into commerce - that is, Christianizing commerce - this would an act  of distortion, an effort reshape Christ for the sake of commerce - that is, a commercializing of Christ (and so of course Christmas).  As a general rule, we are called to shape our lives and our actions around Christ and a love for His creatures, not to shape Christ and His creatures around us.  This is the essential difference between love and sin.

What then would it look like for a business to truly respect the spirit of Christmas?  Much of what already occurs, in fact.  Businesses could decorate and play Christmas music to honor the birth of Christ and to provide a festive and joyful atmosphere for those shoppers who were celebrating it. Prices could be cut and sales offered in the spirit of giving. Stores might stay open later to help shoppers who wished to buy gifts to give in this same spirit.  If businesses did indeed make extra money by virtue of these actions, no harm would be done.  Indeed, such businesses as may reap higher revenues by attracting those wishing to honor Christ would do so rightly.

In fact, I would argue that these things could even be done earlier than the Christmas season.  If someone wishes to decorate a home for the Christmas season, it may be helpful to be able to purchase decorations early. People may want to shop earlier rather than having to deal with all of the congested stores which would result from so many people shopping for gifts at once in December, and so offering sales for these earlier customers could even be an example of Christianizing commerce - of letting the generous and self-giving spirit of Christ influence how commerce is practiced. 

The problem is that these are, in most cases, not the intentions that businesses have.  They decorate early, offer sales, play music, and so forth simply to make more money.  Far from offering sales in November or erecting Christmas trees the moment the spider webs come down in an effort to aid people, they do so with the intentions of stretching Christmas as far as they possibly can, forming it into something which is beneficial for them. Thus, while there may be nothing materially wrong with businesses thinking of Christmas in some way at least somewhat early, there is something formally wrong with it, for their intentions are those of commercializing Christmas, rather than of allowing Christ to enter commerce. 

The ideal store, one seeking to participate in a Christianization of commerce, might offer sales in November, looking to help people as they prepare for Christmas, while holding off on the tinsel and holly until the middle of December.  The typical store puts up enormous trees and blasts jinglefied versions of classic hymns on All Saints day, while taking them down before offering sales the first week of January so as to clear their excess inventory and drain consumers of whatever gift cards and crisp bills they may have come into over the actual Christmas celebration.

All that having been said, I would like to add one small caveat in defense of businesses.  When it isn't music, or decorations, or anything else so formally a Christmas celebration as this, try not to be too hard on them.  There are some things that stores really just need to do early, like putting out stock.  Yes, as early as the first week of November.  There is only so much warehouse space in any store, with the sales floor serving as the primary location for merchandise.  There are also only so many deliveries possible.  These deliveries must carry not only the Christmas, or Easter, or Summer, or whatever other special items the store needs, but also all of the regular daily or weekly stuff - which can be an enormous load itself.  For certain seasons, the amount of stuff that needs to be sent along is so large that it may even take two months to ship it all, and from day one that all has to start making its way out to the floor because it simply won't fit elsewhere.  This is why you start to see back to school products out in the middle of June!  

In any case, let's all do the best that we can to bring Christ into at least our own commerce.  In doing so, perhaps we can do some small part in Christianizing the world.

No comments: