Is Everything For Sale?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, December 15, 2002
It was sometime after Labor Day, and two women were walking down the street of a large American city. All the Christmas decorations were hung; there were holiday signs in every window; Santas waved and elves smiles at all the passersby. There were all the usual signs: “Buy!” they said, “Sale!” and “Gifts for everyone!: deeply spiritual stuff like —all those thoughts we associate with this season of the year.
But there was one other sign, too: not as fancy as the others, perhaps; maybe not as large or as ornate. It said, simply, “Keep Christ in Christmas.”
One of the women saw it, and said to the other: “There the church goes, trying to butt in on Christmas, too!”
Now, it has probably become too easy (cliché, really) to decry the commercialization of Christmas. Everybody does it; it sometimes seems like a yearly ritual in which ministers and other members of the clergy are almost supposed to engage. It’s really easy sometimes, especially when we’re faced with absurdities like this ad from a leading high end department store:
A seductive female voice implores us, gently, almost seductively, barely above a whisper: “Show them your love this Christmas… Gifts of linen, crystal, and fine china will tell them how much you really love them… Give them fine gifts that are truly worthy of your relationship…”
What nonsense! As though love could be bought and sold! As though the dollar value on a gift we give some one really has any correlation to the intrinsic worth and power and meaning of our relationship with them! Of course, our minds are repulsed by the very idea…
But yet, how readily we get suckered into it! How easily we fall into the trap! We fall into the trap of commercialism-- especially at Christmastime—but throughout the year, as well.
Somehow, Christmas has become a kind of Rorschach test for the rest of our lives. Those things we love about our lives the most seem especially warm and brilliant and true at Christmastime. Those things we feel are most lacking—those things we hunger for the most—or that we dislike about our lives the most-- seem especially absent or bleak or severe in the light of the Christmas glow.
So it is with commercialism, I guess. So it is with the mad cycle of buying and selling and acquiring and discarding and getting some more that characterizes so much of the life of our particular culture.
If the rest of the year is spent under the incessant barrage of advertising and the constant pressure to consume, should we expect Christmas in this culture to be any different? Of course not.
It’s a little disingenuous of me (of many of us, perhaps) to deplore the “gross commercialization” of Christmas while at the same time reveling in many of the joys which Christmas offers to heart and soul and psyche (if not to pocketbook). I love the garish displays of Christmas decorations and lights and trimming the tree and sending (and getting) Christmas cards. If truth be told, I don’t even mind going to the mall (maybe once or twice, tops) during the season, as long as I can find a parking place, and it doesn’t turn into an all-day ordeal. And of the Christmas feast (talk about excess!) and all the special delicacies which the season offers, I could (in spite of the diet I am presently on) wax downright eloquent!
So, I don’t want to turn back to an older, supposedly “more spiritual” time in history when Christmas was completely devoid of the splendor and indulgence it now exhibits.
Back in the 16th Century, from whence many of our modern, Western traditions of this season originate, December was a time when relatively little work could be done in the agricultural societies that dominated at the time. It was also a time when the larder, and the grain stores, and the cider barrel or wine vats were full, coming as it did not too long after the harvest had been brought in and processed. So, this combination of circumstances naturally resulted in the Christmas season being a time of gluttony and drunkenness and, shall we say, looser than usual moral standards. There were all kinds of unusual rituals that developed, such as that of wassailing or caroling—which was a much rowdier endeavor than the happy singing of Brownie Troops and Boy Scouts and school groups we have now. Back then, groups of people would go from house to house, offering songs and promises of goodwill in exchange for food and drink from the owners’ best stores. If the owner refused (and he usually knew better), the revelers would trash the place.
In the face of this excess and debauchery, the Puritans, when they came to power (both in England and later, in America) outlawed Christmas. It became a crime to celebrate it, and the feast of Christmas was prohibited in the Massachusetts colony, the last vestige of Puritan authority, until 1681. It was to be a day of private prayer and fasting instead.
It was, interestingly, the Universalists and, slightly later, the Unitarians, who reintroduced to New England the public observance of Christmas as a day upon which all businesses should be closed and everyone should be granted a day free from work, so that they might attend church services and other public celebrations. According to one historian, “It was the [Universalists] who proselytized for Christmas more actively than any other [denomination].”
So, if you don’t like Christmas, we can blame it on our Universalist and Unitarian forbears, I guess. Though they could hardly be blamed for the commercial orgy that was to follow, eventually, in wake of the reestablishment of Christmas as a public holiday.
Is Christmas excessively commercial? Of course it is! There is no logical reason that it should claim as much of our time and treasure and energy as it does.
But there is also something in our human nature which needs a bit of excess from time to time to balance the closely controlled and modulated lives most of us live, almost all of the time. There is also something in us that needs a bit of indulgence from time to time, in the face of the seriousness and responsibility with which we usually greet life.
For most of us, in our present culture, Christmas is the one time we have in the entire year when we can let go of our need to control and measure and weigh everything we do, and give ourselves over to angels and elves and big jolly old men in bright red suits. It is the time when we can, as Dickens said, “open up our shut-up hearts freely” and be carried off to lands of mystery and wonder that lie deep in our souls, hibernating as it were, until the Spirit of Christmas frees them.
And if a bit of commercialization helps to do that, then so be it. For it can be a deadening and a dangerous thing to fence the spirit behind too many “Thou shalls” and “Thou Shall Nots”. Just ask the Puritans…
But too much commercialization, obviously, can kill the spirit, too, and can get in the way of the workings of mystery and wonder. When we have to work all the harder the rest of the year to pay for our indulgences, then maybe we have gone too far. When we fall into Christmas Day spent and exhausted by all of our preparations for our excess, then maybe there something out of kilter. It Christmas feels more like a burden to us than a joy, then perhaps it is time to stand back—take stock—and use our powers of reason and discernment to find a better—and more balanced—way.
There is no escaping the marketplace. It is, I believe, the predominant social reality in which we in this culture live and move. It has a hold over all of us, for better or worse, and our relationships to it are, to one degree or another, complicated. I may incessantly deplore the hold of corporations over American life, but I also know that my pension plan is invested in corporate America, and if I do not want to live in poverty in my later years, then the stock market had better make a turn upward at some point in the not too distant future. Likewise, this church can stand for all kinds of progressive values, but if our investment portfolio doesn’t remain solvent, we are going to be in fiscal hot water, sooner rather than later.
We may feel differently about the current economic system under which we live, and some of us might want to see it reformed and changed more than others do. But there is no escaping it, and, unless one is willing to go off onto an island someplace, or join a commune, and raise all of one’s own food, and see to all of one’s own needs, then the marketplace is with us, and we are called to live within it.
But we are not merely economic creatures. The great tragedies both of Communism and of the economic globalization of monopoly capitalism is that they try to reduce human beings to their economic needs and wants alone. We are much more than figures in a ledger (or on a spreadsheet). Our humanity, ultimately, is not for sale. Political and social systems which attempt to define people solely in that way are doomed to fall, sooner or later.
The “Heart-Soul Average” inside of us is at least as important—I would say more important—than the Dow-Jones Average of Wall Street. It is our “humanity meter”, deep inside ourselves, which reminds us when things are out of kilter and when the commercial powers that be (at Christmastime and at every time) have gone too far.
When property values alone are allowed to stand in the way of finding good and decent solutions to the national disgrace of homelessness, then things have gone too far.
When our government doesn’t bat an eyelash at spending between $200 billion and $3 trillion on a misguided and unnecessary war with Iraq, yet continues to shortchange every other aspect of our nation’s social programs, especially our schools and our children and our communities, then things have gone too far.
Christmas reminds us of what is truly important in life. It reminds that the real road to Bethlehem is the road toward that which gives life meaning—the road toward that which is true and beautiful and holy in our lives. We need to reflect upon what that is for us, and we need to find it—and when we find it—we need to keep on that road and head straight toward it—and guard those oases of the spirit—those things which are not for sale and which the ways of the world cannot take away—with all our hearts and all our strength and power.
We need to keep on the path:
We need balance:
Sometimes, we need to stop listening to the “experts” in the gray suits who are always telling us what to believe, and we need to start asking our children what’s really important in life. Children are far from the maddening swirl of buying and selling, achieving and producing, free of the prejudices of class and hierarchy that infect the rest of us. Ask children what “love” means, and you hear nothing about “gifts of linen, crystal, and fine china”. Instead, you hear:
So what if we are not settled to this world,
if we don’t fit in this realm of buying and selling,
all for a price-- the price of a life itself?
Better to live and reflect the Fool’s wisdom,
God’s golden grace, and the greenness and refulgence
of an Earth that never dies.
We ought to rant and rave, breathe fire,
reign down ash upon a world that would
murder its children, a world at war
with its deepest self, where goodness
is drowning in a sea of expediency.
We are called to be discomforted, maladjusted,
not content with this world as it is,
and as the tyrants and merchants dream of it.
We are called to fulfill our duties
of family and home-- but more:
We must live the hope and joy we know
if they are ever to become real in this world;
we must be the change that we would see
upon this Earth, even if that means
languishing for hours in the cold gaze
of those who know not what they do.
If we find the time and space to listen to that inner voice, we’ll know when enough is enough. We’ll know that our humanity is not for sale. Love is not for sale. And the childlike wonder which Christmas offers is not for sale, either. It is a gift of the spirit we can all afford, whatever our class or station in life—a gift that is free, ours for the taking (and the sharing) whenever we finally dare to pause—reflect—look—discern—and see at last, though the night around us seems so dark, the star—the road—and Bethlehem, again, at last.