Why commercialization can’t kill the Spirit of Christmas
If you asked me to name my favorite Christmas song – though I can’t imagine why on Earth you would do such a thing – I would offer a list with several songs clustered at the top, competing for high honors and changing annually. One year “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” will edge out “I Want a Boob Job for Christmas” for the No. 1 spot. Then the next year, “Be Claus I Got High” might bump off Granny, who will tumble to No. 4, below perennial contender “Daddy Please (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas),” to which I have a sentimental attachment. “Christmas Conga (Bonga Bonga)” will be up there, too.
And then you would probably accuse me of being cheeky. But I’m not! Friends who know me as a Christian believer might ask where all the traditional religious favorites have gone – your “Silent Nights,” your “Little Town of Bethlehems” – which have the virtue of actually touching on the reason much of the world sets aside Christmas Day for special attention. And I do like all those religious songs as much as the next elf. For years, I would defend them against the competition of commercial and secular Christmas tunes, piously deriding the trashy and trite in favor of songs and hymns that are meant to call us back to the religious wellsprings that inspired the season in the first place.
But I’ve given up on that lost cause. I have thrown in the towel on deriding the commercialization of Christmas. The Christian apologist C.S. Lewis once wrote a useful essay distinguishing between real, genuine Christmas, the religious celebration that imposes rites and obligations on the believer, and what he called “Exmas,” which sometimes seems to be almost a separate entity altogether. Exmas is what you find stuffing the shelves at Walmart, filling the entertainment channels on TV and online (Rudolph, Charlie Brown, the Grinch), and overwhelming the car radio with all-Christmas – or all-Exmas – stations that nowadays commence their programming to coincide with Halloween. Secularized and commercialized, Exmas is what inspires someone to say “Season’s Greetings” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Exmas has given us joyless “holiday parties” at the workplace and “winter festivals” instead of the grade school Christmas pageants of mid-twentieth century America.
The enemies of Christmas, historically, have always been utterly humorless in this way – completely lacking in levity, mistrustful of human spontaneity and liveliness.
There are good arguments against the commercialization of Christmas, of course. Exmas is a knockoff – a simulacrum of the real thing. An Exmas card showing a group of carolers or cozy cottages draped in snow or a family clustered ‘round the Christmas tree are two or three times removed from Christmas. They are celebrating the celebration. The cause for celebration is itself far offstage. You can forgive Christians for thinking their understanding of Christmas as a religious observance – an observance, moreover, resting on the dazzling paradox that the Creator of the universe came to Earth as a baby born in a barn – is richer and deeper than mere Exmas can ever suggest, no matter how awesome the Black Friday bargains are. “Anything that distracts us from the deeper and richer truth,” says the pious objector, “probably isn’t worth celebrating.”
And yet, and yet… surely this isn’t the whole story. Think of the attempts that have been made to banish the celebration of Christmas since it became so central to the liturgical calendar a millennium ago. One of the first official acts of Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans, having seized power from English royalty, was to make the celebration of Christmas illegal. A Puritan pamphleteer called it “the Profane Man’s Ranting Day, the Superstitious Man’s Idol Day, the Multitudes’ Idle Day, Satan’s Working Day, the True Christian Man’s Fasting Day.” The Christian way to mark Christmas was to assume a gloomy countenance and wait for the terrible day to pass like a winter squall. “No one thing more hinderest the Gospel work all the year long, than doth the observation of that Idol Day once in a year.”
A century later, the rigid, leftist Jacobins of the French Revolution again tried to dismantle Christmas. They were working from the other end of the religious spectrum, obviously. Still, they disliked Christmas for the same reason the Puritans did: people were having too much fun with it. In its essence, Christmas celebrates a very particular event, situated strictly in time and place. The Christmas baby was born in an identifiable year to flesh-and-blood parents in an actual village ruled by a named official of the Roman empire. It was the particularities that frightened the Jacobins, who much preferred in their austerity to celebrate abstractions – when they chose to celebrate at all. To replace Christmas, the Jacobins instituted holidays in honor of Virtue, Talent, Labor, and so on. A lotta fun, those French revolutionaries.
The enemies of Christmas, historically, have always been utterly humorless in this way – completely lacking in levity, mistrustful of human spontaneity and liveliness. They are therefore antithetical to the spirit of true religion, which is to see beyond the occasional gloom of the world to the luminous truth shining beneath. Angels can fly, goes the old saying, because they take themselves so lightly. What the Grinches of history have most hated about Christmas is that it was meant to give pleasure, in food and drink, in family and friendship, in faith and song.
I have thrown in the towel on deriding the commercialization of Christmas.
And if one of those songs is “I Want a Boob Job for Christmas”? As G.K. Chesterton, another Christian apologist, pointed out, wherever there is joy, there is apt to be vulgarity, as we tend to run away with ourselves when we are most celebratory. The Christmas of Christians survives all the vulgarity of secular Exmas excess. Or so Chesterton believed, and I’m not going to disagree. In our supposedly post-Christian age, Chesterton wrote that even secular people “will go on observing forms that cannot be explained; they will keep Christmas with Christmas gifts and Christmas benedictions; they will continue to do it; and suddenly one day they will wake up and discover why.”
The joke is that Christmas, even in this attenuated form, remains the greatest evangelical tool Christians have at their disposal. One thing that is unquestionably theirs to which everyone else pays tribute, sometimes grudgingly but much more often with great, exhilarating abandon. There are some bells that can’t be un-rung – some declarations, once made, that can’t be unsaid. There is one star in the heavens that can never go dark.
Andrew Ferguson is the author of several books, including Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course on Getting His Kid Into College. He is a former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush and a current senior editor at The Weekly Standard.