With Christmas soon upon us, most of the western and Christian world is rife with consumerism that has come to define this holiday. While early spending levels suggest a much needed economic stimulus, perhaps we should revisit the holiday’s intent and consider alternatives to gift giving.
This doesn’t mean avoiding commerce. A thriving retail sector - big box as well as mom and pop - is vital to America running on all cylinders.
Yet while most people mean well, recent sights such as shoppers trampling others to get to the best deals, or shopping on Thanksgiving Day, are cause for alarm. Has this most holy of Judeo-Christian traditions been hijacked by our forgetting its original ethos?
That’s difficult to ask, and the answer is neither clear nor uniform. Rather, each individual must find it within himself.
Christmas consists of elements both historical and religious, and they aren’t mutually exclusive. Without bogging down in ecclesiastical minutiae or the Julian and Gregorian calendars, the holiday commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ, one of Christianity’s two great feasts (Easter being the other).
As religion, Dec. 25 marks the sacred event just after the winter solstice, the year’s darkest time. It represents hope for all mankind as the Son of God heralds an emergence from the shadows into light.
Among the holiday’s traditions
Globally, many symbolic figures have been associated as the bearer of Christmas gifts. The most popular, Santa Claus, can be traced to early 19th century New York.
There, citizens looked to the city’s Dutch origins as New Amsterdam for holiday paradigms. The name "Santa Claus," from the Dutch "Sinterklaas," translates to Saint Nicholas - the fourth century Bishop of Myra known for charity, care of children, and gift-giving.
With several exceptions in the Middle and Far East, Christmas is a legal holiday worldwide, even in countries with Christian minorities, and considerable numbers of non-Christians celebrate it that way.
So this is where we are. But is it where we’re supposed to be?
Today, many Christian leaders ponder the same. There’s a growing sentiment that gift-giving has become an end onto itself, not a means to express hope, charity and faith.
We need look no further than popular culture to understand a yearning for the latter. Movies such as "Miracle on 34th Street," and "It’s a Wonderful Life," and stories like Charles Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol" still resonate. None of them advocate the end of consumerism. But they all hint that within our means, most of us can do more by way of remembering the season’s priorities.
Make no mistake, I love giving Christmas gifts, especially to young children. But as an adult, I’m not concerned about receiving any, though I always appreciate the gesture. Recently I’ve asked family and friends to scale back their spending on me, and give some of it to a cause aimed at helping the poor or less fortunate.
And I still give gifts, but a few less, with the balance of my funds going to such charities. That’s a personal decision, and I can’t moralize it. It’s one man’s contribution, which doesn’t amount to much overall.
Yet against this backdrop, we’re hammered daily by public leaders on how to define a just society and the proper role of government. In essence, we’re arguing over mandating the Christmas spirit 365 days a year - all this while doing our best to separate traditional manifestations of Christmas from anything civil or official.
How ironic is that?
Rather than legislate good will or demagogue the holiday ad nauseam, perhaps a refocus on one person’s action is where to begin. Not as an American. Not as a social crusader. Not as a voter. Just as a human being.
If it can help just one other individual, that’s a start. Then let momentum roll the snowball. To this end, national organizations such as Advent Conspiracy and Redefine Christmas are gaining traction. But it has to spring from a single heart. Then another.
Far from naïve, I still believe in a world where those who accomplish this do so of their own accord. So whether you view Christmas as religion, history, myth, or political football, ask yourself: Starting today, what small thing can I contribute to recapture its essence?
May your answer find a guiding star in the December night.
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.