Christmas has become a holiday known for its commercialism—and many recoil at this, claiming that commercialism is antithetical to the spirit of the holiday.
From one side of our culture, advocates of religion tell us that holiday materialism distracts us from the true “reason for the season.” From the other side, Occupy Wall Street protesters disrupt Black Friday sales at large retailers, holding signs that say things like “give love, not TVs.” Both sides agree that Christmas should really be about love for our families and friends, not about commercialism.
But what is commercialism? It is just the trade of goods and services. Why do critics object to trade, or to intermingling our relationships with trade? Why is it wrong to give our friends and loved ones presents, in addition to the conversations, jokes, or kisses we already give them? Love and friendship, the things we celebrate at Christmas, are forms of trade. Just as retailers offer toys, sporting goods, or computers in exchange for money, our friends and loved ones offer us their wisdom, personality, or sense of humor in exchange for our own. Whereas commerce involves the trade of material values, love and friendship involve the trade of values of the spirit.
To think of friendship as a trade does not diminish it. The trade involved in friendship is an emotionally important one. As unique individuals, friends offer very special, irreplaceable values. This is why we tend to think of friendship as being fundamentally different from material trade.
Still, material and spiritual trade are not in opposition. Far from displacing our relationships, presents offer a way to communicate love or friendship in a way words cannot. A good gift has the same emotional symbolism as a hug, in that it gives physical reality to an emotional connection between two people. Think of a time you found the perfect gift for a good friend or loved one, and ask why it was significant. The best gifts are those that materially crystallize a special bond between two people—a funny calendar for the friend who shares an inside joke, or a unique cooking gadget for the spouse with whom you’ve shared countless special meals. Those in the Occupy Wall Street movement who interfere with exuberant trade celebrations like Black Friday must learn the same lesson as the Grinch: that the purpose of these goods is to enhance spiritual values, not to replace them.
Why should retailers who offer huge Christmas sales be morally condemned? On the contrary, they should be praised for offering so many ways for us to demonstrate our affection for friends and loved ones.
Many complain that the Christmas season is the most stressful time of the year. This is not due to trade, but rather, its moral opposite. Some feel obligated to throw the compulsory family party they are not prepared for, or buy presents for they don’t know very well.
Christmas is not about unchosen obligations; it is about personal pleasure. A present that says “you mean something to me” cannot contain a shred of the sentiment “I got this for you because I had to.” Gift giving, love, and friendship only work as a trade relationship.
What others say with disgust, I say with warmth and affection toward American culture: Christmas in America has become a holiday of commercialism. This commercialism is not a symbol of depravity; it is a symbol of how good life is thanks to the diversity and volume of spiritual and material goods we produce and trade with one another.
Image by Flikr user monsieur paradis