Originally published in Reader Weekly, December 23, 2004
During the holiday season I often ponder the complaints of the “commercialization of Christmas”. In my usual contrarian fashion I take them with a grain of salt. First of all, some seem to think that this commercialization is a new phenomenon and yearn for another time, a simpler time. If that time existed, it was long, long ago. Over fifty years ago one of my Christmas joys was to look at all the toy catalogs. I knew I wouldn’t get anywhere near my heart’s desires, but it was just a delight to read Lionel’s latest catalog, to see what science kits the department stores had, what whiz-bang airplanes, cars, and trucks were coming out, and on and on and on.
“Commercialization” of holidays goes way beyond the last century; it goes back millennia. The most well known in Western culture are the sellers of sacrificial animals and the moneychangers at the temple in Jerusalem. Our lore has them as the lowest of the low. But they were only providing services to meet the needs of the worshipers. Not every city dweller had a dove in the cote and a lamb out back to sacrifice at the temple. If a worshiper felt he had to make a sacrifice, he had to buy it from somebody else. Similarly, donations of money could not be made in Roman coin; they had to be made in Judaic money, not sisterces but mites and shekels. Somebody had to exchange the money, and those changers were not going to sit at the temple all day for free. The animal sellers and the moneychangers didn’t create the situation that required their services; they only took advantage of it to make a living.
Similarly, in our time, the merchants who offer so many goods and services with such lavish ads didn’t create the idea of gift giving at Christmas, but they are taking advantage of the desire of many people to give gifts. Shall the hardware store ignore the season and let the bookstore get all the Christmas business? The hardware store has to take out ads and say, “Here we are! We have some things you could give as gifts.” Just like all the ads throughout the year, we have to pick and choose which to respond to according to our budget and wants. My gosh, I’d be a blimp if I responded to all the candy ads.
And gift giving at this time of year is not confined to Western culture. Dewali is the Hindu feast of light; Indian newspapers are filled with ads for Dewali gifts and Indian electronics stores have their peak season. The Japanese give New Year’s gifts. Other cultures have other lavish celebrations of an important time of year – the return of light after the long darkness. And this goes back beyond the moneychangers at the Temple.
People celebrated this time with huge bonfires and feasts. With the return of light, they had a better idea of how long their food would last. If there seemed to be a surplus, they could indulge themselves. As agriculture became more productive, this wealth became more predictable. As people had more wealth (that is surplus), they could share with friends and relatives. Somewhere along the way, giving gifts at the winter solstice became tradition, and like all traditions it became quite complicated. So complicated that we now call it “commercialization”.
But you can make it simpler for yourself by how you approach gift giving. If you have a skill, you can give gifts that you make yourself. I give fruitcake to some of my relatives because I inherited a good recipe from my mother. They look forward to it, really! Now it does cost a bit of money for the ingredients, but what I am really giving is my time. Time my relatives wouldn’t have to spend to make this treat.
Even if you don’t make the gifts yourself, you still are giving your time. You are giving your time to think of what the recipients would like, the time to find where it is available, and the time to actually purchase it. Admit it, you are really delighted to get a CD of a group you hadn’t heard of but you listen to it again and again. Or you love that tool or kitchen gadget that you really wanted but never took the time to buy. Deep down, we feel good when someone appreciates what we have done for them, and we appreciate the things that others do for us. And that is called the Christmas spirit.