Originally published in the Northland Reader
now the Reader Weekly
December 21, 2000
Ebenezer Scrooge lives on in many forms with no hope of redemption. One form is the cold-water Scrooge who dislikes the “commercialization” of Christmas. This Scrooge complains about all the ads and displays enticing people to buy, buy, buy...
But nobody is forcing us to buy, buy, buy... We don’t even have to shop, shop, shop... I did almost all my shopping with two stops at a book store. One to order books for everyone on my list and one to pick them up. I also bake fruit cake, using my mother’s recipe, for friends and relatives. For the ingredients I did have to shop, shop, shop... No single store had them all.
Of course, all the ads get kids all dreamy and greedy. “I want a Rowdy Rodeo Rider!” “I want a CD by BD and QT.” But parents don’t have to acquiesce to every wish. The simple rule we had was one gift per kid from Santa and one gift from each parent. Once they outgrew Santa we just went to the one gift from each parent. Of course, this was not iron-clad. If we found something interesting we might add it to the list.
I’ll grant that all the ads and displays seem excessive. In November and December we probably put three times more newspaper immediately into the recycle pile than in any other months. Merchants put a Christmas spin on almost any product - toys or tools, food or fiction, books or looks. Even hardware stores have a visit from Santa.
How did our society get so “commercial” about a religious holiday? Did merchants make it commercial or did we “ask” merchants to satisfy our desires?
“Commercializing” religious holidays or religion is nothing new. Jesus drove the money-changers and the sellers of sacrificial animals out of the temple. Many old churches have sellers of souvenirs and religious goods outside their doors. Scrooge sent a boy to a store on Christmas day to buy a goose for the Cratchit’s dinner.
Rather than “commercialization” being the result of merchants trying to sell us all manner of goods, isn’t it the result of our desire to give (and get) gifts at an ancient holiday? Our desire to give gifts is rooted in a longer history than a single holiday. The “gods” gave humans the gifts of fire and agriculture. We humans gave gods gifts to sway their actions in their favor. We humans gave gifts to stand-ins for gods. And finally, we gave gifts to each other to mimic the giving of gifts to the gods.
We also gave gifts to those in need. Many religions celebrate the givers of gifts to those in need. Christian tradition celebrates St. Nicholas, a fourth century bishop in Myra (which is now part of Turkey). Nicholas is best known for giving dowries for the daughters of a rich man who had lost his fortune. The dowries of three hundred gold pieces to each daughter were themselves small fortunes.
Excessive gift-giving as part of the winter solstice did not start with capitalism. In one country gift-giving became such a problem that the government made a law that richer people could give gifts only to those less well-off than themselves. The government: Rome. The festival: Saturnalia.
Excessive gift-giving as part of the winter solstice is not limited to western traditions. In one country, merchants lure their customers with attractive discounts and the customers go on a spending spree. The country: India. The festival: Diwali.
Another excess modern Scrooges complain about is lighting the outside of houses with thousands of lights. I don’t agree with those who say that all the lights are part of the Christmas spirit, assuming the strictly religious one of redemption and of charity. I do agree that the lights are part of the spirit of the solstice, the notion of bringing back the sun with bonfires, fire crackers, candles, oil lamps, and little twinkling electric bulbs.
In many places and times the spirit of the solstice included the celebration of the birth or rebirth of the sun god long before Christianity - from Egypt to Thailand, from Japan to Scandinavia, from Mexico to the Arctic. The celebrations included quiet reflection and rowdy feasts, family gatherings and week-long or month-long community festivals.
If we consider this wide range of celebrations, we will find it easier to celebrate in our own way Christmas or Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Diwali, or one of the many other names and dates for the winter solstice. We shouldn’t feel we have to celebrate any particular one, or several, out of “respect” for others.
However you celebrate the winter solstice, don’t let the Scrooges get you down. If you want to give a lot of gifts or have a big party, go ahead without feeling guilty. Just don’t keep me awake and don’t drive home drunk. If you want to have a quiet time of reflection and prayer, go ahead without feeling pressured. Just don’t tell me that my way is “wrong”. If I greet you with “Merry Christmas”, feel free to return the greeting with “Happy Hanukkah”. What we all are really doing and saying is that we believe life will improve and the weather will get warmer.