Ingratitude. That’s what I think every time I come across one of the millions of messages scattering across the mediascape that decry the “rampant materialism” of Christmas.
It’s become an easy habit to make snide remarks about materialism and commercialism, about how gifts aren’t really what’s important, and how spending has become too important a part of the Christmas holiday. Facebook and Twitter especially have become favorite places for declarations about how buying gifts for people is superficial and gets in the way of what truly matters. People reset their account graphics to warnings about the evil of gifts.
This mountain of anti-materialism is manifestation of a growing problem: The rampant spirituality of Christmas.
By the time I went to bed last night, it had become unbearable. I have spent every day since Thanksgiving making my way through heaps of unsolicited messages against materialism from every conceivable source, sanctimonious sermons about how the focus on giving gifts has obscured the spirituality of Christmas.
Every time I see this message, the same thought comes to mind: If your spirituality can be so easily obscured, just by people giving nice things to each other, it isn’t really a very powerful spirituality, is it? I mean, people keep saying that the true meaning of Christmas is spiritual, the story of an all-powerful magical being. Then, they say that this all-powerful magical being is unable to overcome the allure of shopping malls.
If spirituality really has any benefit to people, then people will be attracted to it. They won’t be able to stay away from it. If, on the other hand, spirituality is irrelevant to people’s concerns, then people will be put off into the margins. It looks like the latter is the case.
Proponents of Christmas spirituality, instead of throwing an annual tantrum against the material world that we all live in, ought to take some time to consider why increasing numbers of people think that their stories are irrelevant. Then, they should adapt. Traditions that don’t evolve can’t expect to keep people’s attention.
Besides, the anti-materialism of the devotees of Christmas spirituality aren’t even being honest. What do all these people, who make self-righteous messages about transcending the material world, do when someone gives them a gift? They take it, happily, but not before making a belittling statement about how the best things in life are free. They’re like Pope Benedict XVI, who admonishes people to “look beyond the glitter” of Christmas, while he’s standing holding a golden scepter, wearing an outlandish costume, living in a palace and owning more jewelry than any other man on earth.
That’s really rude, if you think about it. The money that people spend on gifts is a concrete manifestation of the work that they’ve done during the year. A gift can represent an hour, or a day, or a week of somebody’s life. That’s time that can’t be reclaimed.
The material things that people give are expressions of devotion and affection. They’re symbols, but they’re useful, too. Material things aren’t all that matter in life, but they’re extremely important. We may not live by bread alone, but without bread, we’re toast. Spirituality won’t keep you warm on a cold winter’s night. It won’t feed you when you’re hungry. It won’t buy you medicine. Materialism will.
Spirituality asks for 10 percent of your earnings every week, in return for nothing but a predictable sermon about the same old book over and over again. When it’s time to pass the collection plate, spirituality suddenly doesn’t mind materialism so much. The spiritual organizations, too, will perish if all they get from their members is a smile and the repetition of a careworn story about a baby born in a barn. Spirituality craves material things – for itself.
If you want to support spirituality in your personal life, that’s your choice. Preaching at everybody else that a spiritual Christmas is the only right choice is tacky, though. It’s missing a tremendous realm of value, too.
Children know what Christmas is good for. They get excited about opening gifts. Secretly, adults get excited about that, too. Let’s trust that feeling. Material generosity matters. It’s part of what keeps society from falling apart.