In his buzzed-about return to host Saturday Night Live, comedian Chris Rock opened the show with the kind of edgy riffing that audiences have come to expect. He found humor in the awful irony of the Boston Marathon bombings, where, after 26 miles of jogging, victims were told at the finish line to run. He poked fun at Freedom Tower, wondering aloud if the corporate sponsor was Target.
But then, almost magically, he segued into Christmas, and the edge to his jokes gave way to something else entirely. “In America,” he suddenly said, “there are no sacred days, because we commercialize everything.” Rock speculated that we’re five years away from using 9/11 itself as an excuse to send us out shopping in droves. After all, he mused, “look what we did to Christmas.” Never mind that “Jesus is the least materialistic person to roam the earth.” After a “whole season of materialism,” at the end “we have the nerve to have an economist come on TV and tell you how horrible the Jesus-birthday season was this year.”
Yes, it takes some nerve to try to maximize the cash value of Christmas, and to shift our moral sensibility onto a ledger of guilt and gratitude converted into dollars and cents. Watching SNL, we laugh uncomfortably that we’re nervier than ever about our crass, commercial Christmas. But it’s harder for us to admit that, when it comes to upholding the sacred, we’ve actually lost so much of our nerve.
One almost wonders, is it possible to detach the more essential aspects of Christmas—the timeless parts that memories are made of—from the consumerist craziness?
If the original Christmas story is to be believed, Jesus may have already given us an answer: No, not really.
Because part of the celebration of Christmas is gift giving. (Three wise men, anyone?) Giving gifts is in and of itself a good impulse; they can physically demonstrate our love, happiness, and celebration. The problem arises when we let gift giving morph into something different entirely—and that’s what has become the norm in American culture today. We live in a society of consumerism, a society of excess.
So when it comes to whether we can separate Christmas from consumerism, the solution may have to be, as in the parable of the farmer who realizes weeds are growing alongside his wheat, to “let both grow together until the harvest.” Because, very likely, if we try to rip the deep-rooted festival of commerce out of the Christmas season, it would defeat the purpose. Our embarrassment over materialistic excess would lead us to act rashly, paradoxically damaging the very intention behind our efforts. If we scorn over-commercialized societal expectations of gift buying and giving in the name of Christmas, we’d risk losing the Christmas spirit altogether.
Alone, or even together, we cannot “purify” Christmas or cure our holidays of their tacky, troublesome aspects. Humble enough in that realization, however, we might endeavor to cope with them.
Coping with Christmas consumerism is, of course, not as easy as “retail therapy.” Therapy is like money: anyone can use it for just about anything. Instead, to cope with Christmas commercialism, we need two things rarely seen together with either therapy or money: modesty and reverence. Opening ourselves to receive these precious gifts, we might yet grace the holiday season with some of the human dignity and heavenly peace we so wish to see intimated here in the world.
How do we do this? Unfortunately, there is no For Dummies Guide to Christmas Modesty and Reverence. There is no 12-Step Program for Christmas-Shopoholicism or “35 Hilariously Awesome Ways To Spiritualize Holiday Shopping.” Rather than turning outward, into the world, to discern the way forward, we must turn inward—and upward: away from the lowering scuffle that has us scuttling like cockroaches in an all-too-apocalyptic landscape of blockbuster sales.
This literally uplifting inwardness can sometimes be found in the solitude of our own hearts, when furtive moments of rest and clarity can connect us with a greater Presence than is wrapped up in any present. Even more, the reawakening we seek opens up when we open ourselves to the hearts of those we love, those nearest to us in reach and in spirit. The highest gifts we can exchange with one another express, in detail as particular as our loved ones themselves, the joy of our gratitude for their place in our hearts.
Some say we need to put the Christ back in Christmas. More of us ought to remember, at any rate, how to put the merriment back in Merry Christmas.