A Christmas Respite from Consumer Madness

December 2015

As we turn our calendars to the final page and we progress deeper into this twelfth month of the year, many of us will find ourselves preoccupied with preparations for that most confounding of holy days, Christmas. The frantic demands of this holy day often overwhelm its quiet promise of spiritual renewal. What Christmas is and what it’s meant to be rarely converge. We want to reflect on the Incarnation, but first we’ve got to gear up for a series of adrenaline-fueled races around the shopping mall — or caffeine-powered jugglings of multiple browser windows — in search of deals, deals, deals. What about those early-bird and last-minute treks to the supermarket before the all-night baking sessions? Gotta get a tree, right? Gotta trim it too. Guests are expected, so there’s tub-scrubbing, bed-making, hors d’oeuvres, wine lists, dinner menus, and festive outings to attend to. Can’t forget the school pageants (if yours hasn’t been hijacked by the Holiday Nazis), parish choir concerts, maybe a seating at The Nutcracker. Oh, did you say you want to reflect on the Incarnation? Can you spare a minute or two before you fall asleep? Maybe that will have to wait for midnight Mass.

It can get overwhelming; there are so many expectations. And with expectations come costs. With costs come calculations. Stress piles upon stress, and the cares of the world quickly crowd out the reason for the season. Christmas, the inestimable Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “which was once a feast, has become a festival.” More than a festival, it has become an orgy — an orgy of binge buying, gifting gamesmanship, and uncontrolled consumption.

That is the inherent contradiction of Christmas in America. As Mitchell Kalpakgian pointed out in “The Christian Art of Christmas Spending” (Dec. 2010), we need Christmas “to remind us periodically about the relative unimportance of money in the larger scheme of things.” But Christmas and financial concerns are almost irrevocably intertwined. Can you have one without the other? Kalpakgian ups the ante: “The Christmas season,” he writes, “is the time to remember this most Christian discipline of self-forgetfulness that detachment from money cultivates.”

Detachment from money? Is such a thing possible at the peak shopping time of the year? Our culture of consumption requires us to weigh value against cost with virtually every move we make — more so at this time of year. Yet Kalpakgian issues us a challenge: Christmas, he says, is a time to “put to rest the calculating, reckoning mind that is always adding and subtracting.”

“Excessive preoccupation with money,” Kalpakgian reminds us, “is the mad way of the world.” But Christmas “is not of this world. Christmas originates in the miracle and sacrifice of divine love that the Magi honored. It intimates a heavenly world of total giving that St. Nicholas demonstrated with the bags of gold he offered” as anonymous gifts to the poor.

Tradition, as usual, teaches us lessons that modernity would have us forget. The story of St. Nicholas, a third-century bishop of Myra, Turkey, is instructive. As Kalpakgian recounts, “St. Nicholas threw three bags of gold into the chimney of the house of a poor family who could not marry a daughter because of a lack of dowry. St. Nicholas gave his gift in the middle of the night and rode quickly away to escape attention and recognition — a deed in keeping with the old proverb, ‘Do good by stealth and blush to find it fame.’”

Ah, but we’ve come so far from such high-minded Christmas idealism. Christmas is synonymous not with anonymous generosity but with excess and acquisition. This is perhaps best symbolized by the morphing of St. Nicholas into Santa Claus, the replacement of a real-life religious figure who practiced genuine charity with a gluttonous, thoroughly secular fairytale elf who exists solely to stimulate children’s selfishness and sense of entitlement.

It is St. Nicholas, and not Santa Claus, who embodies the true spirit of Christmas, a spirit that we as Christians must recapture if this holy day is to retain any sense of serenity, solemnity, even sanity in our mad world — in a word, if it is to remain holy. St. Nicholas can inspire us to relearn the lesson that, as Kalpakgian puts it, “money periodically needs to be given away by way of charity or gifts lest the habit of economy breed an excessive attachment to wealth or a loss of trust in God’s divine providence.”

The gifts we freely offer give honor, in however small a way, to the ultimate gift that God the Father has freely given us: “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy that shall be to all the people: For this day is born to you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Lk. 2:10-11).

Many religious organizations are worthy of your charity. We hope you’ll include the NOR as one of the humble homes into whose chimney you’ll toss a few stray coins. Since we announced the launch of the mobile version of the NOR (“Going Mobile,” April), we’ve been trying to raise $213,000 to get our financial house in order (we operated at a deficit of $50,000 in 2014; our income was down by $82,000, our assets were down by $15,000, and our expenses were up by $14,000) and to launch advertising initiatives to replenish our print readership (which has declined by twelve percent since 2012). To date we’ve raised just over half that amount, $110,401. We’ve got a long way to go and thus are still in need of your help.

As we mentioned when we announced the launch of our Facebook and Twitter pages (“Going Social,” Sept.), our focus is simple: To publish a magazine that is unique, essential, and faithful to its mission of exploring ideas related to faith and culture from a viewpoint informed by the timeless teachings of the Catholic Church — a magazine that is orthodox in the fullest sense of the word (but isn’t limited to repeating predictable talking points) and doesn’t fall prey to passing ideological fads (but isn’t afraid to engage the myriad challenges of modernity).

The only way we can do so is to rely on the generosity of you, our readers. This Christmas, please help us reach our fundraising goal by sending your donation to:
New Oxford Review
1069 Kains Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94706
Checks and money orders may be made payable to: New Oxford Review. We also accept VISA, MasterCard, and Discover credit-card donations at our website (click here) as well as by U.S. mail (at the above address) and telephone (510-526-5374, ext. 0). The NOR is a nonprofit religious organization and has 501(c)(3) status with the Internal Revenue Service. Donations are, therefore, tax deductible to the extent allowed by law.

May the peace of Christ be yours this Christmas. Please remember the NOR in your prayers.

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