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A Christmas Respite from Consumer Madness


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.”

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