Christmas in America is done in a way that offends many people around the world, and also many Christians in the United States. The mega-bucks shopping, the over-the-top promotion, the non-stop jingles and carols, the light displays, yard decorations, huge inflatables everywhere -- must Christmas really be like this?
No, it doesnt need to be. But neither should we be quick to take offense.
A big Christmas need not be an insincere Christmas. This point was made by Benedict XVI before he became Pope. He noted in a 1977 essay that nowadays a theologian or a preacher is all but expected to heap more or less sarcastic criticism on our popular way of celebrating Christmas ... Christmas, we are told, has been commercialized irredeemably and has degenerated into a senseless marketing frenzy; its religiosity has become tacky.
Of course, he continued, such criticism is largely justified, even though it might too readily forget that, behind the facade of business and sentimentality, the yearning for something purer and greater is not entirely extinguished; indeed, that the sentimental framework often provides the protecting shield behind which hides a noble and genuine sentiment that is simply reluctant to expose itself to the gaze of the other.
He is speaking about the core of good and virtuous intentions behind much of what is assailed as commercialism. Much of what people buy is for others. But what people do to commemorate Christmas reflects an inner sense that something extraordinary is occurred and continues to occur on the night of Jesus birth. All this fuss would not take place over a fat man in the red suit; it takes more than that to create the astonishing display that Christmas has become.
The hectic commercialism is repugnant to us, wrote Cardinal Ratzinger, for it is indeed utterly out of place as a commemoration of the hushed mystery of Bethlehem, of the mystery of the God who for us made himself a beggar (2 Corinthians 8:9). And yet, underneath it all, does it not originate in the notion of giving and thus the inner urgency of love, with its compulsion to share, to give of oneself to the other? And does not the notion of giving transport us directly into the core of the mystery that is Christmas?
We might reflect too on the reality that charities raise more money during this season than any other of the year -- many times more. This too reflects the cultural reality that all this spending isnt so much based on greed or materialism as it is based on generosity and liberality. Money is not the object but the conduit that makes this possible.
It also stands to reason that Christmas would somehow be bigger in the United States than in many countries in the world, simply due to the fact that there are more resources available here -- a consequence of an economic system that rewards innovation and wealth creation. This is also the most generous country in the world, with a charitable sector that is far larger than any other nations.
What about the complaint that Christmas has lost its religious import? We need to remember that culturally significant holidays develop both a religious meaning and a secular meaning. This is an inevitable consequence of a faith that is willing to share itself with the world. Because we enjoy the secular aspects (Santa, reindeer, elves, Frosty) doesnt preclude us from also finding true meaning in the genuine religious meaning as well.
From the earliest centuries, Christmas was not merely a private affair for homes and parishes. Christians obtain grace from reflecting on the miracle of the Incarnation but they have given the event called Christmas as a glorious gift to the world. This is why this holiday can be so secular and yet remain so sacred. There is a distinction between the two but not always a battle between the two.
The concept of gift-giving is squarely anchored in this liturgy of the Church, writes the Pope, and, at the same time, we are made aware of the primal mode of all giving at Christmas: that God, on this holy night, desired to make himself into a gift to mankind, that he turned himself over to us.
The one genuine Christmas gift to mankind, to history, to each one of us, is none other than Jesus Christ himself. Even those who do not believe him to be God incarnate will have to admit that he has enriched and gifted the inner existence of generations upon generations.
So let us put aside our tendency to dismiss and put down our cultures embrace of this holiday. Let us participate with joy and generosity, bringing gifts to others just as we have been given so much by awesome fact that Eternity became Time to dwell among us.
Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute.