The National Catholic Review
John F. Kavanaugh
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As it does every year, it all began at Thanksgiving. The sheer weight of the advertising pages that arrived with the local newspapers was the first indication of how relentless corporate America is in colonizing our days. Thanksgiving, particularly, is a day that seems to be a threat to consumerism. Let’s get back to buying! Sure, you can market a few Thanksgiving greeting cards, but they will never deliver the big bucks. And the cards themselves might carry messages inimical to consumerism. May you be filled with gratitude. That is a dangerous attitude: the recipients might forget about all the things they are supposed to need. And I give thanks for you is a real downer for the market. Not much can be commodified there. You are in the realm of persons with that kind of gratitude, not the world of stuff.

A lot of ham and turkey is sold, true. But big dinners have the unfortunate effect of drawing people away from the malls and back to home and one another. And if you spend time giving thanks, you might find out that you are really happy, and that is truly a dangerous attitude. Happy people don’t buy much.

Could that be why the Friday after Thanksgiving is the most advertised shopping day of the year? Are we supposed to forget, as fast as we can, that we might be happy? Is gratitude actually bad news for business? O.K. You gave thanks. Now think of all you need.

Newsweek magazine (which is looking more and more like a shopping catalog), in its issue for the last week of November, offered a three-page fold-out Tip Sheet article displaying something that looks like the old Advent calendar, with each day before Christmas occupied by the business of buying. Even its charity day has you making your donation through Starbucks or buying a $120 case of spicy pickles (with profits going to the needy).

There are daily reminders that all the superficialities of Christmas are acceptable, but they are not the heart of it. Children in an Illinois grade school are allowed to sing the secular We Wish You a Merry Christmas, as long as it represses the meaning of the day itself. We Wish You a Swinging Holiday is the acceptable form. Thus it joins Happy Holiday and Holiday Trees. I’m Dreaming of a White Holiday may soon follow.

We might think the battle for Christmas is over words. But the struggle is waged at a far deeper level of our lives. Consuming Christmas does not only mean that Christmas is reduced to consuming. It also means that Christmas itself is consumed, gobbled up, eaten away. Our existential hunger, solemnly recalled by Advent, is fixated on things. Our deepest longings to know another and be known, to love and be loved, are beset by a cultural anorexia of the spirit. Filled with things, we starve our souls.

The feast of Christmas is meant to ease our deepest hunger. The simple story itself is all about relationship: what we mean to God, what Joseph and Mary and Jesus mean to one another, what Elizabeth means to Mary, what the birth of John means to Zachary, what we mean to one another. A triune God of persons in relation not only loved this world into existence, but also so loved the world as to become one with it. We have come from relationship and we are made for it. In such a context, the real Christmas indeed is countercultural in any society that has something other than persons at its heart.

It is the ism of consumerism, its ideological centrality, that is the problem. And the only way to resist it is to reclaim our personal lives. This does not require a rejection of things or the refusal to grace our lives with beautiful gifts or time-saving technology. As they were meant to be, such things enhance the personal world, they express our interior lives, and they can bring us together.

But if we do not spend as much time and effort on our interior lives and our relationships as we do on the things we produce and consume, these very things will own us rather than be our possessions. We will be made in their likeness, not the likeness of a personal God.

This is the depersonalizing paradox of idolatry, so often mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures. Worshiping the products of our own hands, things of silver and gold, we become like them: having mouths but not speaking, having eyes but not seeing, having hands that never touch.

Personalism is not only a theory. It is also a practice. If our Thanksgiving Day and Advent time have been consumed by consumerism, at least we can reclaim Christmas for ourselves and not let go of it, at least for an octave. What kind of a New Year might we have if we had spent the seven previous nights pondering the joyful mysteries of our own lives? If in our gatherings with family or close friends, we spoke of the gifts we have been given by each other’s presence? If we told even three people how they were gifts to us? If we named what gift we would most want to give them?

Jesuit communities have had the tradition of gathering on New Year’s Eve to recite the Te Deum at Benediction in gratitude for the gift of the past year. I have always thought it a subversive act. It not only refuses to let go of Christmas. It recaptures Thanksgiving as well.

John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.