Concern about the commercialization of Christmas has been a trope for so many decades that most of us likely don’t remember a time when it wasn’t well known. To cite one example, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” dating all the way back to 1965, famously had it as a central theme, contrasting focus on presents and gaudy fake Christmas trees and “a big commercial racket” that is “run by an Eastern syndicate” with the true meaning of Christmas, which unfolds as Linus recites the story of the Nativity from the Gospel of Luke.
That theme rumbles in the background of other disputes, such as retailers betting their bottom lines on people overspending on Christmas gifts while nevertheless recoiling at using the holiday’s name, or simply our collective amazement at seeing the “holiday shopping season” begin earlier and earlier each year, now starting long before a single Thanksgiving turkey goes in the oven.
In essence, it’s as if there are two Christmases that overlap and intersect somewhat uncomfortably — the loud secular one with the over-the-top shopping and Bing Crosby crooning “White Christmas” from every speaker from before Thanksgiving until the clock turns midnight on Dec. 26 and the religious one that follows four quiet, reflective weeks of Advent and only gets started on Dec. 25.
As American Catholics, we have a foot in each of those two worlds. But this year, as we look at massive inflation and many are counting every penny just to make ends meet, perhaps in God’s Providence it’s an invitation to step more fully once again into that real meaning of Christmas, the one that Linus recites so memorably.
As we tighten our belts, maybe we’ll discover that simple, personal, perhaps even handmade presents — or even just being together — have a meaning that a big January credit card hangover can’t begin to match. Perhaps, as our hearts open for our neighbors in need, we’ll rediscover the Dickensian joy Ebeneezer Scrooge learned, of giving to those who can’t repay us.
Maybe in this way, our difficult times may prove to be an unexpected gift.