Here we go again. "School Bans Santa over Religious Concerns." "Christmas Concert Cancelled in Hawaii." "Charlie Brown Violates U.S. Constitution?" The War on Christmas is afoot! Fox News is correct – there is a sustained effort under way to discredit the sacred truths of this holy day. The only problem is that they have fingered the wrong culprit.
It’s not government that is attacking Christmas. It is the market. Indeed, the market has all but conquered Christmas, which is why its Salesman of the Year, Santa, is culturally more central than the Christ Child. If Christmas has switched loyalties along these lines, it is at the behest of its new master that it has become imperial in its ambitions. There is not a War on Christmas, it might be said, but a War of Christmas. Jon Stewart says Christmas has laid siege to other holidays. Black Friday started a day earlier this year (on what used to be known as Thanksgiving) and lasted a week. Christmas trappings now go on sale well before Halloween. And of course Chanukah was Santafied some time ago. The invitation to join in seasonal cheer and shopping is broadly inclusive.
One of the mediating factors in this cultural shift is the new digital technology, which is a primary vehicle for the market’s conquest of Christmas. Ten years ago I started holding a contest in my introductory sociology course to see which student could go the longest without using the Internet. There was no obligation (i.e. credit). It was a fun experiment. Back then, everyone usually pulled off at least a few hours. Most students could go several days.
Things were different this year. “But my mom would worry.” “My friends wouldn’t know how to reach me!” “I wouldn’t know when anything was going to happen.” “I could do better if you warned us that this contest was coming.” “What is the prize for the person who holds out the longest?” “I don’t see the problem.” The cause for this shift is obvious: we have moved from voluntary use to basic dependence. They can’t be successful students, responsible children, informed citizens, or reliable friends if they don’t access the Web. At least the relative costs—financial, social, interpersonal, and more—have increased significantly.
In their responses, though, I detected something else. Did they feel defensive about or protective of the roles technology plays in their lives? Were they worried about being judged? Were they anxious about their own addictions to the technology? Was there an emerging sense of insidious tradeoffs?
With little prodding, some students revealed the burden they feel to be available, active, curious, and positive in every communication on the Web.
On the one hand, it is about who we are to the world, what we share, say or do. Of course, we all fear that our deepest insecurities will be uncovered. It’s the nature of life in modern society. We are pressured to perform happiness and success. Yet we are not always happy or successful. Our lives are sometimes defined by tedium, weakness, or fear. The gap between the insistently encouraged sunny performance and the potential darkness of interior life is expanding partly as a result of the new technology.
On the other hand, it is a about what we get from the world, how we learn, stay current, and keep up with people. The torrent of information means we can never again claim ignorance. One problem here is how knowledge and wisdom are conflated. Just because you can look something up on the Web doesn’t make you smarter. For some, the more facts we learn, the more humble we feel about true understanding. That is, things are more complicated than we realized. We never know enough.
Aside from the weight my students feel from these two aspects of digital communication – the pressures to be upbeat and informed – this situation reminds me of particular problems of the season, which brings us back to the War on Christmas.
The cultural imperative to find the next cool thing -- advanced by many on the Web -- becomes focused during December: find the best trappings (on Thanksgiving Day, if necessary), find the hottest gift (fight for it if it is the last one on the shelf), and find the best price.
Alongside the frenzy this entails, is there ever a time when the expectation to be positive is more pronounced than the holiday season? Think about Christmas letters, holiday cards, and Facebook postings that take on a merry, festive, cartoon-like quality. "This nullity," Max Weber averred about modern capitalism, "imagines it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved."
It is a tough season for expressing frankness, disappointment, pain, or anything else difficult. Perhaps it always has been. By definition, sacred ritual washes away the profane. But there is something about digital market culture that is distinctively suffocating in this way. It suggests to us that being ordinary in our community and normal in our humanity -- think of George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life -- is not enough. The apparent solution, though, is nothing so durable as the divine. Rather, it is a better product or a better attitude.
It’s not atheists, Jews, or the government making Christians act crazy for the month of December. I personally don’t mind seeing religious symbolism in public places (from any tradition), but I can see why some do, especially those on the wrong side of power. Surely it is fair to protect some public space from evangelism. In any case, I expect what my children learn about my family’s Christian faith will mostly take place at church and at home.
What I do resent is the perversion of those traditions through commercialization ruthlessly injected into our lives by way of unrelenting corporate advertising, product placement all over the public square, and the Google-driven cultural amnesia of our time. I’m certainly not moved by the crocodile tears of the likes of Fox News. Cynically trafficking in fear and resentment in the name of Jesus sounds pretty close to genuine blasphemy.
When I told a colleague about how my students feel encumbered by the obligations of the Internet, she suggested they should just ignore those pressures. The admirable independence of my contrarian friend notwithstanding, though, not all of us are in a position to defy the culture around us. That is why the winner of the contest among my students barely made it four hours without going online.
There are two messages you will never hear on the Internet: turn this machine off and stop spending money. The reason is that the digital technology, which has for many become essential to relationships, safety, citizenship, and employment, is thoroughly entangled with commercialism. It is increasingly difficult to participate in public life this time of year without confronting appeals to buy into holiday cheer and consumerism.
There is a war under way. But it is not about whether a Christmas tree can be mounted here or there. It is about whether the market will define the sacred. Advent invites Christians to do exactly the opposite of what the Christmas shopping season urges: slow down, get ready for something out of the ordinary, look to the most important promises of God and neighbor, and ponder what gifts we have to offer.
For Christians, Jews, Muslims and other people of faith seeking a different sense of time and a different future for the world, we share a common cause in facing this threat together.
Tom Lehrer said it much more succinctly:
Hark, the Herald Tribune sings,
Advertising wondrous things.
God rest ye merry, merchants,
May ye make the Yuletide pay.
Angels we have heard on high
Tell us to go out and buy!
A Christmas Carol, An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer, 1959
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