It’s around this time of year that we usually hear critics, religious and secular alike, lamenting the spiritual emptiness of the “materialism” of the holiday season. In one Christmas homily, Pope Francis put it this way: “When the lights of shop windows push the light of God into the shadows . . . , worldliness has kidnapped Christmas.” The environmentalist Bill McKibben once put it less elegantly: “The 12 days of Christmas . . . are a cram course in consumption, a kind of brainwashing.”
But the coronavirus pandemic has reoriented everyone’s holidays. It has also exposed, more starkly, that the critics of Christmas “materialism” have been wrong all along.
This season, there have been rare news reports pointing to something important, and right, in people’s reactions to typical Christmas goodies.
Previously, you may have heard commentators pillory lavish Christmas light displays for their vanity and crass commercialism. But this year, there are reports about the delight families have taken in putting up their Christmas lights early, even before Halloween. “They bring happiness. They’re bright on a dark night,” says one homeowner. “It’s been a hard year . . . We’ll all have to do things to keep our spirits up.”
We sometimes hear that a Christmas tree in every home is a symptom of our commodified, keep-up-with-the-Joneses culture. But this year there are reports of a run on Christmas trees by shoppers in big cities who are “searching for comfort . . . [for] normalcy in the middle of a pandemic.” Another report summarizes the nature of the comfort: “Their existence is emotional: satisfying tradition, marking time, standing as a symbol of familial love and goodwill.”
Some of what’s filed under “materialism” deserves criticism. Some people do act like the things they buy will all by themselves give life meaning, by implying a success they have not earned or by impressing others with their purchases. This problem intensifies at Christmas for those who try in vain to prove to themselves or others how good they are by buying gifts out of a blind sense of duty.
But it’s a big mistake to package these vain attempts together with the use of material things to achieve meaningful life goals and the joy we can take in the fruits of those achievements. The pandemic may now bring into stark relief how the material adornments and gifts of the season can have real emotional meaning to people. But it’s worth understanding why this is true every holiday season.
It’s probably no accident that a December midwinter holiday has been celebrated for millennia, even before it was appropriated by Christianity. Especially in the modern age, the typical pleasures of the Christmas season point to something about what it means to be human, to the distinctive satisfaction that comes from securing ourselves against the elements and thriving in the face of them. It is cold outside, but we can sit in the warm comfort of our homes. Nothing grows around us, but we can feast. The light of day is at its shortest, but we can bedeck our buildings with shimmering lights for all to see. And we can have the temerity to place something as luxurious as a tree inside our homes. It’s not just comfort, it’s a kind of serenity mixed with pride.
“The charming aspect of Christmas,” wrote the philosopher Ayn Rand, “is the fact that it expresses good will in a cheerful, happy, benevolent, non-sacrificial way. . . . And the good will is expressed in a material, earthly form — by giving presents to one’s friends, or by sending them cards in token remembrance.”
“The best aspect of Christmas,” she said, “is . . . the fact that Christmas has been commercialized. The gift-buying . . . stimulates an enormous outpouring of ingenuity in the creation of products devoted to a single purpose: to give men pleasure. The street decorations put up by department stores and other institutions — the Christmas trees, the winking lights, the glittering colors — provide the city with a spectacular display, which only ‘commercial greed’ could afford us. One would have to be terribly depressed to resist the wonderful gaiety of that spectacle.”
Any evidence that Americans are doubling down in their enjoyment of the worldly delights of the Christmas season is itself cause for celebration. It suggests that they are unwilling to give in to the metaphysical depression some would think inevitable because of 2020. It also suggests that they know something about the emotional meaning of Christmas that the critics of “materialism” do not.