I just read Mur Lafferty’s interesting examination of good and bad Christmas stories (well worth reading — check it out,) and it got me to thinking about a phenomenon we see every year, something that a lot of people complain about but that never changes: The ever-earlier start to the Christmas season.
I’ve made multiple trips to Lowe’s recently (there’s no home repair job so simple that I can’t find a way to have to do it three times), and it’s hard to miss all the Christmas decorations, lights, inflatables, etc. on display there. Maybe I’m just getting older (refuse to use the word “old”), but it seems like every year the stores start putting out Christmas merchandise just a hair earlier. I know that retailers make most of their profits in the fourth quarter of the year (the day after Thanksgiving is known as Black Friday because that’s the day they finally get into the black for the year.) From a business standpoint, it’s hard to fault them for doing this, especially as we wrap up the fourth consecutive year of a pretty lousy economy.
Of course, the merchants wouldn’t put this stuff up for sale in mid-October if people didn’t buy it then. So what does it say about us that people start stocking up for the holiday season two months in advance?
I think most of us (okay, me) have mixed feelings about the holiday season. I get to see my parents and siblings on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, and we don’t get to see each other that often, so it’s something I look forward to. And I love the movies and the books and the TV specials (some of them, at least), and the food (that’s a biggie.) For a month, the opening notes to Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite will be stuck in my head, as will the harmonies from For Unto Us a Child is Born from Handel’s Messiah. I have certain Christmas albums that I love and turn to every December like an old friend. I love all of that.
Also, my oldest son was born in December, and that alone has made the holiday season special every year since 1988. And there are special readings and hymns at Mass, and all of the rituals that make up the holiday season.
So what’s not to like? How about crazed crowds of shoppers, the kind that trampled a Walmart employee to death on Black Friday a few years ago? Or TV commercials telling you that, if you really loved that special someone, you’d park a new car with a big red bow on it in the driveway Christmas morning or give her a diamond bracelet? Or the joyous sounds of people screaming at their kids in shopping malls? Or the letters to the editor (they should start any day now) decrying the “sudden” commercialization of Christmas or worse, the alleged war on Christmas? Christianity’s second most sacred celebration (Easter being the first) becomes just another battleground in the culture wars, egged on by those who know they can boost their television ratings by encouraging Christians to think of themselves as a persecuted minority. This in a country where some tried to paint a sitting President of the United States as an enemy by suggesting that he’s secretly a Muslim.
Why do we start the Christmas sales season so early? And why does it bother so many of us so? Probably for the same reason. We’ve bought into the myth of Christmas days of yore, of small towns with bells ringing and an inch or two of snow on the ground, families gathered around the tree to open a few simple but meaningful gifts, of serene churches filled with songs lifted up by the voices of angels, and without obnoxious commercials, ugly crowds, and crass consumerism. We long for that. We yearn for it. The last 10 years have been pretty rough ones for America. The shock of September 11 gave way to the endless wars in the Middle East and the collapse of the financial system that plunged us into an economic slowdown from which we still struggle to recover. In the midst of all this pain, who wouldn’t want to grab onto the good feelings of the holiday season as early and as often as possible?
Yet selling Christmas merchandise only a few short weeks after the autumnal equinox feels somehow wrong, like it cheapens the season and makes it all about buying and selling. It seems to mock a holiday that we love (or at least are told that we should love.) And that makes people irritable, even angry.
Here’s the deal. I guess I’m officially middle-aged, having reached the age of 50 and all. I was a little kid in the 1960’s, which means that I remember all the good Saturday morning cartoons but not The Beatles being together. And I also remember wanting lots of stuff for Christmas. The holidays didn’t become commercialized in 2011 or 2001 or 1991 or even 1981, for all that. It’s been that way for a long time. The simple, country Christmases that we think used to be the norm? They existed only in movies. Everyone wants to spend Christmas in Bedford Falls because it’s not real. It never was real. We want it to be real because it symbolizes love and happiness and peace and all those other things that seemed so far away with Americans in Baghdad and Kanduhar, in the rubble of the Twin Towers, during the height of the Cold War, in the jungles of the Mekong Delta, and in the blood-stained streets of riot-torn cities in the 60’s.
In the end, we all have the power to decide how to react to what we see and experience. I can let the inflatable Santa on sale at Lowe’s raise my blood pressure, or I can say “Meh,” and go on about finding the repair kit for a leaky faucet. I can rant about how Christmas has become all about the dollar, or I can focus on the image of shepherds on a hillside, in shock as they listen to angels tell them that their Savior has been born. I kind of like that second option better.
So, rather than fight reality, let’s face it with gusto. Halloween’s over. It’s Christmastime! But I’m still going to fast-forward through the commercials when I watch a show on TiVo.