AMAC Exclusive – By David P. Deavel
Given the parlous state of the Biden economy, I am encouraged by articles such as the one at Yahoo Finance that leads with this: “Even with a recession on the horizon and inflation rearing its ugly head, Christmas spending is still expected to be high.”
Don’t get me wrong. Not everything people spend on is necessarily worth it in the afterglow of Christmas as we sit by the fire and ponder the Visa bill. As the article goes on to document, a good bit of the spending ($117 per person on average) is not for gifts or even decorations but for what the article calls “non-gift purchases for self and family” that range from “ironic ugly Christmas sweaters to pine and cinnamon candles.”
But the rest of it? Travel to see loved ones, gifts for others, food, and holiday decorations? I’m glad to see it happen. As somebody who teaches Christian theology, I get a bit tired of the worried refrains we hear every year about how American Christians have become too materialistic in our celebration. In this view, rather than focusing on the birth of Jesus, Christmas has become a frenzy of consumerism that is ruinous to us all. Why can’t we be more spiritual about the whole thing?
I’m not going to write off this point of view entirely. We can never think that material goods or food and drink can of themselves fill up the God-shaped hole in the human heart. And it can be the case that by Christmas day, many people can feel a bit let-down by the whole experience. But this is a problem less of money than it is of timing.
The American tendency to treat the Christmas season as simply a season of parties that begins the day after Thanksgiving and ends December 26—with a few days off to prepare for the New Year’s bash—is a mistake. Advent, that solemnly joyful and joyfully solemn season of remembrance of the first and prayerful preparation for the second coming of Christ, needs to be a thing again. More prayer, fasting, and giving of alms would be a good way to prepare hearts, bellies, and even credit card balances for the great feast of Christmas that in English tradition lasts twelve days and whose broader season lasts until February 2—the Feast of Candlemas being the marker and not Groundhog Day.
But pit the “spiritual” against the “material” side of Christmas? Perish the thought, the origins of which generally come from the ancient heresy known as Gnosticism, which treats the material creation as, at best, a lower form of reality than that which is pure spirit and, at worst, treats it as something evil. This has nothing to do with the Christian teaching about the world we live in.
Far from our flesh and blood being a prison for purer spirits, the Christian (and Jewish!) understanding of the world is that God himself created it. Genesis 1 depicts God’s creation of all that stuff and all those creatures from lands, seas, trees, and plants to sea monsters, fish, and land animals as, in the divine word, “good.” And we humans, made “in the image of God, male and female”? According to the divine author, “Very good.”
If the first parents and succeeding generations made a mess of this material creation, the divine solution was not to ditch the earth and bodies and stick to heaven and souls. Instead, the promise was a flesh-and-blood savior, one who would be like us in all ways except sin. One who would not merely promise heaven but a new heaven and new earth. Most wonderful of all, this savior was not just another man but the God-Man. God who created this material world decided to save it by taking part in it with a full body and soul. He who hung the stars was pleased to lay under them as a tiny child wrapped in swaddling clothes.
The materialism of Christmas began in the manger with that small child. As G.K. Chesterton put it: “Christ Himself was a Christmas present. The note of material Christmas presents is struck even before He is born in the first movements of the sages and the star. The Three Kings came to Bethlehem bringing gold and frankincense and myrrh. If they had only brought Truth and Purity and Love there would have been no Christian art and no Christian civilization.”
But there was! And all the developments of our “materialistic” Christmas are, both better and worse, testimonies to the fact that God himself apparently likes stuff. If we want to have a more “spiritual” Christmas, I don’t recommend holding back on the material element of it. Instead, let us celebrate using those material things in ways that build up love among our family, our friends, the poor, and even our enemies. Giving gifts and holding parties is a spiritual good. Especially when they include those who are left out.
The child in the manger would say as an adult that whatever was done for the least of his brethren would be done for him. Let us imitate him with lavish generosity of heart and wallet. Let us in every glass of eggnog and every Christmas goodie taste and see that the Lord is good. Let us offer and find his Presence in every present we give and take. Let us be Godly materialists, for God himself made matter and joined himself to it forever.
David P. Deavel is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas and a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative.