Sunday, December 19, 2004

A Moral Case for Christmas Commercialism

Back in 1995, I wrote the following article to point out that "commercialism" during the holiday season is not something to be derided or avoided. The article was published in a surprisingly large number of newspapers across the United States, including in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and Las Vegas Review-Journal on Christmas Eve (December 24, 1995).

A few years later, I was invited to appear on a Canadian radio program called "Cross Country Check-Up" to discuss my article. At the urging of my friend, Steve Foerster, I revised the article slightly and re-syndicated it, making sure to bring certain pop-culture references up-to-date and changing some of the examples I used to illustrate my argument. Once again, several U.S. newspapers picked it up.

So, every three or four years, I tweak the article a bit and send it out to see who uses it. Most recently, in December 2003, the article appeared in the Madison Times in Wisconsin. That version of the article can be seen here. (It was found by local Charlottesville video artist Alexandria Searls when she googled her own name a few months later, who brought it to the attention of City Councilor Rob Schilling, who in turn told me about it.)

Here is the original, 1995, version of "A Moral Case for Christmas Commercialism":

(ARLINGTON, Va.) --- Around this time of year, we routinely hear complaints about the "excessive commercialism" of Christmas. People complain about the barrage of advertising, the crowded malls, the rush of retailers to have the earliest holiday displays.

Some complaints run deeper, of course. They reflect our fear that carnal desires are outstripping our quest for a wholesome soul. "To perceive Christmas through its wrapping," said E. B. White, "becomes more difficult with every year."

Miller beer christmas commercialismSuch complaints are not new, of course. They have been voiced for generations. Nearly forty years ago, adman Stan Freberg skewered his colleagues on Madison Avenue with the devastating musical satire, "Green Chri$tma$," famous for lines like "Deck the halls with advertising; now's the time for merchandising." Generations earlier, the Puritan rulers of Massachusetts prohibited the celebration of Christmas in reaction to the excesses of the colonists.

Perhaps the most trenchant criticism of Christmas commercialism is the one that suggests that immoderate eating and drinking, buying and selling — what Thorstein Veblen called "conspicuous consumption" — divert us from the needs of those less fortunate, and indeed (put most starkly) steal food from the mouths of the poor.

These criticisms often accompany the appeals we receive each December, solicitations to give our time or money to voluntary organizations that house the homeless, clothe the naked, teach the ignorant, cure the ill, or feed the hungry. Such organizations are the backbone of a free and compassionate society, for they perform the corporal works of mercy that many of us, in our busy daily lives, are unable to perform individually. They deserve our support.

We need to address, however, the message of guilt implied in these appeals. Sometimes it is not so implicit. Last Sunday at church, I heard a sermon that specifically condemned our consumerism — not only at Christmas, but year round — as an assault on the poor. Conspicuous consumption becomes, in a word, a sin.

Let's consider this for a moment, because I want to make the case stated so succinctly by the philosopher Maimonides: "Anticipate charity by preventing poverty."

Simply remember that every time you buy a Christmas gift — a toy, a CD- player, a spice rack, a hunting rifle — you are helping to pay someone's wages. Millions of such purchases, made every day in the Christmas-shopping season, keep factories open, keep workers employed, keep families fed.

Think about who depends on Christmas to make a living. Santa and his elves, of course -- but also all of their "helpers" around the world. There are the printers of gift catalogues; postal workers and UPS drivers who deliver packages; loggers who cut the trees to make the paper for holiday cards and wrapping paper; turkey farmers and cranberry growers ... the list is literally endless.

Take this example: Because shops are open extra hours and must deal with many more customers this time of year, they hire extra help. Many part-time sales clerks during the holidays are college and high school students earning money to help pay their tuition and expenses. Without that money, some of them would have to drop out of school altogether. The fresh-faced girl behind the cash register at the Hallmark store could win the Nobel prize in chemistry in 2045 — or perhaps not, if low sales cause her to be laid off.

Imagine, for a moment, who benefits from your purchase of a woolen sweater. The wool came from sheep raised by a shepherd in the mountains of Nevada. The raw wool was processed into yarn at a textile mill in North Carolina. Dyes came from a chemical plant in Michigan. The yarn was woven into a sweater at a factory in Ohio. A trucker from Idaho drove the finished product to a distribution center in Colorado. There it was packaged and sent to stores around the country, where stockboys and sales clerks bring it to the ultimate purchaser. How many individuals earn a living from that single sweater? How many communities avert poverty because you, the individual shopper, choose to buy it?

This argument is not meant merely to assuage our guilt about "conspicuous consumption." It states the case that commerce, by creating wealth and eliminating poverty, has a substantial moral – even spiritual – component. Creating wealth makes charity – those corporal works of mercy -- possible. As Margaret Thatcher once noted, "No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he'd only had good intentions. He had money as well."

Charity to those who cannot care for themselves is good. Giving them the means to care for themselves is better. Best of all is to engage in commerce: buying the goods they provide for a mutually agreeable price. This prevents poverty and trims the lists of the needy at Christmas and always.

Three cheers for Christmas commercialism! And Happy Holidays!


Anonymous said...

While I commend you for trying to think outside the box, your conclusions about why commercial christmases are moral are misleading. Your references to people being happily employed during the christmas season all include workers from the USA. What about the millions of sweatshop workers that slave to make us our useless trinkets? Your whole arguement is based on your assumption that activity in a capitalist economy is a source of wealth and happiness. The truth is, people's jobs are a source of misery, not happiness. Also, economic activity is NOT a source of wealth for the masses. On each transaction, more wealth is taken from the workers and put into the pockets of shareholders. Working and purchasing is a source of profits yes, but not a source of wealth for the masses. And you have something backwards, you say we should consume because it gets us jobs, and thats good because jobs are good. Waht your forgetting is jobs are meant to provide us with consumables, not the other way around. Your basically saying we need to consume unnecessarily for the sake of making more jobs, but you have to ask, what purpose do these jobs serve to society? The answer is they have no purpose, other than to increase profits for a shareholder. Personally, I would much rather have a 10 hour work week and not be able to by as many useless commodities. Moreover, chopping down trees to make wrapping paper is hardly something i would call moral. Anyway, I can't believe I wasted my time commenting on an article that quoted Margarite Thatcher.

Vessel of Mercy said...

I came by your blog while trying to build a case AGAINST Christmas Commercialism,for my blog, by googling for other commentaries on the subject.I was quite surprised to see that someone had something to say FOR it.
I had assumed everyone would agree it was wrong, even though they may not be bothered to change their attitudes.I never thought that there might be a a case for it, the way you made it.I have to say that you built a pretty smart case for it, on the surface!
But,on closer thought , I think your case is proved wrong if you really understand who and what Christmas really is about.If it is about commercialism, then let it be about that!No Problems , but to hypocritically say it's about Christ is unacceptable and against the Spirit of Christ.
I urge you to look at the EXCESSES that goes on at this time and if you know anything about Jesus Christ still try to tell us that it runs in harmony with His Spirit.God Bless you.

Anonymous said...

Is there any way to outlaw those awful, tacky Christmas sweaters? I would be eternally grateful to never have to see one again.