Many retail stores depend on Christmas shopping for their survival. Economists tell us that the current uptick of this seasonal shopping is good news for the recovery from the recession. Christian clergy and secular culture critics tend to have a more sour view of these facts.
The theological objection to the Christmas bonanza is neatly summed up in the title of many sermons during this season: “Put Christ back into Christmas”. Commonly the commercialization of Christmas is condemned by relating it to Jesus’ driving out the money changers and pigeon salesmen from the Temple of Jerusalem. “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you make it a den of robbers” (Matthew 21:13). The analogy limps a bit—preachers are unlikely to demand that Walmart establishments be converted into houses of prayer—but depicting shopping malls as dens of robbers appeals to a certain populist resentment of successful businesses. Minus the reference to Christ, secular critics also bemoan the commercialization and the consumerism of which the Christmas season is supposed to represent a certain climax. These criticisms are frequently linked to a wider complaint about American culture as being superficial and vulgar. Everyday life in America, in and out of shopping malls, is marked by a friendliness that, undoubtedly, is superficial—in the sense that nobody in his right mind would see it as a mark of profound friendship. Very likely the historical roots of this friendliness are in commerce. One smiles at potential customers. As America has become a very commercial society, this smile migrated to situations in which no business transactions are taking place—say, on a bus or in a parking lot. Of course we know that the person who smiles at us while letting us get out of the bus or a parking slot is not promising to be a friend for life. So what?
I am writing this in the depths, as it were, of the Christmas season. The Greater Boston area is festooned with lights and artifacts suggesting Christmas cheer, as are traditionally Christian locales from Vancouver to Vladivostok (and some traditionally non-Christian locales, such as Tokyo or Dubai, who would not know how to put Christ back into Christmas if they wanted to). The shopping malls are cheerfully lit up, but so are many private homes. Superficial? Vulgar? Very often. Nevertheless, the cheerfulness is real enough. I rather like it. And I think there is a less sour way of looking at a commercialized Christmas.
As far as I know, there was a pagan festival around the time of the winter solstice in Europe—archaic Celtic characters in bear skins huddled around their fire in caves, reassuring each other that the spring will come again. As Christianity spread beyond its Jewish homeland, it seemed plausible to pick the date of this festival to celebrate the “Christ Mass” which commemorates the birth of the redeemer. The symbolism of light and warmth in the midst of darkness and cold now obtained a new theological interpretation. In one English version of that great 15th-century German Christmas hymn, “Lo, How a Rose is Blooming”, Jesus came into the world “in the cold of winter, when half-spent was the night”. Of course Christians will want to celebrate this event in their worship at this time of the year. Preachers will have every reason to insist that the cheerful promise of this celebration is infinitely more profound than the superficial cheerfulness of the shopping mall. Yet the latter is a secular echo of the former, historically and perhaps religiously linked to it. Be this as it may, faith in the transcendent meaning of Christmas need not imply contempt for even its vulgar secular replications.
It seems to me that Christmas in America is not primarily a family affair (though of course the major presents are exchanged within families, while minor ones—various forms of tips and token gifts—are handed out to supporting characters such as fellow-workers, mail carriers and doormen). Thanksgiving is the family festival par excellence, and no one is suggesting to “put the Pilgrims back into Thanksgiving” (except perhaps the tourist office in Plymouth, Massachusetts). Christmas, on the other hand, celebrates a much more general friendliness, at least in America. The traffic cop who refrains from issuing a ticket, because “after all it’s Christmas”, is not a relative or close friend. This reflection should provide a hint: The secular celebration of Christmas is a celebration of civil society at its best. Put differently: The generalized good will of the secular Christmas is a heightened expression of civility. Let me suggest that this is not something to be sneezed at.
I experienced my first Christmas in America a few months after arriving in this country. I was almost eighteen and lived with my parents in New York. While waiting to start college in the spring semester I had a job as a delivery boy at an office on lower Fifth Avenue. I was sent out to pick up or drop various documents all over Manhattan. Rather than use the subway (which of course would have been much quicker) I took buses—if at all possible, the double-decker ones that went up and down on Fifth Avenue. Thus I prolonged my errands and did a lot of sightseeing, giving different excuses why it took me so long, to the increasing suspicion of my supervisor, the formidable Miss Zimmerman. (She did not like me in any case, among other reasons because I wasted time in the office by outrageously flirting with another recent immigrant, a pretty French typist by the name of Marthe. When I resigned in January, to go to college, Miss Zimmerman took me to the elevator and called after me “I am glad you are leaving!”). I most vividly recall, from my illicit rides on top of Fifth Avenue buses, how much I enjoyed the luxurious Christmas decorations, especially around Rockefeller Center. I also remember how friendly everyone was to me (with the exception of Miss Zimmerman), despite my decidedly lowly status. It also occurred to me that America was an essentially friendly place. Of course this was a rather limited view of the society. Yet, in retrospect, it caught an aspect of America that contains an important element of truth.
Europeans frequently complain that relationships in America tend to be superficial. People smile at you a lot, but supposedly there is “nothing underneath”. By contrast, Europeans are viewed as capable of forming deep, lifelong friendships. As with many stereotypes, there is some validity to these views. America has long been a commercial society, superficially amicable (potential customers all around), basically egalitarian (everyone’s money has the same color), and highly mobile (few relationships are portable across the vast spaces of a continent). The commercialism and the mobility of American society have certainly influenced the tone of everyday life. Yet this has not prevented individuals from forming strong friendships, which endure over time and despite long separations. It does not require advanced training in sociology to be able to distinguish the smile of a salesman or of a casual acquaintance on a bus from the smile of an old friend.
In my own experience Russia provides a sharp contrast to the easygoing friendliness of American life. The prevailing tone of ordinary interactions between strangers is surly if not hostile. I was under the impression that many people derive positive pleasure from being unhelpful. This may be a distorted view of the society, but it is confirmed by what Russians tend to say about themselves. If the view has validity, I don’t know if this cultural trait has deep roots in Russian history or whether it is the result of decades of dehumanizing Communist rule. But the same Russians will also tell you that the surliness is superficial, that it is only directed at people one does not know well. Underneath it throbs the profoundly human soul of old Russia. Supposedly, once Russians get to know you, they will embrace you, do anything for you, become your friends for ever. Maybe so. Nevertheless, I for one prefer superficial friendliness to superficial surliness. It makes ordinary life much easier, in between the relatively few situations in which individuals bare their souls to each other. After all, under modern conditions most interactions occur between strangers. And there is a subtle but quite important connection between civility and the decencies of a democratic society.