One way to celebrate a holiday is by condemning those who celebrate differently than you do. On Christmas day J and I drove Reggie and Melony the beagle into downtown Boston, where we left the car at a Back Bay parking meter and took a several-hour stroll down Boylston and Newbury Streets. J and I wanted to see the sights and snap photos; Reggie and Melony wanted to sniff and pee. To each her or his own, right?
No sooner did J and I pass Copley Square on Boylston Street than we encountered a slow-moving truck emblazoned with Christian condemnations. "Christians in the Bible never celebrated Christmas," block letters on the truck proclaimed. "How can you honor Jesus with lies about Santa Claus, flying reindeer, and drunken parties?" To drive the point home, this Hellfire-Mobile had a loudspeaker with which the driver preached his message of condemnation to passing pedestrians. Why greet random strangers with a friendly "Merry Christmas" when you can shout "You're going to hell" instead?
Christians in the Bible never drove trucks with loudspeakers and damning slogans stenciled on the sides. How can you honor Jesus with drive-by words of hate? J and I have been around separate segments of the evangelical block: whereas I was raised Catholic and was “born again” as a college undergraduate, J was raised Catholic and became a Baptist as an adult living and working in Georgia. Currently, neither one of us attends church, but we aren’t antithetical to Christianity, either; we just don’t drive around with Christian slogans emblazoned for all to see. If choosing to take a quiet walk with your dog and digicam constitutes a damnable offense–if what God wants His followers to do instead is drive around yelling at people–then I guess J and I should get ready for a warmer climate. Let it be done to me, Lord, as you say.
Luckily, not all of the characters J and I encountered on our Christmas dog-walk were as “colorful” as the Drive-by Christian. Instead, some of the most tolerant folks we encountered were themselves plastic.
One claim I often hear around the holidays–one shared by Christians and non- alike–is that Christmas is too commercial. I guess it’s fitting, then, that J and I spent a good part of our afternoon shooting dummies who were born to be shot: the empty-eyed mannequins who peer with aloof gazes through the reflective windows of the boutiques on Boston’s upscale Newbury Street.
If you’re looking for an embodiment of Everything Wrong with Commercialized Christmas, a Newbury Street mannequin would be a likely candidate. Empty-headed, a mannequin exists only to be an object of desire; displaying the wares of modern consumer culture, a mannequin is the poster-child of style over substance.
Mannequins, after all, are created to reflect what we as consumers presumably crave. According to mannequins, we prefer our icons skinny and bloodlessly white, their limbs inconceivably slender. Attenuation, it seems, is what catches our attention; judging from mannequins, we want to hang the clothes we seek from sleekly skeletal forms who are ghostly and ethereal.
Still, I can’t bring myself to dislike, much less condemn, the mannequins of Newbury Street. If we lived in a world where people bought only what they needed, families exchanged hand-made rather than store-bought gifts, and nothing was marketed, we’d certainly consume less…but where would we go window-shopping?
Just my fond memories of a Catholic childhood make it unnecessary for me to reject that part of my upbringing even if I don’t currently practice it, I harbor no ill will toward mannequins and the marketers who manage them. As a child, one of my favorite pre-holiday activities was leafing through the pages of department store catalogs, where I’d see all sorts of toys I’d dream of but never own. Why do we automatically assume that seeing an object of desire means we’ll necessarily acquire it?
Of the countless times I’ve gone window shopping on Newbury Street, I’ve actually bought things there only a handful of times and at a handful of stores. If anyone should be shouting condemnations here, these mannequins should ask me when I plan on paying them for the visual pleasure they have continually provided.
I have no doubt Christmas is too commercial…and yet, when I try to find flesh-and-body people to condemn for their overly consumerist ways, I can find no likely suspects. The flesh-and-blood people I know are simply trying to live their lives regardless of how “simple” I consider those lives to be.
Long before Christmas, an acquaintance privately criticized another who was buying a popular plastic toy for her son at a big-name toy store. “When my children were young,” my acquaintance explained, “I never shopped at Store X, and I certainly didn’t buy my children Toy Y.” Implied was an assumption that civilization is going to hell in a handbasket because some parents are buying brand-name toys like Barbies, Legos, and Transformers at big boxes like Toys R Us, Target, and Wal-Mart. If our children play with plastic toys bought from plastic stores, at what point will society itself become plastic?
And yet, I myself played with Barbies and Legos…and had Transformers existed and been on sale, Santa would have brought me those, too. Did my parents love me any less because they selected my mass-produced toys from the clearance tables at K-Mart? Is the world today cheaper, more disposable, and more materialistic because my blue-collar parents bought what they could afford where they could instead of giving me hand-made, free-traded, earthy-crunchy artisan wares bought from from independent sellers?
We live in a nation where you have the right to worship where you please or not at all, and you similarly have the right to proclaim your beliefs (religious or otherwise) from a slow-moving truck if you so please. To each her or his own, right? And yet, what troubled me about the acquaintance who prided herself for not buying Toy Y at Store X was her very pride: we each have the right to decide what, where, and whether we spend our cash, but isn’t it downright pharisaical to condemn another parent for her or his choices?
What bothers me about the “Christmas is too commercial” rant is how it, like a drive-by Christian’s sermon, is typically directed toward other folks. I can’t recall ever hearing a concerned citizen say “My family’s holiday is too commercial,” which is unusual considering the amount of credit card debt the “typical American” carries. Instead, the “Christmas is too commercial” spiel always seems to be directed toward other Americans, not me: the problem with society, this rant suggests, is that other parents are buying too many presents of the wrong kind from the wrong places. The source of this presumably pervasive problem, in other words, always seems to be that elusive wraith, Someone Else.
J and I didn’t set a price limit on the gifts we exchanged; we simply tried to find gifts we knew the other would like. For J’s birthday, I spent what some would deem Too Much on tickets to go to a New England Patriots game; for Christmas, J spent I-don’t-know-how-much to transform my dog into art. Was either gift Too Expensive, Too Commercial, Too Whatever?
In my mind, only J and I (and perhaps Jesus himself, if He’s keeping an eye on our checkbooks) can decide. As for me, I pay my credit card balances in full each month, but I love my friends who don’t; I occasionally shop at Target, Wal-Mart, and the like, but I love and respect those who choose otherwise. To each her or his own, right?
One way to celebrate a holiday is by condemning those who celebrate differently than you do, and the same applies to shopping. It’s easy to target the upscale shops of the world’s Newbury Streets as being the source of modern materialism; it’s easy to see and condemn folks who pay top dollar for designer clothes while the Politically Correct of the world choose overpriced organic veggies over name brands. When it comes to both shopping and salvation, maybe we all should see to our own souls rather than shouting about the sins of others. As the Bible itself teaches, it’s better to tend to the log in your own eye than sweating over the speck in another’s.