Christmas and the Catholic Consumer

This joyful season is a good time to reflect on the fact that the goal of Christian asceticism is not the renunciation of desire itself, but the reshaping of desire so that it seeks the true good in God and his will.

(Image: Ben White/Unsplash.com)

You are now in the Christmas season, a season that, like a Midwestern American visit, concludes in stages. “Well, it’s probably time we left you guys alone” is followed ten minutes later by, “We’ve got an early morning.” “We’d better be off” is fifteen minutes later and then—first standing in the living room, then crowded in the front hallway, and finally with the hosts hovering over the open window of your car—the goodbyes proper.

Christmas is an eight-day liturgical feast, ending with the octave. But, to paraphrase Churchill, that octave (the feast of Mary, Mother of God) is not the end, nor even really the beginning of the end. It is more like the end of the beginning, since after the octave we reach liturgical completion at the end of twelve days of Christmas, Epiphany or the Feast of the Magi. Or, rather, it ends seven days later on Epiphany’s octave, the Feast of the Baptism of Christ. Well, okay, even to say that is the end is a bit premature: the traditional end of Christmastide since the Middle Ages has always been on the Feast of the Presentation, often known as Candlemas, on February 2.

The delayed goodbye

I love this delayed goodbye to the wonder of the Nativity, and not merely because I am from the American Midwest. Perhaps it’s because I discovered it as an adult when I got married and took up my wife’s older Catholic traditions of bringing in the tree and decorating it on “Christmas Adam,” the day before Christmas Eve, and only having the presents appear mysteriously in the night after Midnight Mass. That tree does indeed last until Candlemas Eve, the traditional date of taking down Christmas decorations. Indeed, due to disorganization, my wife and I are even more Catholic than the medievals—we sometimes don’t get the things put away until even later.

Growing up Protestant, I operated on the Protestant/secular Christmas calendar, which begins the weekend after Thanksgiving when: Christmas trees and lights are put up; pop radio stations begin an endless loop of “Santa Baby,” “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You”; and “Black Friday” sales bring stampeding shoppers to the malls and now the internet. Though technically, commercially speaking, Christmas ornaments and knickknacks will have been on sale since before Halloween, August or September depending on the store. December, known as the “Christmas season,” brings approximately thirty-seven Christmas parties with enough granulated sugar, booze, and fruitcakes to make one’s New Year’s dieting resolution last until at least . . . January 3.

The end of Christmas is really somewhere in the vicinity of December 27, by which time most people will have been able to celebrate Christmas with all the branches of the family, including in-laws, step-family members, and even outlaws. For many, the trees will be out waiting for the recycler or trash no later than New Year’s Eve, though in northern climes the outdoor Christmas lights are allowed to stay because the sun is still going down at 4:40 PM. January itself is a holy season of college basketball and a kind of Lenten preparation for the great American sports-liturgical feast known as the Super Bowl. The importance of February 2 for most Americans has more to do with Groundhog Day, which has taken on (and I’m not entirely joking here) a kind of interreligious quasi-liturgical significance mostly revolving around the brilliant 1993 Harold Ramis film of the same name.

For most people, the Protestant/secular Christmas season, which effectively rules out any sort of season of Advent, does not lead to any great sense of happiness. Instead, Christmas is a season filled with sentimental childhood stories but also laments about “holiday blues,” stress, and overloaded schedules. Indeed, by the time Christmas day proper arrives, one already hears that people are sick of Christmas. One might observe that Thanksgiving’s belt-loosening feasting followed immediately by a month-long binge and a mad dash to buy presents for all those near, dear, and potentially useful to one does indeed make one sick of Christmas by the time it arrives.

It was this reality that prompted Mollie Hemingway, a journalist and Lutheran minister’s daughter, to declare in 2014 that repelling the oft-lamented “War on Christmas”—wherein the powers of business and state encourage or even force people to not use Christmas decorations, to substitute “happy holidays” for the more common greeting “Merry Christmas,” and to sing songs related to winter weather but not the religious meaning of the season—is really dependent upon fighting “the War on Advent.” The War on Advent essentially means the cultural imposition of the secular/Protestant Christmas calendar I highlighted above. Hemingway informs readers that Christmas parties during Advent are really bad, but if we persist in this practice, we should be mindful that many Christians have services on Wednesdays, “So pick a different day of the week for your glutton-fest during a time ostensibly set aside for fasting and prayer.”

Ms. Hemingway is no shrinking violet. And I agree with her entirely. But I think her connection between the War on Advent and the War on Christmas is not explained quite deeply enough, though she hints at it in the end of the essay when she asks if we “are all clear . . . that liturgical seasons are very cool ways to get the proper amount of preparation and contemplation before the big celebration?” 

Preparation and contemplation are indeed the ways in which we prepare for the big celebration, and it’s this lack—no doubt with an unhealthy helping of loneliness brought on by family fractures and social media addiction—that makes the widespread lack of joy during the time of joyeux Noel so prevalent. This is slightly different, but not unconnected to, the standard diagnosis of the liturgical seasonal sadness as being a matter of consumerism. “The fact is,” wrote Chitra Ramaswamy in a 2014 column in England’s Guardian newspaper, “while shoppers will on average spend around £350 on the big day, the most in Europe, we also tend to have the unhappiest children, the most out-of-whack work life/balance, and the most chronic levels of loneliness.” Due to loss of income, Ramaswamy was celebrating a “no-presents Christmas” for much of her family and was anxious to experience the “essential crapness” of Christmas that puts the focus back on the celebration as a family. No doubt there’s some truth to this idea that in having less stuff we might discover the gift of communion with the ones we love. But there’s something mechanical about this approach to consumerism that does not sit well.

I have never been fond of hearing anybody accused of “consumerism,” but not because I don’t believe that it exists or that people cannot be victims or perpetrators of it. Instead, it is that “consumerism” is a kind of two-fold problem: first, in that we usually attribute it to somebody else. “Why did he spend his money on that junk? He doesn’t need that. His things own him. My things, on the other hand. . .” But second, even when we do attribute it to ourselves, I think we usually define it in terms of the amount of possessions rather than the mode of holding them.

The nature of consumerism

There is a great deal of conceptual and spiritual clarity to be found on the problem of consumerism in The Cure for Consumerism, a short but powerful 2015 book by Fr. Gregory Jensen, an Orthodox priest and scholar in Wisconsin who combines insights from the Orthodox and Catholic Social Traditions (which often differ little anyway) in a vibrant and lucid manner.

Fr. Jensen begins his book with an anecdote from the Desert Fathers that brilliantly expresses the root of my two concerns about consumerism. A monk who had been a poor herdsman before his monastic calling was very surprised to find a brother monk “clothed in soft garments,” with clean feet and sandals, who slept on a fleece-covered mat and used a pillow. He even enjoyed a bit of wine with his meals! Shocked at this consumerist luxury, the herdsman-cum-monk leaves immediately. The second monk, however, calls him back and asks his story. After telling about his past as a village herdsman who usually slept on the cold ground, bathed in the river, and ate meals of “a little bread with salted fish” and a drink of water, he hears the luxurious monk declare that this was “severe hardship.” The luxurious monk’s past as a Roman elder had been a great deal more luxurious than at present. He had owned “great houses and much wealth,” dressed in fine clothes and gold, and had many servants “dancing attendance on him” and serving him luxurious food. As a monk, he now has only one servant, pours water on his feet instead of bathing, and prays at night instead of sinning to the music of flutes and lutes. He admits that he is a sinner and asks his brother monk not to be scandalized by his weakness.

The result is that the poor monk “came to himself,” reflecting: “Ah me! It was from much adversity in this world that I came to be comfortable; and what I lacked then I now possess. But you came from being very comfortable into affliction; you came from high honor and much wealth to lowliness and poverty” (1-3). The attribution of consumerism, or at least the vice of luxury, is easy to make when one does not know what the lives of others are like. Too much and too little are relative terms, especially when it comes to how possessions and buying affect persons.

And this brings us to the nature of consumerism. Jensen believes, “The moral question of consumption is not ‘how much’ we consume but to ‘what end our consumption serves. Is human consumption in the service of communion—the hallmark of which is beauty—or is it some other end? If the latter, then no matter how restrained, no matter how modest, no matter how financially equitable, or environmentally sensitive, it is immoral” (51-2). Of course, the action itself may be good or at least neutral in its object, but Jensen’s point is that God judges us based not merely on the objects of our acts, but on the intentions with which we perform them. And the point of all actions, consumption included, should be the service of communion, or love.

The confusion about consumerism as a “how much” question, in which the answer is almost always (at least for people other than oneself) “less,” is problematic in that it fails to deal adequately with the human heart. Ramaswamy’s cheap Christmas may have brought on deep familial communion, but it may not have. A Christmas filled with presents animated by love might do more insofar as the tradition of presents is meant to make us appreciate that God’s way of providing communion at Christmas was to provide himself in the soft and crinkly wrapping paper of baby skin (to speak poetically if not theologically correctly). Material poverty is no guarantee of the kind of spiritual poverty of spirit that rejects pride and welcomes everything as gift, as the poor monk suddenly realized. A person “should not imagine,” Jensen writes, “that my abstention is necessarily any morally better than your consumption; both are tainted by sin, even as both can be a source of goodness for self and others” (93).

The confusion is also problematic on the broader level in that it makes people think the solution to the world’s woes is an anti-development mentality that Fr. Jensen calls a “fake and counterfeit coinage” that has the “appearance of piety,” but lacks “the substance of real wisdom.” Saying that the problem with the world is too many goods and services is a mistake that is just as dangerous as applauding economic development in which actors violate “the gospel” or fail to “uphold basic human rights and decency (natural law)” (80). The idea behind such a mistake seems to be that if there is less stuff produced, then there will be less stuff consumed. Jensen notes that “while consumerism is a problem, curtailing consumption is not the solution because consumerism is only accidentally related to abundance or scarcity” (15). And the popular error of Ramaswamy of assuming that less stuff consumed equals less consumerism gets stretched out over millions of people. While simply having less stuff to consume does not mean an automatic decrease in consumerism, it does mean necessarily that there is less stuff to sell to or share with people who might have less than I do.

Market economies and asceticism

The proper approach to markets and development is therefore not condemnation but encouragement to use them in moral ways to create wealth that can be shared with the world. As Pope St. John Paul II observed in Centesimus Annus, while not every need of human beings can or will be fulfilled by markets, one of the great needs is for people to develop their gifts in order to enter the market and its “circle of exchange” (CA 34).

What, though, of the objection that market-based or “capitalist” economies rely upon ceaseless consumption and the creation of desire? That they are in essence driven by the reliance upon greed and unbalanced desire? Jensen quotes a mid-twentieth-century economist named Victor Lebow who contended that the “enormously productive” American economy of the 1950s “demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption” (82, emphasis in original). Such a consumption-centered economy demands, Lebow observed, not only the consumption of basic needs but also of “expensive” or superfluous items that are constantly replaced—either by new or different items of desire. This is close to what Pope Francis has referred to as a “throwaway culture.”

Jensen is more than willing to admit that market-based societies can be filled with greed and other imbalanced desires centered on things, but he is rightly skeptical that societies with socialist or pre-modern economies are somehow free from these motivations or even of these aspects of waste. After all, in a market-based economy, many things that would ordinarily end in a trash heap are able to be salvaged and sold to those who can use them. My 12-year-old son and his friend ride around the neighborhood collecting aluminum cans that have been pitched so that they can sell them to a private scrap dealer.

But even apart from the question of the throwaway culture, Jensen also sharply observes that much of the worry here, as with the developing world, is both mistaken and perhaps tainted by something that has less to do with principle than it does with social jockeying. What counts as an item of “expensive” or superfluous consumption often has less to do with whether it is truly necessary than with whether it signals being part of the right social classes. It is very easy to criticize as consumerist suckers the friends who spend a lot at Disneyland while applauding the friend who has a wonderful “experience” skiing in Aspen. Jensen says that “it is simplistic (and condescending) to assume that members of a particular social class are incapable of making their own decisions about what they value” (86).

But even if we could call a social or class truce on such questions, do market economies really run on consumption? Jensen is critical of both the critics and the defenders of market-based societies who argue or assume that they are fueled by vice while ignoring the fact that such economies prosper most when their actors think about how to meet the needs and wants of others by providing good products and services at reasonable prices. But I think Jensen could have spoken a bit stronger on this topic of consumption. After all, it is a kind of truism today that consumption is really what drives the economy. To the extent that there needs to be a lot of actual exchanges—buying and selling—going on for the circle of exchange that is a market economy to provide the goods, services, jobs, and returns on investment that create wealth for the world, then it is clear that consumption is a major part. But that consumption and the flow of money and goods is a sort of necessary condition for a thriving market economy does not mean that in absolute terms the more consumption the better the economy. After all, what makes for healthy development of an economy is not merely spending on goods, but also money that is put away for savings and investment in future companies, products, and services. Entrepreneurs famously live lives characterized not by consumption but by poverty due to their need to put away as much money as possible into the companies they are building. If there is a chaotically consumptive or “feasting” aspect to market-based economies, there is also an equally necessary self-denying and “fasting” aspect to them. Market economies, like the humans who inhabit them, ultimately require asceticism.

Asceticism, rather than a turn away from development either via socialism or some sort of nostalgic return to a pre-modern economy, is the answer Jensen proposes to the problem of consumerism at both the level of person and society. While many people associate asceticism with only the self-denying, fasting side of the ledger, Jensen describes it as an approach to life that encompasses both sides. “Asceticism is the practical knowledge that teaches me to act on my desires in a manner that fosters not only my own flourishing and growth in holiness but that of my neighbor” (9). While “material simplicity is often part of ascetical struggle,” it is “foundationally . . . about learning to sacrifice one’s self in love” (10). It is “simply living out the gospel in the context of the ebb and flow of daily life” (11). It is seeing, judging, and acting on our desires all viewed through the lens of the Cross on which Christ —himself accused of consumeristic eating and drinking—saved the world.

What does this mean? In his chapter titled “Shaping Desire,” Jensen takes the reader through a tour of the Orthodox ascetical tradition and its elements of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, labor, poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability. Catholic readers will recognize some of these as distinctly monastic. This is no accident. Jensen says that “some form of ‘monastic practices’ are at the heart of all Christian life and of our asceticism” (116). The point of ascetical practice is to defeat the imbalanced and passionate desires (what the Desert Fathers call the logismoi) that create anxiety in us and cause us to seek out idols that will satisfy us, whether in the marketplace or anywhere else. The goal of Christian asceticism, Orthodox or Catholic, is not the renunciation of desire itself, but the reshaping of desire so that it seeks the true good in God and his will. The virtue of poverty is not simply having little to nothing, but “my attitude toward my possessions and how I use them” (129). That attitude, no matter how indifferent to wealth it is, is itself incomplete without the proper intention. “Without obedience to the divine will neither poverty nor chastity is of any value” (131). And obedience to the divine will brings with it joy that drives away the anxiety that creates “holiday blues” and the “essential crapness” of Christmas.

A renewal of Christmas

Fr. Jensen’s short guidebook gives us more than just a general viewpoint. It also points the way toward a renewal of Christmas. If we are to make Christmas great again, and not just a burden to be cast to the curb on December 27, we really need to take seriously Mollie Hemingway’s resistance movement in the War on Advent. Paul Nizinskyj, a Catholic Londoner recently wrote an essay (Paul Nizinskyj, “Why I’m Doing the Eastern Nativity Fast,” Catholic Herald, October 22, 2018.) about why he has begun the Nativity Fast, common to both Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics, but now abandoned in the Latin Rite. The “fast” is not as rigorous as the Eastern Lenten fast, but is more rigorous than what most Catholics do during Lent. It involves abstinence from meat, fish, eggs, dairy, oil, and wine. Keeping this fast, Nijinskyj warns, “won’t keep those garish chocolates off the shelves but it just might help you avoid them—at least until Christmas!”

Not all will be up for the Nativity Fast; we Latin rite Catholics have become a bit spoiled. But perhaps as a start Catholic institutions could at least hold the line on Christmas celebrations in December. Most people are off work in the days after December 25 anyway. If the month of December were more reflective, less frenzied, and a lot less filled with sugary treats and alcohol, Christmas itself might be a bit more joyful. Such a course of action would not be an economic disaster, as people could still prepare for the feast itself by buying presents, those garish chocolates, and all the rest of the unnecessary and superfluous things that symbolize the theologically unnecessary and, we might say, superfluous gift of the Incarnation. Free from any external necessity, the one from all eternity came into time in order to make his habitation among men, live and die with and for them, and ultimately become the most expensive “luxury” item of consumption. The “single Truth” that is celebrated at Christmas—“That God was Man in Palestine/And lives to-day in Bread and Wine”—concerns the only “product” that not only fulfills but exceeds beyond all expectation the advertising preceding it. That product, properly “who” rather than “that,” is the one who said consummatum est and then bade us consume him to gain life everlasting.

(Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from the preface to the winter 2019 issue of Logos).


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About David Paul Deavel 23 Articles
David Paul Deavel is Editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and visiting assistant professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas.

3 Comments

  1. Wonderful piece that takes us off the well-worn path of the debate about “traditional” vs. “secular” Christmas celebration styles.

    There’s so much here to contemplate.

    One thought I have is to hope that one of Pope Bergoglio’s friends or family members bestows on him Fr. Jensen’s apparently highly insightful book, “The Cure For Consumerism.”

    Because in his innumerable nags about consumerism, Pope Bergoglio is clearly making the mistakes and assumptions that that Mr. Deavel describes Fr. Jensen as warning us against.

    Excellent article all around. One that I daresay we could all learn something from.

  2. Sherpa Throw was something out of my sphere of knowledge until a family, converts,dearest friends who adopted me now that family is gone. Tolkien had a message for us in the hobits obsession with presents. There is a truth unlikely fully perceived in giving at hardship gifts in the fleeting moment of Christmas. Author Deavel rightly stresses economic profit v liturgy. Although the divinity acknowledging our weakness per force moves us to share even if ambivalent. New York my home radicalizes in temperament showing unexpected warmth. A grace if only a reminder of our calling to gracious giving of self. As the coldest heart the most wicked cannot not comply to the miracle.

  3. I want to see a bumper sticker that reads: “If you want to keep Christ in Christmas, keep Christmas out of Advent.”

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