The Commercialization of Christmas



26, Dec 2016

Pope Francis went beyond the scripted Christmas message to express his disappointment in the materialism that has enslaved the spirit of Christmas. "This worldliness has taken Christmas hostage," he said lamenting the fact that people buy and expect expensive gifts even as the “hungry, the migrants and the war weary” await help. On Sunday, he called for abolition of terrorism and world peace and reminded Christians that Jesus himself was a migrant.

What did Pope Francis seek to convey?

On Saturday, the Pope said those who lived wealthy lives and all others need to understand that Christmas celebrates humility, simplicity and mystery.

  • He adhered to his image as a champion of the poor and said infant Jesus who is adored and worshipped must heighten our sensitivity to those who are suffering in today’s world, especially children.
  • On Sunday, he called upon the world to bear in mind immigrants, refugees and those who were victims of the economic instability that plagued a wealth-worshipping world.
  • He also offered a Christmas hope for peace in a world torn apart by war and terrorism. He directed this message mainly to the victims of war and conflict.
  • He urged immediate aid for the distressed in Aleppo, and appealed for an end to terrorism in Nigeria, armed conflict in Syria, and sorting out of tensions between Venezuelan government and opposition, and peace in Colombia.

Why does some part of this message resonate?

Debates on whether “Christmas is becoming too commercialized” and “whether we’ve forgotten its true meaning” have most people arguing that “Yes, both these things have happened”.

  • Those on this side of the debate point out that people have become too disgruntled, ungrateful and indulge in wastefulness almost as if it is a signature of their social prestige. In the era where only money makes the moments worth, the value of priceless treasures such as family warmth, perseverance and effort by parents to keep their children happy etc. is grossly relegated.
  • They also contend that obsessions with Santa and costlier gifts have extinguished the spirit of sharing. Moreover, the relatively well-placed are trapped in a cocooned world that only hails cut-throat competition and being part of the rat race one way or the other. This isolates us from the sufferings of those who struggle to even exist and renders us indifferent and apathetic to the sufferers.
  • British politician and former Home Secretary David Blunkett warned in 2013 that Christmas was fast turning into a season of ‘fairy lights, tinsel and extravagant presents’ and urged that people learn from a few exceptional persons such as Gloria Stewart, a 63-year-old woman from his Sheffield constituency who has gathered funds, food donations and volunteers to organize a lunch for lonely and destitute people every Christmas.

When do we appreciate the commitment of Francis?

Francis (born Jorge Mario Bergoglio) turned 80 on December 17, 2016 and is said to have celebrated the day in a low-key but energetic manner. David Willey, BBC Vatican correspondent observed, Pope's zeal for change remains undimmed as he reaches 80”.

  • At eighty, cardinals are declared ineligible to vote for the next Pope and most clerics are requested to resign from their committee. While Francis reportedly hinted his tenure may last only a little while longer, he seems determined to set the stage through reform for his successor and is keenly aware that this will take time and he wants to keep his job till then.
  • His chief aims – molding a new generation of church heads, appointing those cardinals and bishops who will carry forward his policy of creating “a church of the poor” – require lot of effort and time and so far Francis has appointed only one-third of the Electoral College members who are expected to choose his successor.
  • Despite age, Francis is said to hold on to his vitality and is almost always on the job, even during the Vatican’s lengthy summer holidays.
  • Strong criticisms from cardinals who find him out of touch with Catholic doctrine seem to have failed to perturb him and he claims he is “not losing sleep”. He is said to be direct in public and private. He is also known to prefer making spontaneous statements in his addresses rather than sticking to the script.

Excruciatingly slow reforms

  • His advisory council appointed apparently to circumvent the red tape complications that arise from the church headquarters has been faithful in meeting every three months but has largely failed to arrive at any radical decision.
  • The Vatican has been made to release its balance sheet and have its accounts professionally audited. Another committee to look into the long list of pedophile cases that have constantly plagued the Vatican and for preventing more predator priests from abusing children has been appointed.
  • The Vatican’s media operation is another of Francis’s projects aimed towards change.

Where did the Pope focus on refugees and immigrants?

On April 2016, he along with two other leaders visited Mòria camp in the island of Lesbos (Greece) to highlight the refugee issue. He returned along with 12 Syrians – including six children – who had been victims of conflict.

  • At that time when asked about Europe’s plan for tighter border controls and deportation of refugees back to Turkey, he appealed to Europe to make it easier for migrants to come, help them find jobs and make them a part of the community. He said while he was able to understand the fear of some governments and people, that definitely did not absolve them of the “responsibility of welcome”.
  • In his Christmas message on Sunday at St Peter’s Square, the Pope brought up Syria and said n“far too much blood has been spilled"n in the conflict which should end at once. He again spoke of the refugees forced to flee their hometowns, and was consistent with his message given out in the past year which has highlighted the importance of compassion to refugees and reminded Christians that Jesus himself was a migrant.

Who does excessive materialism ultimately affect?

  • Psychological research – usually studies in the West and specifically in US – repeatedly finds a relation between materialism and unhappiness. Studies in US also found that growing richer barely influenced the well-being and happiness of its citizens. Economist Tibor Scitovsky called this a “joyless economy” in which chasing comforts at the cost of pleasures becomes the norm.
  • Materialism was also found to positively correlate with depression, paranoia and other serious psychological problems.
  • As an article in The Guardian put it – materialism, a trait that can afflict both rich and poor is both socially destructive and self-destructive. The article quoted the conclusion of a series of studies published in the journal Motivation and Emotion in July which seemed to go a step further and suggest materialism as a causation of diminishing wellbeing (strong relationships, independence, aim) etc.

How is Christmas celebrated in Dakar?

Dakar, the capital of Senegal, a country in West Africa, is largely dominated by Muslims.

  • Come Christmas and the place takes on a festive look with decorated snowmen, Christmas trees with cotton snowballs, traditional masks covered in Christmas lights catching the eye and buoying the spirits.
  • Ciku Kimeria writes in Quartz: nThe other day I told someone here I love the religious tolerance in Senegal. They told me it’s not “religious tolerance” but “solidarity.” I love that.n
  • Despite the conservative societal beliefs and practices, Senegalese are known for their hospitability and respect for cultures that are in stark contrast to theirs. Kimeria writes, “In the streets of Dakar, you will see women in small shorts or mini-skirts alongside other women in Hijab. No one will bat an eyelid. Your way of life will be respected and in turn you should also respect their way of life.”
  • Their concept of sharing is highlighted during celebrations – a time for joy shared with one another. Muslim and Christian festivals are celebrated by all Senegalese people who at the core see themselves Senegalese before seeing themselves as Christians and Muslims.

If the world adopted an approach that mirrored Senegal’s as far as solidarity and celebration are concerned, every day would be a glorious day.

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Tags | Christmas Commercialisation materialism Pope Francis