Consumerism eclipses spirituality during holidays. It seems as though all religions suffer from the same materialism displacing faith. People want to express their love for family and friends, and the easiest, most expedient way to express love is to give gifts. Presents take less time and energy than presence. And, I must admit that I enjoy receiving gifts, especially when they are well-thought and personalized.
The science of marketing is more developed now than at any other time in human history. Using metadata, large retailers and information aggregators can tailor advertisements to a particular consumer’s tastes and weaknesses. Pricing algorithms change the visible price on an object in online retailers like Amazon. The price you see is slightly different from the price I see, and the price either one of us sees might be different the next time we click on the item. Doing an internet search yields advertisements for related products. All of these factors make it easier to sell products and more difficult for consumers to resist materialism.
The basic beliefs of most world religions are about inner peace, love, grace, and good will toward humanity. As a Christian, the Christmas story is essential because it sets the stage for the atoning crucifixion/resurrection story. Without Christmas, we do not have God-incarnate. God-incarnate (aka Jesus) is part of the Holy Trinity and foundational for Easter. Christmas is about God-at-work in conjunction with humanity.
Christmas is a time to reflect on God-incarnate. Basic Christian beliefs, like love and compassion, are embodied in an innkeeper finding space for a pregnant teen and her boyfriend, even though there is no space. Mary’s Magnificat is praise for God choosing us, lowly human beings, to be part of an amazing story. Shepherds were vagabonds in their milieu. None of the characters in the story were focused on material possessions or buying gifts to reflect their feelings for one another. Even the story of the magi is about gifts that have more symbolic significance than practical value.
How we express love for one another reflects what we think is important. Calling someone on the phone requires more engagement than texting or emailing. Comments on someone’s posts on social media (like Facebook) might seem personal, but they are public. Some people might comment with full awareness that everyone else can see their comments. This type of commenting become self-aggrandizing. A deeper expression of love or care for another person is spending time together, begin fully aware of the other, asking questions and listening to the answers.
The challenge in a consumeristic society is to be the person who offers presence instead of presents. Gift-giving can become an escalating arms race. One relative spends more, so, out of a sense of fairness, it is easy to feel pressure to reciprocate. Dialing down gift-giving can be like swimming upstream against ever-increasing spending. However, materialism does not reflect Christian values. It does not reflect the values of any of the world’s major religions, but I write as a Christian theologian. My hope is for the Christmas/Advent season to evolve to reflect faith beliefs, rather than conspicuous consumption.