The Spirit of Christmas has been lost amidst religion, politics and financial gain

Christmas, at its roots, is a religious holiday, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. The religious connotations of the holiday are obvious, from the name itself being a shortened form of Christ’s Mass, to the numerous nativity scenes popping up in Indianapolis alone. However, a recent poll from the Pew Research Center indicates that most U.S. adults believe the religious side of Christmas is less prominent than in the past; and surprisingly, most Americans are not overly concerned about the religious decline of the Christmas season.

Graphic by Alissa Kennelly and Johana Rosendo

The Pew Research Center even notes that overall, most people don’t believe in the entire Christmas story. Increasingly, Christmas is becoming less a religious holiday and more a cultural holiday, associated more with presents and gift giving than with Bethlehem and the manger. This can largely be attributed to the secular commercialization of Christmas, or in layman’s terms, companies using the Christmas holiday for financial gain. What results is less focus on the initial religious aspects of the season and more on acquiring the latest and best products for close friends and family.

The commercialization of Christmas began in the 1800s. An article from Small Business Trends titled “How Did Christmas Become Commercialized?” recalls the story of Frank Winfield Woolworth, who was reputedly the first to bring Christmas tree ornaments from small town German cottages to the United States. He sold $25 worth of ornaments in two days. Nowadays, Christmas ornaments are a time-honored and almost sacred tradition. Woolworth’s Christmas ornaments provided a good springboard for the eventual Christmas commercialization we are so familiar with today. Coca Cola’s marketing campaign featuring Santa Claus in 1931 launched the nationwide fascination with the jolly red Christmas man. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer originated as a marketing campaign mascot for a department store. Remarkably, many of the most iconic legends of Christmas lore have originated in commercialization. Today, seemingly little has changed. Department stores began playing Christmas music right as Halloween ended, or even slightly before. A simple Google search will yield numerous compilations of some of the best Christmas-themed commercials.

With all this in mind, an ongoing debate on debate.org asks, “Is Christmas becoming too commercialized?” The overwhelming number of responses said: Yes, it has. Focusing on any holiday solely because of its materialistic value is inherently shallow. But many of the responses emphasized that Christmas should be focused instead on its religious aspects, as opposed to its rampant and pervasive commercialization. Numerous Christian articles indicate that the commercialization of Christmas can serve as an opportunity for evangelization, an opportunity to further the good news of Christ.

Christmas is a time expressly to celebrate and appreciate love.

But at what point does an evangelical opportunity begin to sound like the financial opportunities companies seek  during the holiday season? What separates the two once they each begin to push their own agendas?   

I wholeheartedly disagree with the rhetoric that Christmas should be associated only with religion, just as I disagree with society’s obsessively materialistic interpretation of the holiday. Throughout the years, Christmas has burgeoned from a celebration of Christ’s birth simply to a time to spend with family, friends and loved ones. It is a time of reconciliation and redemption, a time of coming together at the end of a long and strenuous year simply to be grateful for what we have and what we have yet to receive. To relegate Christmas to the box of religion is to see it for less than what it has become, and to relegate Christmas to the box of materialistic gain is to kill the spirit altogether.

The true danger lies in misinterpreting the holiday as one or the other: religion or commercialization. As most things do, Christmas has shifted and evolved, becoming an amalgam of holiday cheer, familial reunions and love. This is what Christmas should be about. Conservative commentators enjoy ranting about the “War on Christmas” or efforts seemingly to rid the Christmas season of its religious roots through phrases such as “happy holidays” as opposed to “Merry Christmas.” Those more liberal point out that the pervasive cult following surrounding Christmas oftentimes serves to erase other culture’s wintertime holidays.

All of these arguments ironically detract from the true purpose of Christmas by attempting to mold the holiday towards personal gain. Christmas has been commercialized certainly and argued about incessantly for sure, but what all of these arguments miss is the true meaning of the holiday. Very few of us have true control over the commercialization of Christmas, but we certainly have control over how we celebrate it. Christmas has long distanced itself from its initial religious origins, and must separate itself from its heightened commercialization to get to something so simple: Christmas is a time expressly to celebrate and appreciate love.