Tuesday, December 17, 2002

The Joy of Commerce

As anyone who has visited my apartment and seen my two Christmas trees can attest, I love this time of year. And why do I love it so much? Well, the decorations are pretty, and (some of) the music is nice, but what I really like is… the commercialism.

It probably sounds like I'm trying to be a contrarian, bucking the traditionalists who are fond of reminding us that "Jesus is the Reason for the Season" and that all this crass materialism degrades the holiday. But actually, despite my atheism, I think I'm the truer traditionalist here. As modern-day pagans and some very fundamentalist Christians love to remind us, the origins of Christmas stretch back to the ancient pagan rituals like Saturnalia and Alban Arthuan that were celebrated long before the time of Christ. But this point has been made so often that it's become hackneyed (just do a Google search on "Christmas origin pagan festival"), so let me try to say something slightly different.

The old pagan rituals were, for the most part, harvest festivals. They celebrated the abundance of the food available after the harvest. There was much feasting and gift-giving during this time of plenty. Even in years when the harvest was poor, the holiday was celebrated in the hope of a better harvest the next year -- and because, well, any harvest is better than no harvest at all. In modern times, of course, society is no longer focused on agriculture, so the "harvest" part of the story has naturally faded. But I think it can be interpreted more broadly to mean any abundance of material production. In the modern capitalist era, we celebrate the astounding harvest of goods and services that are available to us. In good years, we splurge with our Christmas bonuses. In not-so-good years, we still celebrate (if a bit more frugally) because we realize -- or at least we should realize -- that we still live in one of the most comfortable and abundant times and places in history. Throughout the ages, poverty has been the norm for the vast majority of people; in modern Western societies, poverty is the exception. That's something truly worth celebrating, even as we try to deal with the poverty that remains.

And that's why I love the commercialism of Christmas. Even when I see the bits of commercialism that irk me -- like those damnable dancing-singing Santas -- I rejoice that I live in a society that can afford such frivolities. Commercialism is the visible manifestation of commerce, the production and trade of goods and services. It is a reminder of how rich we are.

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