Complaints about Christmas commercialization get tiresome. Barrett Duke of the Southern Baptist D.C. office responds in a recent column with a robust defense of America's holiday, for all its faults.
Christmas helps to employ millions of people, in America and globally, about which upper crust critics of commercialization often forget or are indifferent. But "there is more upside to the commercialization of Christmas than that," Duke notes. "During Christmas, the Gospel message is plastered across America. The very word 'Christmas' reminds people of Jesus Christ. Clearly, they aren't getting the whole story, but it's better than nothing. It gives us a good starting place to talk about all that Christmas means."
Duke also cites the moral uplift and even evangelistic outreach of Christmas music, about which I was reminded earlier the other evening, sitting in a Chicago bakery, listening to "The Little Drummer Boy." And Duke commends the "mood-altering" atmospherics that emphasize generosity to friends and strangers. "At least for a while, there is a little more peace on earth in some people's lives and across the nation," he rightly observes. In our fallen world, such moments, even in passing, should be appreciated.
"I wouldn't give up the free press the Gospel gets, the Gospel seeds that are planted, or the spirit of goodwill that is generated as businesses compete for our dollars," Duke concludes. "I would rather join the Apostle Paul who declared, 'Whether in pretense or in truth Christ is proclaimed, and in this I rejoice.'"
The spread of Christmas globally, even in commercialized form, is mostly good news, not just for Christianity, but for economic and political gain especially among the poor and oppressed. Tyrants and kleptocrats fear Christmas as a subtle transcendent challenge to their own power. In recent years Christmas with all its commercialized paraphernalia has gained a following in China, where it still lacks official status. Mao Zedong and his Communist Gestapo likely never dreamed, as they shut down the churches and chased off the missionaries, that Christmas lights and trees would one day festoon many Chinese cities.
As noted in the Atlantic last year in a piece by Helen Gao, some Chinese communists and intellectuals still resent Christmas:
There is one thing that China's Christmas and America's have in common: both are widely lamented as over-commercialized. While some in America fight to resurface the holiday's spiritual significance, Christmas-bashers in China warn against allowing Western culture to contaminate Chinese civilization. Shortly before Christmas in 2006, ten post-doctoral students from Peking University, Tsinghua University, and other elite colleges penned an open letter asking Chinese people to boycott Christmas and resist the invasion of "western soft power." They warned, "[Christmas celebrators in China] are doing what western missionaries dreamed to do but didn't succeed in doing 100 years ago." The letter added, "Chinese people need to treat Christmas cautiously, and support the dominance of our own culture."
Christmas, even in diluted, commercialized form, proclaims a liberating, universal message that is subversive for many. The market economies that facilitate it lift up the once poor and challenge the status quo, which both Chinese communists and snooty American critics often resent. I was in New York last week, in all its stunning Christmas glory. Manhattan was aglow and bustling. I heard a Christian speaker lament how Manhattan had become a huge shopping mall, compared to the gritty edginess of past decades. He almost seemed nostalgic for the crime, squalor, and filth that characterized New York in the 1970s. I bet few actual New York residents feel the same way. They seem to prefer the restaurants and shopping of today compared to the muggings and red light districts of then.
My taxi driver to Union Station in Washington, D.C. was 78 years old and driving a cab in D.C. since 1954. As we approached the terminal, beautifully decorated for Christmas, he recalled coming from a farm in then harshly segregated South Carolina. The nation's capital itself was only desegregated in 1953. He and his brothers now own homes in D.C. worth about $600,000 each, thanks to the enriching gentrification of D.C., similar to much of New York. Likely his father, who worked at a mill and died young, never envisioned his sons owning half million dollar houses within miles of the White House and U.S. Capitol.
Commercialization, even of Christmas, can be good news for many, especially those who need it most. The Baby at Bethlehem came to bring salvation and redemption from sin. But He also brought life more abundant for the impoverished and oppressed. His Church is growing exponentially around the world in places lie China. And that growth is accompanied by and is itself encouraging prosperity through market economies rescuing hundreds of millions from chronic poverty, creating a vast new middle class. This economic miracle is not the Good News, but it is certainly important good news, for which at Christmas time we can be most grateful.