Compassion, Christianity or Consumerism? The True Meaning of Christmas
Cortland Pfeffer & Irwin Ozborne, Contributors
Christmas has become symbolic of all that is wrong with our society. Much like the Grinch, whose heart was three sizes too small; our hearts have diminished in size due to the culture of fear, conformity, and consumerism in which we reside. As a result, we have lost sight of the true meaning of Christmas, and celebrate it in ways that are in direct opposition to its original intent.
This year, on Black Friday, I was reminded about the true meaning of Christmas. I choose not to celebrate Thanksgiving, but rather honor the Day of Mourning for our Native American brothers and sisters. I surrounded myself in nature and spent time at a cabin in small-town Western Wisconsin. The sights and sounds were serene. It was a true “silent” and “holy” night with no one around, yet I was far from being alone as I was immersed in the thriving and picturesque landscape provided by mother earth. And it was there, at the local gas station, that I re-discovered what the meaning of Christmas is really about.
Black Friday has become as much a part of the holiday season in the United States as Thanksgiving and Christmas. Families anxiously await the moment the retail stores open for those extraordinary deals, and quickly abandon their feelings of gratitude and “thanks” by indulging in competition and materialism, literally rioting, fighting with strangers for bargains as though we were fighting for our survival. Any sense of gratitude we may have tapped into are quickly banished, and consumerism takes hold once again.
I find it ironic that we published an article about the foundations of Thanksgiving last month —Celebrating Genocide: The Real Story of Thanksgiving — and were slammed by many readers for “ruining Thanksgiving”. We were told that it’s not a celebration of the dispossession of the American Indians, but that “the meaning has changed and it is about being thankful and having gratitude.” But, while this sounds good in theory, it is not practiced. And how could it be? As a nation, we have not collectively acknowledged our nation’s bloody past, much less healed the trauma it inflicted. Instead, we celebrate all that we have but ignore the genocide it took to get it. And so, the day before Thanksgiving is the second biggest drunken night of the year in America – behind only New Year’s Eve. We have a meal together and give thanks, but cannot even last a full 24 hours of gratitude before reverting to type, as Black Friday deals now start at 7:00 p.m. or earlier on Thursday, the “Day of Thanksgiving.”
It’s hard for me to buy into the concept of a day of gratitude when it starts with a hangover and, before it even ends, we ditch our families to wrestle with over others for materialistic ends. It leads to fights, people being trampled, arrests, and even a few deaths, all in an effort to purchase “things” to provide for our families for Christmas.
This is what Christmas has become; a season of shopping, not the season of giving. It is about money, consumerism, and materialism.
The Season of Giving
The United States retail industry generated over three trillion dollars during the holidays in 2013, with the average person spending about $750 on the holiday. Additionally, 33 million evergreen conifers are purchased each year, at around $35 each, for a market of $1.16 billion in Christmas tree sales.
It is estimated by a United Nations world hunger project that it would cost approximately $30 billion per year to end world hunger. Think about that. It would take only $30 billion per year to end world hunger, and yet, through the season of giving, Americans will spend $465 billion on our own material gratification, most of which is disposable and dispensable. This is not suggesting to abolish Christmas altogether, but if every U.S. household reduced their Christmas budget by only thirty-percent and contributed that money to impoverished communities, we would meet the forecast amount to end world hunger.
Wouldn’t that make a better gift? Wouldn’t that make for a better Christmas story, if all the resources in the world were utilized to making a better life for everyone rather than benefiting the few? Isn’t that what Christmas is about?
In fact, this is how the original story of Santa Claus arose. St. Nicholas was a monk born in the third century. He lived near modern-day Turkey and was admired for his kindness, compassion and generosity. Legends suggest that St. Nicholas gave away all of his wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick. Over the years, we have created a mythical creature to symbolize this monk — Santa Claus. But, instead of going around and donating his wealth to the poor, our modern-day Santa Claus runs a foreign sweatshop that works around the clock to deliver material items to the world’s richest nations.
Living in a Material World
As a child, I remember this holiday used to be about sharing love, giving, and caring for one another. I have seen this idea evaporate as the years have passed, and I refuse to further participate in this distortion. So, this Black Friday, while millions were out searching for bargains, I found my own bargain – peace and tranquility, for free.
I find the word “bargain” quite ironic when talking about retail prices. One must realize that these really are not the great deals that are advertised; the standard retail markup is astronomical, and much of the goods sold on Black Friday are produced and priced specifically for these “sales”. Many United States corporations employ workers in sweatshops in countries like Bangladesh, India, China, Haiti, etc., paying far below minimum wages to people working in deplorable working conditions – typically 14-16 hours per day for seven days per week. It costs pennies to make these products, which attract massive markups that provide enormous profits for these corporations and their CEOs.
Here are the top ten annual salaries paid to the CEOs of retail corporations in the United States (as of 2013):
- Michael Jeffries, Abercrombie and Fitch: $48,069,473
- Gregg Steinhafel, Target: $19,707,107
- Leslie Wexner, Limited Brands: $19,230,484
- Michael Duke, Walmart Stores: $18,131,738
- Paul Marciano, Guess: $14,399,134
- Terry Lundgren, Macy’s: $13,840,531
- Michael Balmuth, Ross Stores: $12,478,239
- Gregory Wasson, Walgreens: $12,041,058
- David Dillon, Kroger: $12,024,543
- Steven Fishman, Big Lots: $11,924,662
The total? Over $180 million paid to just 10 retail executives.
Don’t kid yourself into thinking retailers are taking a loss on Black Friday sales — it is their most profitable day of the year.
The Symbolism of Modern Christmas
Christmas is not a complete lie, we just need to understand that it has to do with symbolism. Santa Claus no longer has anything to do with St. Nicholas or helping the sick and needy. Santa Claus now represents the fat and jolly CEOs distributing merchandise around the world. The elves symbolize submissive sweatshop workers that get paid next to nothing, to provide your annual haul of material possessions. (Perhaps the reason they are so small in stature is because they represent the 10 year olds working 16 hours per day to provide wealth for their respective Santa Claus.)
Then, we tell children Santa delivers only to the “good” girls and boys, creating further separation. Again, it is symbolic — in actuality, only those children who have money and wealth receive gifts. How do you explain to a child in poverty that he did not get gift this year? By this mythical logic, poor children learn that they are “bad” children because Santa did not bring him gifts.
This tale of Christmas we share is a stark contrast to the true story of St. Nicholas. The real St. Nicholas was a kind, charitable bishop who made sacrifices to help those in need. Today, Christmas is a celebration that revolves around fulfilling greed, not need, at the expense of the poor.
The problem of sweatshop labor sporadically pops up in the news, but it has never gone away; we just selectively decide when we want to pay attention. It was all over the news in the 1990s with Nike and Gap found to have 10-13 year old kids working as slave in their sweatshops, earning those companies record profits. Every few years, there is a story on the slave labor that produces the clothes we wear. Then the corporation tells us they have looked into things and have made changes. Yet, just a few years ago a factory collapsed in Bangladesh killing thousands of people and we come to find that Walmart, Gap, Target, etc. were all having clothing made at these factories. If that had happened in the West, what kind of furor would have followed? But the public outrage over the torturous conditions it takes to make our consumer goods is quickly forgotten once we see the “great deals” on Black Friday and begin preparing for another Christmas consumer-fest. We forget what is real and important, and revert instead to societal patterns, consuming faster than any nation on earth, just because “Christmas time is here again.”
How did we get here? Through mass marketing schemes and the manipulation of human nature. We are collectively a group of people watching television, listening to the radio or surfing the internet, and the marketers simply pay money for air time — time in our minds — to tell people (particularly children) what they “need”. In true marketing fashion, the message they convey is: You’re not okay, but once you have these items, then you will be okay. It is based on fear, simultaneously creating a sense of lack in consumers and providing a way to temporarily ‘fill’ it.
A quote from Marilyn Manson says it all:
[T]he media wants to take it and spin it, and turn it into fear, because then you’re watching television, you’re watching the news, you’re being pumped full of fear, there’s floods, there’s AIDS, there’s murder, cut to commercial, “buy the Acura”, “buy the Colgate”, if you have bad breath they’re not going to talk to you, if you have pimples, the girl’s not going to f**k you… It’s just this campaign of fear, and consumption, and that’s what I think it’s all based on, the whole idea of ‘keep everyone afraid, and they’ll consume’.
The Christian Connection
The real genius-work behind this big façade is the connection between Christmas and Christianity. This too, stems from fear. We remind our children all year that if you are good then you will spend eternity in the clouds with a God, a nice old man who knows all, sees all and judges all… Or, if you are bad, you will burn in a pit of fire with a horrid man with horns. This patriarchal symbolism is then extended at Christmas time, when children are told that if they are good, a magical man from the North Pole who, just like God already knows if you’ve been “naughty or nice”, will deliver presents to them, rewarding their conformity to increasingly out-of-touch religious standards.
We instill this relationship between God, kindness and consumption into our children’s minds when they are impressionable — at a time in their development in which they believe it is true —with lasting impacts on their perception of the world.
Then, we plop our kids on Santa’s lap to place an order, listing out all of the things they want, then send them to school where they learn that those who do not participate in this ritual will not receive presents — and they become the social outcasts each December. After all, only “bad” kids don’t receive a visit from Santa Claus! When all is said and done, unspoken pressure to adapt to the model of goodness=gifts is put on children by television and media, by their parents and their society, and is subsequently reinforced by their peers — a cycle that now continues from generation to generation in an increasingly materialistic society.
I’m all for bringing joy and wonder to the lives of children, but is this really the only way we know to do it?
And all this in a so called “Christian nation.” Speak to any Christian at Christmas time and they will say, “What? You don’t believe in Jesus? You don’t want to celebrate this man who preached love and acceptance?”
The bastardized Christian interpretation of “God” and the son “He” sacrificed due to our inherently “sinful” nature, has manipulated generations of humanity — and it is the foundation of this day’s celebrations. Love and acceptance are not what Christmas is about today, nor is it the function of organized religion in our modern world.
The father-figure God is dead. He has to be, in order for us to move forward. This interpretation of God has done more harm than good. It is a fairy tale that causes fear in children, has caused countless wars to be fought, and has caused many folks to keep secrets in shame rather than live their lives openly, as they are (religious intolerance of divorce and homosexuality are prime examples).
As George Carline once eloquently stated:
“Religion easily has the greatest bullshit story ever told. Think about it, religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man… living in the sky… who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a list of ten special things that he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish where he will send to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time… but he loves you… He loves you and he needs money. He always needs money! He is all powerful, all perfect, all knowing, and all wise. Somehow he just can’t handle money! Religions take in billions of dollars, they pay no taxes, and they always need a little more.”
Many of the patrons inside the church that stand so faithfully behind their doctrines of unconditional love and kindness, are the same ones who walk out the church and instantly abandon these teachings; the same people who use religious scripture as leverage to judge, condemning others in the name of “the Lord”; the same people who complain about the poor receiving “handouts” while building million dollar churches that don’t pay a dime in taxes, while the poor go on without food or shelter. Several religious pastors have proven this hypocrisy among their own congregations…
In June of 2013, newly appointed pastor of Sango United Methodist Church in Clarksville, Tennessee, reverend Willie Lyle spent four days disguised as a homeless man living on the streets. He wanted to see what it was like to truly live without anything and see who would offer food and assistance. Then, he transformed back into the role as pastor to address his the congregation:
“Too many of us want to serve God one hour each week. That doesn’t cut it. That is not God’s plan.”
Similarly, in November of 2013, Mormon bishop David Musselman posed as a homeless man outside a Taylorsville, Utah church one Sunday morning. At least five people asked him to leave the church property, some offered money but engaged him only as a charity case (not a fellow human being), and many were completely indifferent to his presence. He addressed the congregation, reminding them not to be so quick to judge one another.
“Many actually went out of their way to purposely ignore me, and they wouldn’t even make eye contact,” he said, “I’d approach them and say, ‘Happy Thanksgiving.’ Many of them I wouldn’t ask for any food or any kind of money, and their inability to even acknowledge me was very surprising.”
Spending my Black Friday in this small town, it occurred to me how I am forced to conform. Regardless of my beliefs, it is impossible for me to neglect Christmas; for if I were to not purchase my children presents then they would feel that I do not love them. I was really conflicted with this scenario as I pulled up to the gas station and noticed a woman struggling to carry a few turkeys and other groceries in a pull cart. It allowed me to reflect on some of my religious upbringings from the past. While people literally would put on their “Sunday Best” before walking into church to bow, chant, hug, and love each other, we were really just putting on an show for each other. We all put on our masks and went through the routines of Christianity, dressed up to the nines and all on our best behavior. But, once we walk out of the church, if we were to see a woman such as this, would we help her? Generally not. We would be encouraged not to do anything, because they were likely to scam us out of money, or harm us, and her struggle is her problem, not mine.
This is how extreme our society has become. We don’t consider the problems (or successes) of others to be our problem, and are afraid to actually stop and help a stranger, in fact the very word “stranger” has become loaded with assumptions of “danger” — something we teach our children from the youngest of ages. As a result, we are guided by fear rather than love, living in separation instead of our natural instinctual reaction — to connect.
This is where spirituality differs from religion. Spirituality is about finding a connection to the world both inside and outside of ourselves, finding a sense of purpose and meaning, and living in harmony with the present moment and our surroundings. Spirituality teaches us that we are all one, interconnected expression of life, and that at our true core, there is only unconditional love.
Religion was initially based on human spirituality, but it has steered it toward rules, judgement and separation. It is meant to offer all of the above. In fact, if you look into the basic teachings at the foundation of all religions, you will find this exact same message. However, as these messages have been misinterpreted and misappropriated throughout the years, we have slowly come to accept the opposite message of religious institutions. They create separation and judgment, of each other and of our own fundamental nature, which is the opposite of its intent – much like Christmas.
As explained by Don Migeul Ruiz:
There is an old story from India about the God, Brahma, who was alone. Nothing existed but Brahma, and he was completely bored. Brahma decided to play a game, but there was no one to play the game with. So he created a beautiful goddess, Maya, just for the purpose of having fun. Once Maya existed and Brahma told her the purpose of her existence, she said, “Okay, let’s play the most wonderful game, but you do what I tell you to do.” Brahma agreed and following Maya’s instructions, he created the whole universe, the sun and the stars, the moon and the planets. He created life on earth: the animals, the oceans, the atmosphere, everything.
Maya said, “How beautiful is this world of illusion you created. Now I want you to create an animal that is so intelligent and aware that it can appreciate your own creation.” Finally Brahma created humans, and after he finished the creation, he asked Maya when the game was going to start.
“We will start right now,” she said. She took Brahma and cut him into thousands of teeny, tiny pieces. She put a piece inside every human and said, “Now the game begins! I am going to make you forget what you are, and you are going to try and find yourself!” Maya created the Dream and still, even today, Brahma is trying to remember who he is. When you awake from the Dream, you become Brahma again and reclaim your divinity. You now know the trick of Maya and can share the truth with others who are going to wake up too.
This story explains how we are to find ourselves, and find God, in every person we encounter. We don’t do this buy purchasing items at a store, or showing our goodwill for a few designated days of the year, but by helping those in need and showing unconditional love to each soul we encounter, every day of the year. Especially those who need our love — not our judgment — the most.
As all these thoughts were going through my mind, my friend came out of the store and started speaking with the elderly woman. As they continued to chat, I got out of the car to see what was going on. As I approached them, I noticed the woman’s wheel on her pull cart was missing. “We are giving her a ride home,” my friend told me without asking. She never hesitated, she saw an opportunity and did the right thing without thinking or judging. We packed her bags into the car and drove her about another mile to her house. It was a very cold day and her bags were awfully heavy. There is no way she would have been able to make it that far on her own. Many people saw her, but no one did anything — all because of fear and the sense of separation it creates.
I was overcome with emotion, and was told by my friend not to talk about it. She said “that is just what we should do, so I do it.” I thought that is so true and so simple. We should do what we should do. Yet, no one seems to do this — and I am not excluding myself! It is a social conditioning I am working to deconstruct even to this day. But it reminded me of the difference between being guided by fear, not love. As John Lennon said:
“There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance. We need to learn to love ourselves first, in all our glory and our imperfections. If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others or our potential to create. Evolution and all hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.”
This is the real meaning of life. This is the real meaning of Christmas. To help, to give, to be with others and to love unconditionally. It doesn’t have to be some big act.
“People who move mountains begin by carrying away small stones.”
Christmas — and life — is about helping the lady struggling with her groceries. It is about loving each other on a daily basis. It is about calling your parents, family, and friends and just being there for anyone and everyone. If we treated everyone like they were a piece of God, not just there to be judged by God, then maybe then we would behave differently.
It doesn’t matter what we call our God, it is all the same. It is similar to the story of nine blind men that were all reaching out and touching an elephant. Each of the men were touching a different part of the elephant and describing what they felt. One is touching the elephant’s leg and says “it is a tree”; another is touching its tail and says “it is a rope”; another is touching its trunk and says “it is a snake”; another it touching a tusk and says “It is a spear”; another is touching its body and says “it is a wall”. However, they are all touching the same elephant. Imagine if they all fought and killed each other over this argument. How ridiculous that would be? They are all blind, and they are all correct. They are merely fighting over their perspective — the same way humanity fights wars over who is right about religion. Is it possible we are all right? And we are all wrong? The foundational stories and principles of religions can all be boiled down to a mutual essence that reveals their common origins. And although people frequently get caught up with the literal differences, their central tenets are proof that – despite varying ‘faiths’ – we are more alike than we are different.
And yet, we are told we need “this” God or “that” God in our lives to survive. In reality, the opposite is true. For it is these perceptions of God, and our attempts to define God, that are leading us to kill each other, to undervalue our divinity and that of others, to destroy the world that supports us for short-term comforts, and to celebrate the holidays with a festival of gross over-consumption. In order to survive, we need to remove the mask of God and remove the mask of Christmas, and return to its natural foundation. As author Jack Adam Weber succinctly described:
Christmas marks the return of the sun after the winter solstice — the resurrection of light and the perseverance of unconditional love (symbolized by birth of Jesus) which nature manifests each year in the new life and returning warmth of springtime, from the desolate depths of winter.
In order to save Christmas, let us celebrate the unconditional love of the cycle of life itself, which renews itself at this time each year.
While the children’s story claims the Grinch stole Christmas, it is clear he did the opposite. He saw the true meaning of Christmas and put an end to the charade. While his means were extreme, by stealing all the presents he learned that the real meaning of Christmas had nothing to do with exchanging gifts, but exchanging love.
In this story, the Grinch was not the bad guy, he was a catalyst. He was a revolutionary but was misguided with fear, which led to his extreme actions. But the mindset he confronted was actually the problem. Once all the gifts were gone, the masks were removed, the focus on consumption and acquisition shifted, everyone lived together in harmony.
In the real world, Wall Street, organized religions, media, corporations, and the governments that serve them, have “stolen” Christmas by hijacking the holiday and changing its meaning. Originally a celebration of St. Nicholas who gave up all material wealth to help those in need, the title was co-opted and its meaning slowly turned into a festival of greed, consumerism and patriarchal judgement. Today, only the name remains.
While the story of the Grinch is fictional, its lesson is real. In order to heal, and make Christmas a sustainable part of our culture, we must change the way we celebrate it. Let’s each of us be that Grinch, and take consumerism out of the Christmas mythology. Let’s steal back this holiday and remember its true meaning — a celebration of life.