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First sighting

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 28, 2009

 Today-- that's September 28, for the record-- I saw my first front-page reference to this year's Christmas shopping season. Can anyone beat that? 

Or perhaps, in keeping with the totally secular spirit of the thing, I should refer to the Xmas shopping season, since this phenomenon has nothing to do with the birth of Christ. 

Time was when the Xmas decorations went up right after Thanksgiving. Then it was after Halloween. Now, what: after Labor Day? And with the decorations come the hype and the commercial worries. Will the shopping season be a success? Will a sufficient quantity of money change hands to prop up the GNP? The economy is still struggling; we need a big Xmas boost to give the recovery some traction.

This is insanity, of a sort that comes only after several preparatory steps. First you slur a word, a "holy day" becomes a "holiday," and in the process you neglect the event that makes the day holy. Then, having stripped the holiday of its joyful meaning, you promote an artificial excitement, a fragile and fleeting euphoria. Everyone is excited and happy around Xmas time because-- well, because they're supposed to be excited and happy. If they catch themselves not feeling excited and happy they become profoundly depressed, wondering what's wrong with them. So when the big build-up ends-- on Xmas Day itself-- millions of Americans suffer from depression, realizing that the glitter and the gifts haven't given them that inner glow they were longing for. Now it's all over and they're thrown back on their own resources. The commercial world can offer no more help, no more stimulants to keep the party going.

Again, this Xmas holiday has nothing to do with the Christmas holy day, except that they fall on the same day. (And at that, the Christian celebration begins on December 25, which is when the secular observance ends.) You could even say that the secular celebration is a complete inversion of the Christian celebration. All during Advent we are reminded that, yes, there is a void in our lives, but we aren't left to our own devices. Help is on the way; Jesus is coming to fill that void. Then on Christmas Day we begin basking in the glow that comes not so much from within ourselves as from Bethlehem, knowing that the help-- more help than we deserve, more help than we need-- has arrived. We can relax and rejoice. Meanwhile our secularized neighbors, having distracted themselves with frenetic activity for a month (2 months? 3 months and counting?), are left to contemplate that aching void. 

The Xmas shopping season is dysfunctional, then. And since the American economy is largely dependent upon that shopping spree, it's not too long a stride to conclude that there's something seriously dysfunctional about our economy as well. Last year's meltdown of the financial industry offered more evidence to support that same conclusion.

In Caritas in Veritate, Pope explained the problem. No matter how powerful it grows, and how much money is involved, an economic system will begin to falter, and ultimately to sabotage itself, if it fails to serve man's authentic needs-- including spiritual needs. The Xmas shopping season will not prop up a staggering economy because, in the end, Xmas does not prop up the human spirit. But Christmas does. 

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