Americans couldn’t wait until Black Friday to get their hands on cheap Christmas presents this year–they were already storming the nation’s big-box stores on Thanksgiving Day, even starting mass riots over the most coveted items. According to Lawrence S. Wittner, a professor of history emeritus at SUNY Albany, the United States is seeing the rapid development of a new religion: shopping. For ULC ministers, though, the season is about much more than getting the best deals on Blu-Ray players and video-game consoles; it is about recognizing the many traditions which make this time of year such a rich collection of festivities.
Consumerism is not a new thing, but as Wittner writes, it has become a chief aspect of holiday celebrations. In the past, he notes, Christians spent Advent largely in prayer and worship, but the latest Black Friday sale “provided the occasion not only for an orgy of consumer spending, but for ferocious action by screaming mobs of shoppers who engaged in mass riots in their desperate attempts to obtain a variety of products,” yet these shoppers were not poor, starving peasants—they were, as he states, “reasonably comfortable, middle-class Americans,” who simply wanted more. Of course, becoming ordained online does not mean denouncing the venerable tradition of the Christmas gift-giving, but it might mean casting a more critical light on our consumerist tendencies.
How do people cultivate a more venerable, less consumerist spirit of the season? For most Christians, 25 December marks the birth of Jesus Christ, the savior of humanity, whereas January 6 marks the event for many Armenian churches. Starting on 25 day of Kislev in the Hebrew calendar (variously, late November or December in the Gregorian calendar), Jews celebrate the re-dedication of the Temple of Jerusalem during the eight-day festival of Hannukah. While gift-giving remains a highlight of these festivities, observant Jews and Christians focus more on the abstract principles of charity, goodwill, and sacrifice marked by this time of year. Many who become a pastor in the ULC come from these traditions, but many do not.
The Christian tradition overlies more ancient customs which reflect the fundamental cycles of nature. It is widely believed the early Church co-opted the pagan holidays of Yule and Winter Solstice and turned them into the birthday of Jesus Christ, borrowing many pagan elements (wreaths, garlands, boughs, evergreen trees, lights, and yule logs) and incorporating them into the new, Christian festival. Yet the Solstice still marks the shortest day of the year, the banishment of shadow, and the invocation of light, which allows crops to grow once again. It is also a meaningful date for atheists and other secularists, who recognize the solstice as an important astronomical event affecting the seasons, weather, and climate. So, as ministers ordained online get caught up in the “holiday rush,” it pays to remember the season’s fundamental connection with nature.
Overcoming the insidious “spirit” of consumerism during the holidays can prove to be a daunting task, but doing so can provide a respite from the ubiquitous holiday shopping craze, helping to enrich the season with a more satisfying sense of meaning. It also means understanding that the middle and upper classes don’t need more gadgets and gizmos, and that the truly needy are those who go hungry while others crack open their new flat-screen TV sets. As a Universal Life Church pastor, how do you navigate the tumultuous obstacle course of the “shopping” season?