KRIS KRINGLE: That’s what I’ve been fighting against for years…the way they commercialize Christmas.
ALFRED: A lot of bad “isms” floating around this world…but one of the worst is commercialism.
-Miracle on 34th Street
We’re within a month of Christmas now and it’s difficult not to feel a bit religious. When I was a child attending Mass, I always looked forward to the beginning of the Advent season. The words of the advent readings, the hermit John the Baptist, filled my seven year-old’s heart with a feeling of purpose and optimism. Each week, one more advent candle illuminated the wreath on our dining room table. The rituals of the season—White Christmas playing on the television, choirs of red-nosed carolers in the hospitals—evoked a feeling of timelessness. Even my parents, who had been through so many of these seasons, spent hours at night watching the lights of the Christmas tree reflect swirling patterns against the windows of the living room.
In my memory, every Christmas was perfect. And yet, even then, it was practically a truism that Christmas had become a materialist binge. In Catholic school, teachers passed out pencils emblazoned with the words “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.” Mothers and Fathers of all political stripes cautioned their children not to forget the joy of generosity, of homemade cards and popsicle-stick ornaments. Now “Occupiers” have camped outside the national temples of greed—WalMart, Best Buy and their ilk—to remind shoppers that capitalism and Christmas needn’t go together. Everyone has agreed for decades that the shopping, the money-grubbing, the gluttonous excess of the holiday is at best absurd, and at worst, dangerous.
But still the shopping continues. The beauty of Christmas lies in rituals—the advent wreath, the Christmas tree—and somehow the ritual of amassing credit card debt has taken on more beauty than all the others. I suppose it’s easy to judge the shoppers crowding Target on Black Friday’s Eve. Surely we’d like to imagine we’re all above the outright crassness of the crowds pushing for entry at midnight. But, I can imagine, after a long year of working fourteen-hour days, making less money and seeing your children less than ever before, that the thrill of Christmas shopping lies in knowing you have something tangible to give. You may have to work in the morning. You may not ever have time for making popsicle-stick ornaments. But when you have stomped through the anxious-eyed crowds, pushed and pepper-sprayed your way through the melee, and you finally hold the one present your child most wanted, you can finally relax. “See. I am still a good parent. I am still worthy of my child’s love. I battled dragons to get this toy. No one can say I failed.” The triumph of carting that toy to the checkout line may be the only triumph you’ve felt in weeks. And surely you can carry the weight of your credit card bill just a little while longer—long enough, at least, to wrap this toy and put it under the tree.
We’re all a part of it. I can remember that part of my childhood Christmases as well—peeking up at my parents through a big stack of presents. And I’m no scrooge. I would never argue that we shouldn’t give gifts to the people we love. But there is undeniably something wrong with a society where our experience of the sacred is reckoned in currency. For instance, a couple months ago, on our honeymoon, Jim and I found ourselves in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, known as the Sacre Coeur. I had a vague memory of visiting the Basilica nearly a decade ago and feeling profoundly moved as I sat among the empty pews, and so I was drawn to visit it again. But, as I led Jim through the grand entrance—conscious, as a former Catholic School kid, of the literal threshold between the profane world without and the sacred world within—I realized that this visit would be very different.
It was late afternoon, nearly dark. Flickering candles illuminated the small chapels rounding the circumference of the church. That much was the same. But as we walked over to one of the chapel alcoves and stood under the peaceful face of the Saint, we were accompanied by a constant clanging noise. We looked around us, checking to see if the door had been left ajar, but the problem wasn’t outside. The clamor came from within the church. To the left of the altar, behind the thick wall delineating the choir, were five illuminated machines; in front of them, a small queue of people. The clanging continued. “What in the hell is this,” I murmured to Jim, beyond worry about my small blasphemies. And then the recognition dawned on both of us. Medallion machines. A staple of hot tourism spots in France. Place a two euro coin in the top of the machine and out falls a commemorative medallion of whichever site you’re visiting. The growing line in front of these machines insured a continuous stream of coins dropping in, coins dropping out. “This noise is giving me a headache,” Jim murmured back, and so we kept moving. Maybe ten feet further along we reached another chapel. I bent to read the small sign which reminded passersby, “This is a place of prayer.” One woman in a black mourning shawl stood over the candles at the offertory and, using the long wick, re-lit three or four which had blown out.
We made our way back to the front of the altar and took a seat in the pews. Despite ourselves, we were moved to comment on the beauty of the mural above our heads, the grace of the stone pillars, the fluid granite arches. Slowly, a small procession of nuns took their places in the choir seats and began to sing their Vespers. Translated from the Latin, “O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be world without end. Amen. Alleluia.” The sweetness of the Sisters’ voices was intoxicating and I noticed several other people bending to sit among the pews and listen.
I wanted so badly to feel what I had felt on my previous visit—the sacred quiet, the holy isolation. I wanted, for a moment at least, to will myself away from the crowds of tourists speaking all languages of babble at each other, the pickpockets and street performers, outside the church. But the sound of coins continued, ringing discordant to the Sisters’ harmonies. I might as well have been genuflecting at a Vegas casino. All I could do was wonder what the nuns were thinking as they sang. I knew they sang these words every day at this time. Was their ritual so pure that they were unaware of all else? Were they so holy that the sound of money couldn’t pierce their calm? Or was this just the reality to which they had resigned themselves?
Finally, having reached no conclusions, Jim and I stood and made our way to the exit—passing, as we departed, two more medallion machines and another queue of glazed-over tourists depositing their two euro coins. We were swept out the doors into the cool evening and the general din of commerce rose around us, filling the streets with noise.
I suppose that, to the contemporary Westerner, money is the primary form of engagement with the world. Give your coin to the machine and in return you will have proof that you were in the sacred basilica. Without that coin, you would have to satisfy yourself with memories—and what would you show to your family back home? You might as well have stayed in Indiana, the thinking goes, if you weren’t going to buy anything. At the same time, what is Christmas, to an American, without extravagant presents? Where’s the proof that this holy day is any different from, say, the Feast Day of St. Anthony? And how will your child prove to his friends that his parents love him, if not with a new Xbox?
Of course, who can oppose giving presents to children? Or to anyone else, for that matter? But, to continue in the religious spirit of this article, I keep thinking of Matthew 6:21, which says, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Where is our treasure better spent—buying our kid an Xbox so that he can fit in, or taking the family on a trip to a museum? Maybe our treasure is best spent taking our one day off, even if it is “the best shopping day of the year,” to craft popsicle-stick ornaments. I’m sure that if I had asked any of the tourists in the Sacre Coeur why they were wasting two euros on a silly medallion, they would say two euros is a small price for a memento. It’s just a couple euros. Who cares where they spend it? But, walking down the basilica steps, I couldn’t help noticing the small, crouched man sitting on the hard granite, his legs splayed before him. At the end of his pant legs, two bandaged stumps of feet quivered in the cold. Beneath his hat and his thick beard, I couldn’t see his face, but I could see the contents of the small can he was rattling. A few ten-cent pieces, twenty-cent pieces, maybe on fifty-cent piece. And not a single two euro coin.
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