Between the Lines: The moral side of commercialism

By now, you've probably seen at least one or maybe more videos that have gone viral on the interweb, depicting angry shoppers showing something far less than civility toward one another as they try to snatch up as many discounted items as possible during last week's Black Friday nationwide shopalalooza.

This is just one of many reasons that it is easy to find people shaking their heads and muttering what has become a very popular refrain: "Christmas has become too commercial."

I'm all for focusing on the "reason for the season" (another common refrain, rating right up there in popularity with the October rant of "What!? It's not even Halloween and the stores have Christmas stuff out??")

I always suggest that everyone try to experience some degree of the spiritual aspect of this time we're in, leading up to Christmas.

At the same time, I'm not going to complain about kids writing letters to Santa. I'm not going to demand that all Christmas decorations MUST contain a Nativity scene. I think some of the best holiday songs are religious in nature, but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy songs like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." But, please. Why must radio stations play "Grandma Got Run Over A Reindeer" year after year?

All of the things that make up Christmas  – both the secular and the non-secular – are part of today's society. While we may grumble about how our focus seems to constantly be drawn away from the non-secular aspect of the holiday season, perhaps we could all better take things in stride if we admit one thing:

There is nothing wrong with commercialism. It is, in fact, an important means toward fulfilling the spiritual aspect of this season.

One of the strongest criticisms of Christmas commercialism heard year after year suggests that that all of our eating and drinking, buying and selling – what Thorstein Veblen called "conspicuous consumption" – divert us from the needs of those less fortunate and indeed (put most starkly) steal food from the mouths of the poor.

These criticisms often accompany the appeals we receive each December to help our fellow man, woman and child. There are many ways to do that here in Vermillion, ranging from the Salvation Army to The Food Pantry and The Welcome Table and its related programs.

Such organizations are the backbone of a compassionate society, for they perform the works of mercy that many of us in our busy daily lives are unable to perform individually. They deserve our support.

Simply remember that every time you buy a Christmas gift – a new DVD, a dollhouse, a camp stove, a toolbox, a scented candle – you are helping to pay someone's wages. Millions of such purchases, made every day in the Christmas shopping season, keep factories open, workers employed, and families fed.

Think about who depends on Christmas to make a living: Santa and his elves, of course, but also all of their "helpers" around the world. Postal workers who deliver packages. The loggers who cut the trees to make the paper you'll use to wrap your gifts. The farmers who raised the turkey, pork and beef you will dine on in fellowship with your family and friends.

The list is endless.

Who benefits from your purchase of a woolen sweater? The wool came from sheep raised by a shepherd in the mountains of Nevada or New Zealand. The raw wool was processed into yarn at a textile mill in North Carolina or Nigeria. Dyes came from a chemical plant in Michigan or India. The yarn was woven into a sweater at a factory in Ohio or China.

A trucker from Idaho drove the finished product to a distribution center in Colorado. There it was packaged and sent to stores around the country, where stock boys and sales clerks bring it to the ultimate purchasers. How many individuals earn a living from that single sweater? How many communities avert poverty because you, the individual shopper, choose to buy it?

Yes, the focus of the Christmas season shouldn't be directed solely on our "conspicuous consumption." Commerce, however, is a vital part of this special time.

Admittedly, the commercialism we love to hate creates wealth which in turn inspires a bit of class warfare among some in society, perhaps. It also, however, helps eliminate poverty and feed and clothe those who are in need.

Commercialism, the exchange of dollars between business and consumer, has a substantial moral – even spiritual – component. It makes charity – the oh-so-needed works of mercy – possible.

Charity to those who cannot care for themselves is good. Giving them the means to care for themselves is better. Best of all is to engage in commerce: buying goods and services for a mutually agreeable price.

This prevents poverty and shortens the lists of the needy. Not just during the Christmas season, but all year long. 

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