Has Santa won the culture war?

Opinion: Columns

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By Tom Holmes

It's a curious and perhaps telling juxtaposition. Last Thursday we gave thanks for what we have, and for the following 32 days we will be engrossed in the process of having/getting more. Apparently enough is never enough.

If Thanksgiving Day results in turkey torpor, Black Friday kicks off a season resulting in a kind of sugar high of frenzied consuming—buying and eating.

It didn't used to be that way. In 1954, I was seven years old. Christmas shopping for me included going to the ladies section of Sears where my father worked and buying a pair of nylons for my mother. The sales lady not only knew my mother. She also knew what size and color my mother liked.  

Then I'd go across eighth street to another department store named Johnson Hills which, unlike Sears, had a candy section and buy a box of chocolate covered cherries for my father. Two weeks before Christmas, my parents would ask me what I wanted Santa to bring me, and for several years I would ask for an army set.

Every Christmas Eve my mother would make rice pudding for dinner and hide an almond in one of the bowls. The tradition was that whoever got the nut could open their present first. I had the most amazing run of good luck, getting the nut for like six years in a row—until I got too old to maintain the illusion.

Then we'd go to First Lutheran Church for the 7:30 service, which would include the singing of a lot of Christmas carols. It would always be—I'll use the word—romantic and kind of sentimental. 

Then we'd come back home and open our presents, two or three for each of us, and somehow we would always be surprised and delighted when we tore open the wrapping. We'd then bask in the soft light of the Christmas tree and listen to an LP record of Christmas music as my father would pass around the box of assorted Russell Stover chocolates he always got from work.

At the time, I didn't know what I had, because I had nothing to compare it to. But now I do.

I don't remember ever feeling stressed out in December. Businesses were open nine to five on weekdays, till nine Friday nights and on Saturday morning. Almost everyone, except those who worked in restaurants and pro football players, looked forward to every weekend being a sabbath, a day for rest and rejuvenation.  

Keeping Sundays free from doing business was voluntary, although it was enforced by strong social norms. Santa, the Pilgrims and Jesus seemed to get along fine. They weren't competing for my time and attention. Each had its place in my life. Enjoying prosperity was in balance with lots of time for relationships and for designated times for focusing on the spiritual side of life.

The pace of life was humane.

Then, big box stores put up huge buildings with enormous parking lots on the edge of town, and advertised that they would be open on Sundays AND that their prices would be much lower than those charged by Sears, Johnson Hills and the other downtown stores.

That's when the balance began to tip toward Santa and away from the Pilgrims and Jesus—and for my friends Richard Schwartz and Steve Alpert from Hanukkah. The humane pace of life was accelerated by crowded calendars and by powerful commercial forces to consume.

"Sleep in heavenly peace" was replaced by the Alka Seltzer line, "plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is."

I know, I know. Old codgers like me often wax nostalgic about the "good old days." Friends who have an awareness of American history object that the old days were not so good for a lot of Americans, and that I'm idealizing a very imperfect moment in our past.

Something has been gained since those good old days. Brown vs. Board of Education ended segregation in 1954, at least legally. The Salk vaccine introduced in 1955 virtually ended the curse of Polio. Airbags, credit cards, drive up windows at Dunkin Donuts, telephones that double as cameras. . .etc., etc.

But along with the progress, something has been lost—the humane pace of life, the balance between spiritual, material and relational.  

Here's the thing. I realized that I can spend the month of December sitting on a pity pot and mourning the loss of what was precious. Or, I can be grumpy and blame everything from Walmart to TV advertising for hijacking Mayberry from me.

Or, I can take responsibility myself for living the next 27 days in a balanced, humane way.

No one is forcing me to eat three helpings of turkey or two pieces of pumpkin pie with extra whipped cream. No one is forcing me to go to every party that I'm invited or stay there until midnight. No one is forcing me to compete with my daughter's in-laws regarding who buys the most presents for the grandchildren.

In some ways, we have met the enemy and it is us. No one forced me and my neighbors to do our grocery shopping on Sundays. If collectively we would have stayed at home and watched the Bears after going to church, businesses would soon be closed on the Sabbath.

Now, I don't foresee any social groundswell to boycott businesses which are open on Sundays this month or this decade, but I can determine what my values are, resist pressure from marketing departments to stray from those values, take responsibility for my behavior and live those values.

If one of my values is to shop local, then I need to be willing to go out in the cold and spend a little more at a Madison Street shop, rather than ordering the stuff online in the comfort of my living room. If education is an important value for me, then I'll give one book and a check to go into the college fund of my five year old granddaughter, instead of the latest toy that will give her a "sugar high" when she tears open the wrapping paper but is really not very nutritious, if you will.

It's not either/or. It's not Jesus vs. Santa. It's not keeping my Jewish or Muslim identity vs. becoming secular and losing my soul. It's about balance. It's about being a "conservative-liberal," i.e. conserving what is good from the past along with embracing the new IF IT MAKES LIFE BETTER.   

Sure, I might have to swim upstream against the present social current, but so, what else is new. That's what character is all about.

Something's lost and something's gained in living every day. God grant us the grace to choose wisely during the next 27 days.

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