Worshipping Materialism at Christmas

The prevailing view on Fox News is that everyone in America, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, must join in the lavish and lengthy celebration of the birth of Jesus or be accused of warring on Christmas. But the real assault on Jesus’s teaching comes from gross materialism, says Lawrence S. Wittner.

By Lawrence S. Wittner

Although fundamentalist fanatics have been working for decades to turn the United States into a “Christian nation,” they have not had much success along these lines.

One reason for their failure is that religious minorities and non-believers have resisted. And another is probably that a large number of Americans want to preserve religious tolerance and avoid theocracy. But it might also reflect the fact that the United States is now firmly in the grip of a different religion: shopping.

A Christmas tree surrounding by presents.

After all, in this “holiday season” the dominant activity does not seem to be traditional religious worship or prayer. The recently-concluded Black Friday 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.

The frenzied participants were not starving, impoverished peasants or product-deprived refugees from communist nations but reasonably comfortable, middle-class Americans. Their desperation was not driven by hunger. They simply wanted … more!

And now that the nation enters its Christmas shopping spree — conveniently begun in November, to allow plenty of time for the practice — there will undoubtedly be lots more commodity fetishism. The shopping malls are already alive with the Christmas music designed to encourage purchases, while visions of rising sales figures dance through the heads of happy store managers.

All of this, of course, leads to complaints by traditional religious believers about the commercialization of Christmas. Of course, the bloviators on Fox News seek to blame the decline of religious feeling during the Christmas season upon liberal thought. But the hard reality is that Jesus in the manger or bleeding on the cross has less appeal to many Americans that do the latest cellphones and other commercial gadgetry.

Actually, despite the emphasis on purchases during the holidays, shopping is a year-round phenomenon in the United States. Children might not be able to read, write, add, or subtract, but they know a great deal about the latest consumer products.

Their parents and grandparents are thoroughly familiar with them as well. And why wouldn’t they be? A vast array of products is regularly featured on TV and radio programs, on roadside billboards, and in their newspapers and magazines.

In fact, commercial advertising is ubiquitous in the United States, with few Americans able to escape it. Even when people are not in their homes, commercial television programs — those shoddy, thought-free commodities developed to keep the ads from bumping together — run continuously in doctors’ waiting rooms, auto repair shops, elevators, train stations, hospitals, restaurants, airports, school cafeterias, bars, and taxis.

Furthermore, advertising is not designed to merely alert people to the availability of a product, but to make them want it. Commercial enterprises understand that, thanks to the influence of advertising, purchases will not be based upon need, but upon desire.

Advertising will stir dissatisfaction with what people already have and create a craving for something else. And this is a very promising route to sales. Naturally, then, U.S. corporations engulf Americans in advertising. It’s an excellent investment, and produces legions of eager, even desperate shoppers.

Only a very rare American politician would be willing to stand up against the resulting steamroller of consumerism. Imagine the political future of a candidate for public office who said:

“There has been enough talk of economic growth and competition as the solutions to our problems. Our real challenges as Americans are to limit our consumption to what we genuinely need, to share with others who are less fortunate than we are, and to halt the plunder of our planet’s resources and the destruction of our environment.”

I suspect that she or he would not get very far. Nor, despite the similarity of this approach to the core values of religious faiths, is it popular among the mainstream U.S. churches. Yes, they encourage small-scale charitable ventures. But they do little to challenge the consumerist ethos.

Indeed, the most active and rapidly growing among the churches — the fundamentalist and evangelical denominations — have rallied behind political candidates championing unbridled capitalism and the prerogatives of wealth. “Drill baby, drill” seems far more popular among them than the Golden Rule.

Ironically, then, by not opposing the corporate cultivation of untrammeled greed among Americans, the churches have left the door open to the triumph of America’s new religion — not liberal secularism, but shopping.

Lawrence S. Wittner is professor of history emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is Working for Peace and Justice: Memoirs of an Activist Intellectual (University of Tennessee Press).


15 comments for “Worshipping Materialism at Christmas

  1. Jesus Is not born on the 25th december
    December 9, 2012 at 12:39

    The real birthday of jesus is in january which is usually celebrated by orthodox christians. Western christians are actually celebrating the birth of ISIS a pagan god something which is unknown to alot of Christians.

  2. ChetFields
    December 7, 2012 at 12:12

    “True” Christianity would have nothing to do with Christmas as Jesus never taught his followers to observe his birthday, wasn’t born on December 25th anyway, has integrated customs and rituals from pagan roman, norse and other sources and that in addition to all the materialistic aspects. “True” Christians don’t see Jesus as a helpless baby but rather as a powerful King/Priest who will soon rule over the entire earth, eliminating ALL human governments and by applying the benefits of the ransom sacrifice of his perfect human life, restore humanity to God’s original purpose which has not changed, eternal life on a paradise earth. Nearly all ‘christian’ religions have greatly apostasized from the original and incorporated platonic and babylonian philosophies.

  3. niki
    December 6, 2012 at 11:32


  4. bobzz
    December 6, 2012 at 02:36

    This ditty from Ogden Nash: On this birthday of our Lord, buying gifts we can’t afford, one must wonder who more it pleases, Stanley Marcus or the infant Jesus.

  5. sugar_smack
    December 5, 2012 at 01:21

    What, don’t be silly now. Seriously, why would you think Fox news would support that socialist, free heath care giving, semetic hippie “Jesus”. Christmas is really only about (their white, gun rights supporting, anti-immigration, supply side) “Jebus” who supports heavy spending for presents during Christmas to “help the economy or the terrorist win”.
    And remember if you don’t support the Sacred American Flag swaddled baby “Jebus” you are a terrorist coddling; economy destroying; America hating; greedy; socialist; atheist; taker out to destroy “true” Christianity (which was of course created in god’s own country the U.S. bible belt).

  6. incontinent reader
    December 4, 2012 at 22:00

    Cartoon: Old geezer wearing turban and sitting on sleigh being drawn across the sky by twelve nondescript, identical reindeer, chased by hellfire missile. At bottom half of panel is a flight control room with three hyenas (one resembling John Brennan in Santa cap, the second, Peter King- demonic, ugly and elfin, and the third, Diane Feinstein- just plain ugly) poring over a drone keyboard. Brennan says to the others- “We don’t know their names? So what? We know that one of them must have been on the list, and that the old guy and the others shouldn’t have been there with it, period. So, yes Diane, there is a Christmas! Fried reindeer, anyone? Ho! Ho! Ho! Next!!”

    • incontinent reader
      December 4, 2012 at 22:04

      The humor was intended to be insulting. This is what Christmas will mean to some unfortunates.

  7. Patrice
    December 4, 2012 at 21:40

    Dear Dr. Paige Turner,

    1 millimeter second after you’re dead you will KNOW then that CHRISTIANITY IS THE TRUTH and Jesus Christ is The King of kings and the Lord of lords, but why wait until you’re dead to KNOW this fact, you can KNOW Him NOW!!! Test Him, say; Jesus if you really are real come into my heart and life and change me and mean it when you say it and see what happens!!!


    • niki
      December 6, 2012 at 11:31

      Anyone who believes there is actually a real person named “Paige Turner” might as well believe in Jesus/Santa/Easter bunny. Get a grip, people!

  8. Hillary
    December 4, 2012 at 21:31

    Once upon a time in a land far ,far away a man whose name was Joseph and his wife whose name was Mary were following a star with the help of a donkey because Mary was nearly 9 months pregnant even though she was a virgin.

    The fairy tale that helped launch Christ , Christmas and Christianity long ago.


    • db
      December 4, 2012 at 22:34


      Except that by 42 AD the Emperor Claudius is chucking all the Jews out of the city of Rome because their arguments over their religious leader “Chrestus” are becoming too violent.

      Equally but the mid 60s Emperor Nero is finding enough Christians to make persecuting them a worthwhile effort.

      If Jesus didn’t exist, He sure got a lot of devoted followers really quickly.

      • Hillary
        December 5, 2012 at 20:04

        “If Jesus didn’t exist, He sure got a lot of devoted followers really quickly.”

        db on December 4, 2012 at 10:34 pm

        Yes indeed there are always lots of simple people and the promise of heaven in a life after death is always a winner in the sales pitch.

        Just as lots of simple folk believe the official 9/11 fairy story about strict religious Muslims who frequented strip clubs and snorted cocaine.

        Yes rejoice for your reward in heaven is great ?


  9. F. G. Sanford
    December 4, 2012 at 11:55

    Anybody catch Bill O’Reilly’s latest rant, arguing with the governor of Rhode Island that Christianity is a philosophy, not a religion? There must be thousands of doddering,confused, angry old white Republicans out there experiencing cognitive dissonance for the first time in their lives, but going along with O’Reilly because the philosophy stuff provides left cover for their right-wingnut hatred of political correctness. Bill has revived the “War on Christmas” every year I can remember for the past ten years, but thankfully, only the Republican elves are falling for the nutty fruitcake.

    • db
      December 4, 2012 at 22:37


      Bill retracted earlier today(?) when he admitted that Christianity was a religion but administered by many different Churches.

      Oh the fun you can have by shifting definitions.

      • F. G. Sanford
        December 4, 2012 at 22:52

        Thanks for the update! I don’t usually tune in, but I caught that rant by accident. I couldn’t believe he wouldn’t catch a little flack!

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