This article has also been published by Fellowship & Fairydust and is reproduced with permission
Pope Francis is right. It also a narrative that fits into the virtues that he expresses in his own lifestyle. Pope Francis clearly eschews material luxuries. He does not ask us to do anything that he does not practise himself.
But this does not mean we have to eliminate the commercial aspects of Christmas form our lives altogether. There is much that is material about Christmas that is important. God becomes man and joins us in our material world. He was brought presents – substantial and meaningful presents. Indeed, the material is important to Catholic Christianity more generally. At the end of time, our souls will be united with our physical bodies.
And Catholic Christianity involves “feasts and seasons” to borrow the title of Joanna Bogle’s book, as well as fasts and penance. The Church has developed her calendar this way because this pattern of feasts, fasting and times of penance and celebration accords with our human nature which is given to us by God.
And the provision of material things – meals, food, presents, parties, and so on, provides large numbers of people with their livelihoods. Around 15-20 per cent of people in the UK work in leisure, catering, retail and related sectors.
The problem, of course, is not the celebration of Christmas with material things. It is, precisely as the pope said this year – consumerism and indifference. The problem of indifference is easily understood by considering the poverty into which Jesus was born followed by His exile as His family became refugees. But what about consumerism?
Avoiding consumerism does not mean avoiding all material things, especially on feast days. It means ensuring that they have their proper place. In the area of Catholic social thought, Mary Hirschfeld and Andrew Yuengert have written very effectively about how we should order economic goods. Consumer goods should help us live a good, happy and fulfilled life. We need consumer goods to live in dignity. And consumer goods can help us mark feast days appropriately and ensure that those days have their proper place in the calendar. The gifts that Jesus received were expensive. Those gifts, though, had a purpose: they involved the use of material things rightly ordered. And they brought meaning to the giver as well as to the recipient (and indeed to the whole world). Similarly, for us, the celebration of feast days, with some material trappings, can help bring meaning to Christmas. But, in Catholic social thought, those material things should never be an end in themselves otherwise we are falling for consumerism. We have finite needs: we do not become happy simply by having more consumer goods.
How do we avoid consumerism? When people criticise the commercialisation of Christmas, it can be difficult to answer the question “so, what should we do (or not do)?”. Does avoiding consumerism mean that I should buy a bit less tinsel or go to one party rather than five parties or buy an organic turkey rather than a mass-produced frozen one? These decisions do have to be taken. But it is probably better to start at the other end and insert Jesus into Christmas. When that has been done, we can then think about how the material world helps us to mark the feast becomingly so that the material things do not become ends in themselves. In other words, it is okay to welcome commerce and material things into Christmas, but they should be orientated towards the right ends. If commerce and the material things become the ends themselves or, indeed, distract us from the true meaning of Christmas, then we have fallen into, as the pope put it, commercialism.