When I was a child, my mother and I used to get our Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. We took the straggly ones that were left abandoned on the sidewalk for free. We adopted these orphaned trees with a true sense of noblesse oblige. I had no idea that we did this because we could not afford a proper tree. Christmas had become so expensive that she had to take on an additional part-time job, and the cost of a tree was not in her budget.
People have been complaining about the commercialization of Christmas since day one. Those three wise men made great sacrifices to bring their gifts from “the East.” As soon as the word was out that the “King of the Jews” was about to be born, the price of gold shot up, frankincense doubled, and myrrh went through the roof. The trio went into debt on the chance that the “King” would remember them when he grew older. It was an investment to guarantee a seat at the table in the future. You never know when you might need a political favor. The three kings were all BIPOCS … Black indigenous people of color, so they had trouble getting a prime interest rate on credit. Melchior from Persia, who brought the gold and looked like a Latinx with brown skin and straight hair, had to put it on layaway. This method carried a very high, very sneaky interest rate. Gaspar from India refinanced his land at a subprime rate to get the frankincense. Balthazar, who according to St. Bede was “of black complexion, with a heavy beard,” waited until he saved up money to buy the myrrh, only to find out that by the time he had enough, it had tripled in price, so he had to put it on three of his credit cards at 27 percent interest.
Somehow, this religious holiday continues to grow more and more rooted in capitalism and less and less in religion, spirituality, and kindness. Yet we are still surprised. Isn’t it ironic that today’s Eurocentric holiday began with people of color? Yes, the early Persians were people of color — it was beige, but it was still of color.
It is important to point out that the gifts that baby Jesus received had enough monetary value to buy the whole darn motel, including the manger. So, clearly, Joseph and Mary were not business-minded. Which is a pity because, as a carpenter, Joseph could have upgraded the motel to increase its value. Since they didn’t have electrical or plumbing issues, there would be no problems about getting licensed professionals for permits.
There are Inuit societies whose economies were marked by the competitive exchange of gifts, in which gift givers seek to outgive their competitors to capture important political, kinship and religious roles; just like the three kings, just like some democratic governments.
Then, there was Potlatch. Potlatch was a way of showing how, back in the day, Inuits celebrated the end of the year. They burned up their valuables, then started all over again. I was taught that this was fiscally imprudent. Historians thought of Inuits (Eskimos) as “sweet, naive, natives.” Since they were BIPOCs, who didn’t share the same economic values, they were considered stupid. In fact, European Canadians outlawed Potlatch from 1885 to 1951, to protect the natives from themselves.
Our government does the same thing, and is proud of it. After all, isn’t that what “deficit spending” is all about? Deficit spending is when an entity (the government, the wise men, parents) spends more than it has during a specific period. Usually, it’s a fiscal year. Usually, it’s the end of the calendar year, a.k.a. Holiday Season. They think that by increasing government spending, they will energize the economy.
How is Potlatch any different from Christmas as we celebrate it today?
We max out our credit cards to buy cheap toys made by underpaid people, sold by underpaid people to underpaid people.
This year’s must-have toy is Disney’s $119 Frozen Castle and Ice Palace Play set. It is in such demand that it costs $400 on eBay, and has pretty much sold out. Minecraft is a lovely sandbox video game which has sold over 240 million copies. It is the best-selling video game of all time. It costs anywhere from $20 to $30. That sounds reasonable, right? But in order to play, you need an Xbox. Aha, that’s where they get you. The Xbox begins at $300, and goes up to $1,000. There is even a gold-plated series that goes for $10,000. Now that is ridiculous. This year the average American will spend $720 on gifts. I didn’t make that up, The National Retail Federation published it. Last year, we spent over $707 billion in retail sales between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31. That is definitely “energizing the economy.” Little wonder that one-third of Christmas spenders are still in debt in March of the next year.
If you want to show your love for another person, couldn’t you make something by hand, or offer a favor? Do you really have to feed into the fantasy that cheap items made in third-world countries measure how much you care about a person?
Seventy percent of Americans feel that Christmas is too much about the money. We are upset because Santa Claus is the star player, and the child called “Wonderful” is barely remembered. Heck, Rudolph gets more ink than the baby Jesus. Why do we keep feeding into the commercialization of the season? Kwanza doesn’t do that; Diwali doesn’t do that; St. Lucia doesn’t do that.
Why can’t we just promise to do the dishes for a year, or knit a sweater, or be kind? Imagine having someone promise to walk your dog in the morning after a late night, or bring you a cappuccino and the Sunday paper in bed; isn’t that something you would like? They could help you clean out your closet, organize your family photos, iron your shirts; wouldn’t that be a great gift?
So, stop your bellyaching. Show your love for the season, show your love for your neighbor, show where your heart is, your gift will be multilayered and long-lasting … and the price is right!