With the holiday season upon us—I put up Christmas lights, a tree, etc., last weekend—it is appropriate to reconsider this annual ritual and why we do it. Before the twentieth century Christmas was a significant holiday on the Christian calendar but it was not one in which the extravagance of decoration, “gifting,” and the like dominated.
So how did Christmas become such a significant commercial activity in the twentieth century? It may be that at a fundamental level the holiday is a construction of twentieth century consumer culture. That is the argument of Dell Dechant in an interesting book published by Pilgrim Press in 2002, The Sacred Santa: Religious Dimensions of Consumer Culture. It makes the case that the new religion of America is consumerism and that it is most effectively practiced in the holiday season at the end of each year. The book asserts that American society has raised the practice of consumerism to a religious ritual.
At a fundamental level this analysis challenges the dominant narrative in American religious studies, that modern society is becoming less overtly religious and more secular in orientation. The rise of conservative religions and evangelical Christianity, as well as this raising of consumerism to sacred status, are therefore reactions against this trend.
No question, mainstream religion is less central to the lives of many people, but the pervasive power of the holiday ritual of gift giving and receiving and its folkways are a form of religious observation as well. By suggesting that consumerism has become the modern American religion we may expand the discussion of the subject in the same way that others have suggested that there is an American civil religion built around reverence for the nation’s Founding Fathers, the celebration of democracy and republicanism, and the veneration of iconic spaces and symbols. Delchant finds similar elements in modern consumerism.
This is a provocative idea, suggestive of many other avenues of investigation of American religious life.
An interesting question, if consumerism is the dominant religion of modern America what happens when society become unable to sustain the level of consumerism currently practiced? All signs point to fundamental shifts in the place of the United States as the leader of the world in standard of living, etc., and two or three generations from now—unless something changes—the manner in which Americans live their lives will be quite different. In such an environment does consumerism evolve to remain a major part of society or is it replaced with something else or is there a crisis of faith? I could go on and on. What do you think?