Is There a Sacred Santa?


The Capitol Christmas Tree in 2004.

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.

The Sacred Santa: Religious Dimensions of Consumer Culture

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?

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4 Responses to Is There a Sacred Santa?

  1. Dana says:

    This is a topic I love to examine and think about it. Especially in most of my circles Black Friday is considered Buy Nothing Day. It does seem to be the agenda of many Sustainable and Environmental initiatives and organizations to encourage shoppers and participants in other directions. If you are going to buy products shop green or second hand, or invest and contribute to organizations you believe in or the future of a child’s education.

    As I talk with people lately about the holidays I hear many things, many are making personalized gifts this year, many families are switching to gift exchanges where everyone leaves with one gift of a certain value.

    It does seem there is a lot of conservation and consciousness out there but the consumption is more prevalent and marketed. Could it be that there is actually less shopping than the advertisements would have us believe? Maybe…Maybe not.

    It is an individual choice how one participates in this HolyDay and to discover personally what it is about. Most folks tell me its about family, others tell me its about Jesus. No one tells me its about shopping.

    There is some psychology at work here though most of us know that if we are feeling sad or blue one of the best ways to pick yourself up is to treat yourself and many companies have made trillions on that basic little fact. One of the major players greasing the wheels of consumer culture is an American’s concept of lack, dissatisfaction, and the need to acquire things as status. All of that without any critical analysis of personal behavior and you have a whole society running through mazes, jumping through hoops, to get the cheese/reward at the end.

    In general when our hearts, minds, and souls are satisfied we don’t Need anything, we don’t really want anything because we have everything we need. And in community or neighborhood where one lawnmower becomes the blocks’ lawnmower, there is always more to go around.

    So yeah it is a crisis of faith and this is a sacred time of year. There is a way to celebrate the holiday or season and even give gifts and do it with honor, appreciation, gratitude, love, and peace. I mean isn’t that what the season is all about anyway?

    OK my comment is longer than your blog. Rambling thoughts from your daughter.

    Much Love
    Dana

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  2. Rachel says:

    This is funny after speaking with someone from India who still visits and has family there. I asked if they had Christmas over there and they replied with yes even though most of the area he is from doesn’t not practice Christianity and are Hindus the vast expansion of consumerism has brought the Christmas consumer traditions which are adopted because it’s fun. So through the spread of western consumerism Christianity is still being exposed to those who deny it from being ruled by a Christian nation that wanted them to convert away from their national identity. Assimilation is key to unity and conforming to authorities expectations.

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