Let’s face it: Wherever you stand in relation to Christmas as a faith tradition, there can be little doubt that the span from Thanksgiving to New Year’s is also a fantastic festival of stuff. Is this weird? Of course. Is it stressful? Sure. It’s also as American as a grand slam home run, fireworks on the Fourth of July or Bonnie and Clyde. All of the above, of course, share a quality that is practically irresistible to us Americans: a temporary derangement of the senses.
During the Christmas season, people spend money they don’t really have. Otherwise reasonable folk saunter into the temples of extravagance called shopping malls and department stores and throw down their credit cards with the élan of riverboat gamblers. They buy everything from robot vacuum cleaners to Saville Row blazers and then they give this booty away to loved ones — and even not-so-loved ones — with the kind of wide-eyed abandon usually associated with hopheads stoked on demon dope. We’re encouraged to do this. And why not?
Much as we like to tell ourselves that we are as religious as pilgrims, the fact is that we are really a pretty worldly bunch. Look, for instance, at the way we deal with new technologies — from automobiles to the Internet. Every time we turn around, we’re being surprised by the unintended consequences of these things. Call it the “Oops Factor.” We unleash the forces of these things into the world and then, inevitably, discover problems, from different forms of pollution to affects on human personality, that are usually irreversible. “Oops,” we say, “nothing we can do about that … if we’d only known.” We forget that this is what spiritual codes are for — to help us make ethical decisions about what not to do and where not to go … even though we can.
Of course, this is the kind of thinking that is so popular in certain Middle Eastern societies. Look where it’s gotten them. They’re out of the global economy and they haven’t made a significant contribution to the sciences in hundreds of years. No, for us, whether we want to admit it or not, material things really do provide us with a kind of transcendental experience, however fleeting. We know this is true. Feeling blue? Go buy something. Bored? Charge it. Need to change your life? That’s what layaway is for, for Pete’s sake.
The roundheads among us will carp about this. They will frown and cluck and say it’s all just temporary, a quick fix and that we’re bound to hate ourselves in the morning when we check our credit card bills and depleted bank accounts. They will go on about “values” and delayed gratification, whatever that is. Clearly, they have never experienced the rush that comes from throwing that Saks clothing bag over your shoulder and striding out to the parking lot like the proverbial hunter, home from the hill. What they call a quick fix is really a rush, the palpable connection with something undeniably bigger than ourselves — call it maya, the Bitch Goddess or E! if you will, but don’t sell it short.
For most of every year we muddle along, indulging ourselves here and there, catching fleeting glances of the good life — a life, that is, whose patterns of consumption transcend time and place, a life fit for viewing on a jumbo plasma screen. Like monks destined to suffer on an endless wheel of birth, death and reincarnation, hardly daring to even hope for release from this mortal coil, we can only dream of an unlimited line of credit. And so we pace ourselves and husband our deepest resources. We coast through the sunlit delights of Labor Day, steel ourselves to the seductions of Halloween. Thanksgiving, we know, cannot be far behind — and once that Turkey Day is done … Let the moralists chide and chafe. Let the faint-hearted avert their gaze as America embraces what it knows best. After all, Christmas comes but once a year.