A Walmart Christmas

December 17, 2011

My sister has come to dread Christmas, and my guess is that given its profane evolution she’s not alone —there are at least a few million others besides me (although my sister has managed  to keep her religion we are still simpatico). What used to be a holiday from the world is now an up-to-the-eye-ball full-soul immersion into a jingly jangly hyperbolic environment of advertizing overkill and vacuum of worldly mysticism.

What is worldly mysticism and what is it about?

How Christmas got so out of hand is what —how it, or “The Holidays” (its commercial alias)— has burst the bounds of simple grounded generosity and morphed into an annual transcendent vehicle of commerce is what.

If mysticism suggests transcendence, and the modern expression of Christmas transcends anything the gospel writers wrote, in a manner none had in mind, then it may be at least as mystical as hell. The gold, frankincense and myrrh the three wise men offered the baby Jesus have become flat screen TVs, war-themed video games and George Foreman grills —with shepherds singing background jingles to a Morgan Freeman voice-over of God hyping the lure of gold! and the great prices on myrrh! while a computer-generated sheep bleats “But wait, there’s more…!”

But wait, there is more — or less, because (as the minimalists say) less is more. But we’ve forgotten that.  We’ve forgotten it as we’ve pursued the American Dream; the dream of more and still more. But we may have to remember it again as the least among us (the now notorious 1%)  take more and more while the rest of us  (the other 99%) get less and less of what’s left. While it’s always Christmas at the top of the heap, those at the bottom will have to set their sights on more simple and humble Christmases. This is really an upside of being down.  ” ‘Tis a gift to be simple,” the old song goes; and though it sounds like a salve commissioned by the Romanesque Koch brothers and penned by Paul Ryan, it really makes a positive point.

So don’t get me wrong, it really is a gift to be simple: to not buy into the idea that consumption is the  purpose and duty of every man, woman and child in a free market society; to not succumb to the daily droning and constant commercial explosions bursting from every screen from iPhones to banked LED arrays sprawled across the facades of Times Square; to refuse to be ok with idea that the earth is an inexhaustible source of the raw material of acquisitive bliss. It’s not. The earth can be exhausted.  It is being.

So, what is Christmas if not an invention of Wall Street: an annual holiday that celebrates consumption by jinning-up a frenzy of buying; a spasm of spending that is its very point? Forget the baby Jesus!  Remember the gold Frankincense and Myrrh!

Anyone who has read me knows I’m not religious, but I am not anti-spiritual; so my reference to the baby Jesus should be taken with this in mind.  I believe there’s value in the story of Christmas that has nothing to do with religion but has all to do with generosity and hope. The story is a metaphor for simple hope and the “genius of generosity,” as Bob Dylan wrote. It is not about the genius of Sam Walton. The Christmas story is not a commercial for Walmart.

In my mind, boiled down to its essence, the Christmas story is about the entrance of humble and guiltless innocence into a world of flawed humans before which rich wise men (if they are truly wise) will kneel and offer tributes of their wealth —either gold, frankincense and myrrh, or a higher tax rate. How this story fits into the zeitgeist of global me-first capitalism in 2011 is a real mystery that will have to be unraveled if the climax of the bible’s story (the apocalyptic one) is to be avoided.

Regardless of Bill O’Rielly’s annual rants on holiday greetings, if god is parsing anything it’s probably not sentences, but hearts. “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” makes little difference if your heart’s in the right place. If it is all your Christmases will probably be bright.

I wish you both, and hope they are.

Jim Culleny, 12/17/11


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