The celebration of Christ's birth was always a little bit pagan for its associations with the Roman imperial religion. But the modern West has turned into a pure carnival of pleasures.
BOGOTÁ —My friend Sonia Guzmán earned her neighbors' disapproval in Bogotá for refusing to pay her share for the block's Christmas decorations. She argued she had the Grinch mentality. I had not heard of the term but pretended I understood, to hide my ignorance. Sonia being an anthropologist and lecturer, I assumed Grinch was a new philosophical concept regarding worship or social life.
I then discovered it was a character invented by the U.S. writer and cartoonist Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, for his 1957 book How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, which was made into a Hollywood blockbuster in 2000, and is considered by many as an allegory of our compulsive Christmas consumerism.
The Romanian philospher Mircea Eliade explained that the Church fixed the date of the Nativity to coincide with Roman festivities on December 25 (for the Birth of the Unconquered Sun), which means that from the start, Christmas celebrations were tainted with paganism.
I come from a typical Catholic family whose Christmas celebrations have adapted, year after year, to fads imposed by the market. My childhood memories include an enormous nativity scene that occupied half a room in my grandmother's house, with its rubber figurines of Mary, Joseph, the child and the Three Kings. There were also shepherds, sheep and cardboard huts. The Novena, or nine days of prayer, were done by the nativity. The best informed of my aunts later included with the Christmas decorations a dried tree with cotton buds adorning its branches, colored lights and baubles in the form of little present boxes and copper bells. It was a tropical version of the Anglo-American Christmas tree, which was very soon to replace the nativity scene.
Cities adapt their infrastructures to serve this economic event.
Indeed, as later generations moved into apartments, Christmas came to adopt the Anglo-American iconography: artificial pines adorned with glass baubles, lighting accessories made in Japan and the snow man, candy cane, a pine wreath over the front door and of course the iconic "Father Christmas," better known as Santa Claus.
An apocryphal legend identifies him as the fourth wise man, of Nordic origin, who —guided by the "Star of Wonder"—also undertook the journey to visit the Messiah, but arrived when the holy family had already fled Herod's assassins. Unable to see the Divine child, he now distributes gifts to other kids instead. For Christmas marketing, he is the perfect character to boost sales.
In truth, Christmas as the anniversary of Christ's birth is now only for the most traditional of Catholics. Our consumer society has greater use for symbols and figures that are not specifically religious — that way supply can reach people of any faith. If you want a deal, let go of the sacred. Santa is unrelated to the Christian message, and his business is bonuses and presents —meaning sales. He needs no altar and certainly not a nativity scene either. His temple is the shopping center, and his numen, the spirit of Christmas promotions. On the other hand, the Divine child is of little use to retailers, for you cannot sell what He stands for. You might just about sell images of him, but it would be heresy to use them to sell more toys!
For the Western world, December is the month of pleasures. Employees receive their bonuses, there are summer holidays in the southern hemisphere and winter holidays in the north. The market society encourages consumption, businesses rev up for the spending frenzy. Buying and selling become the only rituals. Cities adapt their infrastructures to serve this economic event, streets are adorned and events organized to liven the game of supply and demand.
For trade, what Christianity commemorates on December 25 can be exclusive, and even trigger spiritual misgivings over so much pagan feasting and eating. But commerce itself was already born atheist.