The idol that stole Christmas

Without a hint of irony, one TV ad for a large retail store airing the night before Thanksgiving announced: “Black Friday. Beginning on Thursday.” The ad was a reference to the Friday after Thanksgiving, the traditional beginning of the holiday shopping season. It’s dubbed “Black Friday” because it’s believed to be the day when many retailers begin to show a net profit for the year, moving from “in the red” to “in the black.” For retailers the holiday season is the most important time of the year.

In recent years retailers have begun opening earlier and earlier on Black Friday, some as early as midnight, literally at the moment Thanksgiving Day ends. Lured by dramatic bargains on selected items in limited quantities—“10 flat-screen TVs for only $150!” for example—some shoppers spend their Thanksgiving afternoons camped out in front of a store so they can be among the lucky first customers to claim the items they desire.

The Black Friday rush sometimes causes a violent frenzy. This year, at a Walmart in California, a woman engaged in what authorities described as “competitive shopping.” As she and a throng of other shoppers waited for entrance to an aisle to buy Xbox 360 gaming consoles and Nintendo Wii video games, the woman pepper-sprayed her “competitors,” then calmly moved through checkout with her Xbox before store employees realized that she was the culprit. Twenty people, including children, were injured. Another shopper, who arrived after the meleé, said she wouldn’t have been bothered: “I don’t care,” she said, “I’m still getting my TV.” In 2008 an employee at a Walmart in New York was trampled to death by a stampede of shoppers who broke through the front doors just ahead of the store’s 5 A.M. opening time.

Holiday shopping takes a toll on employees in other ways as well. As more stores open on Thanksgiving Day and remain open through Christmas Day, workers say they are forced to choose between keeping their jobs and being home with their families.

Living in a Material World

Perhaps the greatest hostility to the spirit of Christmas comes from the materialism and consumerism that permeate our society. Arguably, nothing runs more counter to the gospel message than the desire for material things that so often becomes almost an obsession, especially during the Christmas season. Both Jesus, who warned that people cannot serve God and wealth, and the Old Testament writers would have called this obsession a type of idolatry.

And yet, almost without our realizing it, how easy it is for idolatry to sneak into what we Christians regard as a holy season. We give gifts at Christmas in celebration of God’s greatest gift to us. But buying, giving, and receiving gifts has a way of becoming so important that we forget what we’re celebrating.

The Christmas Spirit of Liberation

In announcing his ministry (see Luke 4), Jesus said that the words of the prophet Isaiah had been fulfilled. He had come to bring good news to the poor, to heal those who could not see, and to liberate those in bondage. We may think that Jesus was talking about other people, but the gospel calls us to recognize that he was also talking about us: those who suffer from spiritual blindness and those of us who are enslaved by things like anger, hatred, fear, or the love of material things. And, at Christmas, we celebrate that God came to us in human form to liberate us from these very things that keep us from enjoying the kind of relationship with God and with one another that God desired for us from the beginning.

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