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A Christmas Spread Thinly

by Hugh Fisher

December 8,2009

September 23, 2008 is an unimportant date I've remembered because of how surreal it seemed at the time. That's the day that I walked into the Belk store near my home in Cabarrus County and saw staff hard at work putting up Christmas trees. The temperature outside was warm, the sun was bright, and the leaves were just starting to think about falling.

And I sighed. Only a quarter of the year left until Christmas. Better get your cards in the mail. Here's food for thought: if a large enough portion of our population wants something, that thing usually comes to pass, even if it seems illogical or difficult. It seems logical and easy to keep Christmas in its traditional time period of late November through December. Why can't we?

Money.

Black Friday shopping can often be overdone, and I only wonder what Charles Dickens would say about the spectacle of shoppers getting trampled on, fights breaking out over toys or laptop computers – ridiculous reasons, really, to get hurt or die. We say that every year, but everyone seems in on the act. Even when it's clear how cheap and phony this rushing of Christmas can be, the message doesn't seem to sink in. When two radio stations stopped playing standard music in late October, switching to all-Christmas, all-the-time in recent years, a coffee shop owner who's a friend of mine stopped listening to the station altogether.

This year, one Charlotte radio station announced that it would allow listeners to vote on when the station would begin playing Christmas music 24 hours a day. I tried to select the option, “Not at all, thank you!” I like my classic rock in the morning. But the Web browser froze - twice. The Christmas music started well before Thanksgiving. And so it keeps on happening, year after year. The “holiday” lights and decorations appear in late October; the emotionally-overwrought advertising shows up not long after. One ad this season showed a man lamenting that it was too early (at the end of October) to start Christmas shopping before going on to list all the good deals his wife was going to find. It's clear the message is out there. Why won't someone listen?

Turns out, they haven't been listening for decades. C.S. Lewis wrote a satirical essay on the difference between “Chrissmas” and “Exmas” from the perspective of an ancient Roman historian to highlight this very fact. The people of Natirb (“Britain,” in reverse) celebrate “Exmas” by spending money, taking part in rituals that annoy them, such as sending cards and gifts, drinking and stressing themselves out. But a minority of the people there celebrates “Chrissmas,” the true holiday, with hymns and a newborn Savior in the manger, feelings of joy and goodwill. He ends by asking rhetorically why people who don't believe in the latter story would spend so much time and effort in the service of a God they don't truly acknowledge. Mind you, I don't go so far as to believe that a non-Christian can't find peace and joy in Christmas – because I know that's not true. But, as much as I am a fan of Charles Dickens, I find myself more and more Scrooge-like when I see the blatant efforts to twist people's arms into Christmas shopping even before Halloween. That's especially true in this economy. We know times are tough, the ads seem to say, but if you'd just spend a little bit more and you’ll have ever so much more fun! It makes me wonder if the Christmas spirit will ever wear thin, as powerful as it is, from being used too often for such nakedly selfish reasons – because I believe in the Christmas spirit. It heals as surely as any medicine. But even the most powerful antibiotic loses its power if overused.

When will we speak loudly enough so that someone will finally listen to what is not a religious rant, but a social one? Only, I fear, when we stop being able to spend even when the ads tug at our heartstrings.

And that will be a difficult Christmas for us all.

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