WASHINGTON, Dec. 21, 2015 — Foreign observers of Black Friday and Cyber Monday might assume that Thanksgiving is nothing more than a banquet kicking off a month-long shopping spree. They might see the season as a celebration of gluttony whose grand finale is the gift exchange called “Christmas.”
It is easy to see the holiday season as a capitalist celebration designed to extract the excess earnings from the previous year’s labor. But Christmas is a religious holiday that commemorates the birth of a very humble man who preached about forgoing self-indulgences in favor of service to those in need.
Some say Jesus was a socialist, but he never saw the world in terms of “capitalism” or “socialism” or even “economics.” The concepts didn’t exist in his time.
Capitalism is neither good nor evil, but is a system in which people can choose for themselves. They can be selfish or generous, band together in cooperative organizations or stand alone as rugged individualists. They choose.
Capitalism is about choice. It promotes efficiency, but it lets us choose the ends to which we’ll put the wealth created by that efficiency. Capitalism—true, populist capitalism, not the crony capitalism so dominant in Washington today—encourages hard work and reduces poverty. These are virtues in Christianity, and they are achieved through the increased efficiency capitalism encourages.
But capitalism lets us choose, and unhealthy and self-destructive traits like greed are the ones Americans choose to feed with their holiday season pampering.
American culture has transformed America into a nation of transients. Holiday traditions that revolve around the family are ways of fulfilling the neglected social and emotional needs that all people have. Facebook and other social media platforms might supplement our need for social interaction throughout the year, but people need physical and mental engagement with family and community in order to fulfill their social and emotional needs.
Healthy people are equally motivated by economic needs— that is, obtaining the resources they need, including financial resources—and social and emotional needs. An unhealthy person, or someone in an unhealthy situation, will ignore some of these needs.
Holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas are traditionally centered on family and close friends, so healthy people are best served by emphasizing their social and emotional needs during these celebrations.
When we focus on consumption, especially during the holiday season, we focus on our economic wants. Although choosing gifts for family and friends is an important pre-Christmas activity with strong emotional and social components, Black Friday and the emphasis on buying transform it into an almost purely economic activity. On Christmas Day, “it’s the thought that counts” only when the time and money spent spent on gifts meet expectations.
Because we are bombarded by the economic element—”buy, buy, and buy more!”—to the exclusion of the emotional and social elements of the holidays, we fail to meet our emotional and social needs during the holiday season.
Capitalist Americans have been indoctrinated to believe that people act as purely economic beings—that is, that we are rational actors—so we treat each other as nothing more than rational consumers.
American consumers feed this dynamic by indulging in consumerism and overconsumption during the holiday season, often to the point they can no longer experience the holidays as emotional and social creatures. Rather than being socially and emotionally enriching, the holidays become a stressful, unhealthy time of year. The holidays have become about fulfilling ever-growing economic expectations when we should be focused on emotional and social engagement.
Corporations are owned and operated in such a way that they act as purely economic beings. Business leaders and economists tend to treat all other actors—including people—as if they are the same. But when you assume that people are rational, economic decision-makers and nothing more, you transform them into sociopaths.
When the behavior of healthy people does not fit this model, they try to rationalize why the apparently irrational behavior is rational with ungodly complicated models rather than recalibrating their basic models to include emotional and social aspects of human behavior.
In other words, they are trying to ascribe what is explained by abnormal psychology to the whole of society.
Pressured to act in ways that are “economically rational,” Americans are actually being pressured to become psychologically abnormal.
By over-emphasizing the economic elements of holiday behavior, businesses overwhelm the strong social and emotional incentives present during the holiday season. They do it to the point people cannot fulfill their social and emotional needs. The overwhelming pressure to spend deprives people of what they need to be psychologically healthy.
Because Americans are pressured to be psychologically unhealthy, it is no wonder the culture has perverted the meaning of Christmas. After all, people can barely experience the holiday season anything more than an uptick in consumer spending.