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Opinion: The Commercialization of Christmas Shows the Essence of the Holiday

The commercialization of Christmas is often scoffed at and scorned, but does the rampant consumer culture that surrounds the holiday really show what it’s all about?

As far as commercialism goes, it’s true, Christmas is a commercial holiday. But in the fray of a consumer culture this has become a fundamental way that we see, approach, and engage our world — even if you claim to reject it.

Most of us live lives that are measured in dollars and cents. We get paid X amount of money per hour of life. For us wage-earners at least, money is ultimately a quantified representation of time — the abstract materialization of segments of our lives. Viewed in this sense, gift giving is almost a kind of a metaphysical act. It’s the quantifying and materializing of time and energy which is passed on to another person. So when we give gifts, we give a portion of our time, a portion of our lives — and this is what matters.

How many words did I have to write to buy my wife that space heater? How many emails did I have to send to recruit the teacher that helped me afford my daughter’s Spanish classes? How much time did I exchange into monetary units and pass over a counter so I could try to make someone I like happy on this particular day of the year?

Though what’s really integral about the modern Christmas celebration is perhaps the shopping itself — the very commercialism that is often so heavily criticized. When people are shopping for presents they are thinking about other people. They have to momentarily halt the obsessive rounds of thinking about themselves and their lives to ponder what the people they want to give gifts to like, enjoy, and may want to receive. You think about what the person is into, what they do with their time, and what direction they are going in. These thoughts tend to meander to those about your time with that particular person, some of the things they’ve said, and the experiences you’ve shared together. Christmas shopping can’t be done any other way. A gift shows time, it shows intention, it shows thought — it’s a material object that symbolizes your history with another person.

The people of my country just spent the past month and a half sacrificing dozens and dozens of hours running around to stores, standing in long lines, walking for miles across malls, sitting in traffic jams, competing with other shoppers, arguing with department store staff members, browsing late into the night on the internet, and spending thousands of dollars which represent untold hours of work, all so that on a single day they can give gifts which make the people around them happy. In a very obtuse way, the extreme commercialism and rampant shopping and gift giving of Christmas represents the deep essence of the holiday.

Filed under: Celebrations, Essays, Opinion

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3571 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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