Christmas is a time of peace, joy, and massive economic activity. The National Retail Federation (NRF) forecasts that holiday sales during November and December this year will reach $755.3 billion (which excludes sales from automobile dealers, gas stations, and restaurants). This will break last year’s record of $729.1 billion, and this growth in spending is a trend. Americans have increased their holiday shopping at an average rate of 3.5 percent per year since 2008, which saw only $501.5 billion in holiday sales.
Individually, holiday shoppers will likely spend an average of $998 this year primarily on clothing, electronics, gift cards, beauty products, and toys, including top products from LEGO, Barbie, Hot Wheels, Xbox, and Nintendo. Last year, a Qualtrics survey found that 44 percent of consumers also took on debt for holiday spending. Those who did accrue debt accumulated an average of $1,325 during the holidays, which has increased about 10 percent annually since 2016.
For many businesses, the holiday season is vital for survival. Sales skyrocket, and to adapt to the surge retailers will hire hundreds of thousands of seasonal workers.
Additionally, e-commerce activity has increased substantially in the past decade, and Covid-19 has encouraged even greater online purchasing this year. According to Adobe Analytics, Americans spent $10.8 billion on Cyber Monday this year, a 15 percent increase from last year’s $9.4 billion, and will likely spend $184 billion in total online holiday shopping this year.
The pandemic has also caused consumers to begin their holiday shopping earlier. According to the NRF’s 2020 Holiday Planning Survey conducted this summer, most retailers predicted that the holiday season would be longer than last year’s due to Covid-19, and nearly half of retailers expected consumers to begin holiday shopping in October this year.
This hustle and bustle of economic activity powerfully impacts how Christmas is celebrated. Manufacturers will pump out products to meet demand; managers will maintain adequate levels of inventory to meet profit margins; marketers will create the most convincing ads; consumers will secure the next new toy, electronic, or fashion item for their Christmas list.
Amidst such extravagant materialism and consumerism, how should Christians navigate this season which, after all, is supposed to celebrate the birth of the God-man, the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ?
The story of Jesus’ first temple cleansing in John 2 offers some insight. The Passover Festival was near, so Jesus decided to return to Jerusalem the observe the Jewish holiday. The Passover was an annual celebration that lasted one day and commemorated God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. The Jewish law required all male Jews to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate (Deuteronomy 16:16), and following the Passover, the Jews stayed to celebrate the weeklong Festival of Unleavened Bread.
This was a joyful season of celebration for the Jews, a time to remember God’s faithfulness and love. But, like Christmas today, it was not without its commercialism. Expecting an inflow of foreign visitors, religious leaders sensed a business opportunity. Originally, the court of the Gentiles surrounding the temple was a place of prayer, but Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, authorized a market within the court to sell animals and other items for temple sacrifices. The ability to purchase sacrificial animals instead of bringing one’s own had the effect of impersonalizing the sacrifice.
Religious leaders also created a monopoly, maintaining total control over pricing. Since the law required sacrifices without imperfections, they could reject the pilgrims’ “blemished” animals and require they buy temple animals instead. Mark 11:16 remarks that sellers loaded with merchandise used the temple’s outer court as a staging ground to sell their products across the city, essentially turning God’s temple into a warehouse for their business ventures, a “den of robbers” as Jesus called it (Mark 11:17).
Commercialism did not stop there. Because there were three sources of currency circulating in Palestine at the time, Jews exchanged imperial Roman or provincial Greek currency to the money changers for the Jewish Tyrian coinage required to pay the annual temple tax. With each transaction, the money changers charged high fees, a shady business practice and a clear violation of Jewish usury laws.
Jesus was horrified and irate. Commercialism, extortion, and greed denigrated his Father’s house of worship. With a makeshift whip, he drove out the buyers, sellers, and their animals; he scattered coins, flipped tables, and shouted at the merchants: “Get these [doves] out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” (John 2:15-16).
Given this background, how would Jesus likely view the conduct of most American Christians during this Christmas season? We know how he viewed the wealthy and comfortable church in Laodicea, which benefitted from the city’s strong banking and manufacturing industries:
Have American Christians completely lost the focus by approaching Christmas as consumers? Not exactly. In fact, God did not institute Christmas. Christians do not have to sing Christmas carols or celebrate the birth of Jesus. But neither must Christians boycott Christmas or traditions of gift-giving. What seems most important is the heart of Christmas.
Why do we celebrate Christmas? Where does our heart truly lie? Do we spend more time planning for events, buying gifts, and following cultural traditions than we do celebrating the birth of our Lord and Savior?
The challenge is not to shun the world around us with its material goods and traditions but to experience it as pointing to a fundamental spiritual reality. Commerce, material goods, and business are not bad in themselves, but they become dangerous for Christians if they distract us from Christ. To this end, if all the presents, Christmas trees, and holidays jingles were stripped away and only Christ were left, would we still feel the excitement of Christmas? This does not mean we must or should strip away all the accessories of Christmas, but it is a useful test.
But the greatest gift of all is God’s gift to his people: the gift of Christ, which includes the forgiveness of sins (Romans 3:24) and the promise of eternal life (John 17:3), and the gift of the Holy Spirit, our Comforter, who renews and strengthens us here on earth (Titus 3:5-6). As Christians long for Christ’s glorious return, we can participate in the “business” of Christmas—that’s fine. But then there is the true business of Christmas, and thoughtful Christians will keep these distinct.
Andrew Hall ('21) studied finance, math, and political science at Baylor University and was a Baylor in Washington Program participant during the Spring 2021 semester. He works as an Advisory Associate for Calvetti Ferguson in San Antonio, TX. He enjoys reading the Bible, spending time with his local church, and learning how to incorporate faith into the realms of finance and entrepreneurship.