The Business of Christmas
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 be between $942.6 billion and $960.4 billion (which excludes sales from car dealers, gas stations, and restaurants). This will break last year’s record of $889.3 billion, and this growth in spending is a trend. Americans have increased their holiday shopping at an average rate of 4.9% per year since 2012, which saw $553.3 billion in holiday sales.
A large part of this increase is due to inflation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) reached 7.1% year over year in November 2022. However, despite higher costs, most consumers haven’t decreased their budgets. In a recent survey conducted by Klaviyo and Qualtrics, 65% of consumers plan to either spend the same amount as last year or increase their holiday spending this year.
Additionally, the number of holiday shoppers appears to have increased dramatically in 2022. According to NRF, during the five-day holiday shopping period from Thanksgiving Day to Cyber Monday this year, a record 196.7 million Americans shopped in stores and online, an increase of 17 million from 2021.
Buy now, pay later (BNPL) plans have also increased rapidly since 2019. These short-term financing options allow consumers to finance items ranging from $50 up to $1,000 over a period of four equal installments. Companies like Affirm, Afterpay, and Klarna are popping up on online retailers like Amazon, Walmart, and Shopify at the checkout page, allowing consumers to finance smaller ticket items like clothing, electronics, cosmetics, and other household goods.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released a report in September 2022 analyzing market trends for BNPL credit options. From 2019 to 2021, BNPL loan originations from the top five lenders in the U.S. increased from 16.8 million to 180 million, an increase of 970%, and the total dollar value of these loans increased from $2 billion to $24.2 billion, an increase of 1,092%. The average loan size in 2021 was $135, up from $121 in 2020, and BNPL plans are most common among Gen Z and Millennials as nearly half of the borrower base is under the age of 33.
In addition to BNPL plans, many consumers will use credit cards to fund their holiday purchases. According to a recent U.S. News & World Report survey, about 42% of consumers expect to take on debt to fund holiday spending. In 2021, holiday borrowers incurred on average $1,249 of debt according to a LendingTree survey.
From the producers’ perspective, the holiday season is vital for survival. Sales skyrocket, and to adapt to the surge, retailers will hire hundreds of thousands of seasonal workers. NRF expects retailers to hire between 450,000 and 600,000 seasonal workers during the holiday season this year.
Confronting a Commercialized Culture
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 Savior of the world, Jesus Christ?
The story of Jesus’s first temple cleansing in John 2 offers some insight. The Passover Festival was near, so Jesus decided to return to Jerusalem to 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 NIV).
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:
For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. (Revelation 3:17-18 ESV)
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 holiday 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.