Black Friday has certainly given America’s cultural reputation a black eye. The day after we pause to give thanks as a nation for God’s provisions, we trample security guards for iPhones and flat-screen televisions. It’s now an annual tradition: America’s big-box stores drop their prices and, in response, shoppers go berserk.
News stations everywhere lead with the requisite embarrassing video footage, showing shoppers crawling over each other, throwing elbows and curse words. Checkout lines at Walmarts and Best Buys nationwide become dangerous places to be or to work. It’s not a good look.
Of course, online Black Friday sales have already been going on for a month now, which allows us to indulge our consumerist tendencies without physical violence. I guess that’s an improvement …
Dennis Prager once told me on a panel that if this is America’s biggest problem — scuffling with each other in a rush to buy presents for our loved ones — we could do a lot worse. I told him that I was not convinced these shoppers were altruistically buying for others, but still, I take his point. There certainly needs to be room for frivolity at Christmas time.
All of this should remind us of the idols vying for our attention this Christmas season. Certainly there is the idol of stuff, but, looking through social media, there is also the idol of other people’s perceptions.
Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook are full of this idol, and we allow ourselves to feel the pressure. All those pictures of a perfectly decorated home of perfectly well-behaved and perfectly matching children, complete with color, theme and pattern-coordinating attire. Matching Christmas pajamas, shown off with a family lip-sync.
All the Pinterest-worthy décor and Instagram-worthy celebration videos reveal a different kind of materialism — a materialism of experience. And it has become another distraction in a season meant for holy reflection.
Throughout church history, the days leading up to Christmas celebrations were to be a time of fasting. Many liturgically oriented Christians see Advent as a bookend to Lent, the liturgical season of fasting and prayer that occurs in the 40 days before Easter. For Christians, Advent is a time to reflect on Jesus’ first incarnation and prepare for his second coming. The Bible doesn’t prescribe this outright, of course, but Advent does provide us with a different calendar to go by, something especially helpful today in our hurried cultural moment.
Unfortunately, for many of us, Black Friday settles into a rushed and hurried holiday-season rhythm. And for many, along with the chaos comes the melancholy. It’s a frustrating paradox: Feeling sad during what’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year.
Jesus offers some insight in the Gospel of Matthew, when he calls the weary and burdened to come to him. “I will give you rest,” he said. “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Obviously, Jesus isn’t saying that to follow him means having an easy or comfortable life. After all, his own earthly life wasn’t easy or comfortable in any sense. When he says his “yoke is easy,” I think at least part of what he’s talking about is simplicity.
Maybe our Christmastime melancholy is the byproduct of all the pressure to have a good time and all the options we have in order to have a good time and all the pressure we face to prove to others on social media that we’ve had a good time. After all, our culture implicitly convinces us, you’ll only know you’re having a wonderful, valuable life if you follow every Pinterest recipe and constantly upload joyful moments to Instagram and Facebook and get lots of likes.
We’re afraid our lives won’t be full, but neglect that which will fill us: reflecting on holy things, like Mary’s obedience and Jesus’ sacrifice; embracing ordinary beauty like extra time with family and special traditions.
By all means, enjoy the frivolity. But don’t lose the season curating online versions of holiday experiences or by comparing your curated memories with theirs. Celebrate Jesus’ birth. Give gifts freely. Eat some extra calories.
Have a Merry Christmas — just don’t feel the pressure to put it on Instagram.
From BreakPoint, Nov. 29, 2019; reprinted by permission of the Colson Center, www.breakpoint.org.