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James Martin, S.J.December 21, 2009

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. And it’s starting to bug me just a little bit.

I like Christmas as much as the next Christian. By that I mean the feast of the Nativity. Even if you have seen your share of yules, you’ll be able to discover something new in the Gospel readings, in the idea of the Incarnation or in the image of Jesus “dwelling among us.” What’s more, Advent, the wonderful windup to Christmas, is a spiritual banquet, offering myriad ways of tasting God’s grace. Just think of the “O antiphons” sung at evening prayer and as the Gospel acclamations in the days preceding Christmas. “O Wisdom,” “O Lord,” “O Root of Jesse” and the rest date back to the ninth century. It takes a stony heart not to be moved by those ancient words. That Christmas I like.

The Christmas I don’t cotton to is the one you probably don’t like either: the commercial one. This year what irked me most were the hackneyed slogans companies deployed in their December campaigns, which tried to have it both ways: using religious themes without actually being religious. Call it faith-based advertising. (Inci-dentally, it’s not as if you have to go searching, like the Wise Men, for these catalogs, magazine ads and commercials; they are all but inescapable in December.)

Some aren’t half bad. This year J. C. Penney’s ads featured the slogan “The Joy of Giving.” (Giving, needless to say, is laudable.) On the other hand, the store’s standard ad slogan seems an unlikely one for a department store: “Every day matters.” Every day matters? When did Deepak Chopra start writing ad copy for J. C. Penney?

By the way, if you examine their flyers, you’ll discover that “Every day matters” is a registered trademark. This means, I suppose, that the next time you say to a friend, “Every day matters,” you owe J. C. Penney a few pennies. Try Carpe diem instead. That’s still free.

Some advertisers seemed unable to decide how religious their ads could be. Many stores want to glom onto the Christmas angle without being Christian, which would be a challenge even for Don Draper and his “Mad Men” copywriters. The cover of my Land’s End catalog, bursting with preppy families who divide their time evenly between laughing dementedly and petting horses, says, “Make it Merry!” Make what merry? Celebrating Christ’s birth or petting a horse?

Magic is another popular word on Madison Avenue. Pier One’s catalog said, “Make Christmas Magic!” All I can think of is Mary and Joseph standing around Harry Potter in a manger.

The winner of this year’s most unfortunate catch phrase is a tie between Macy’s and Eddie Bauer. Macy’s shopping bags say, “A million reasons to believe!” In what? What does Macy’s want us to believe in? That God became fully human? (Imagine that on a bag.)

Just as silly was the cover of the Eddie Bauer catalogue, which says, “We believe.” As with Macy’s, I was curious to find out just what Eddie Bauer believed in. The indwelling of God? The two natures of Jesus? Well, not exactly. Page three had their creed: “We believe in the world’s best down!” I just hope they’ve heard about the new Mass translations. In two years, they’ll have to say, “I believe in the world’s best down.”

I know this is the way marketing works, using anything to hawk a product. And I’m sorry to be a stickler, but it’s strange seeing the Christian faith being used and denied at the same time.

Nonetheless, I try not to get too upset about it, because I don’t want commercialism to ruin my Christmas Day. Or any day. Because I believe that, as that great spiritual master J. C. Penney once said, “Every day matters.”

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14 years 5 months ago

Yes!  I haven't consciously analized the ad and catalogs, but I have felt overburdened the year by the commercialism around me.  Fr. Martin made much of it cleaer for me especially the statements approaching a Christian assertion of faith...but not quite.  I suppose I too believe in...down.  Oh well...

I'm holding out for the Nativity through all this.

P Davis
14 years 5 months ago

Great observations... Having worked at an ad agency I can always picture the "creative huddle" where the not so brainy brainstorming over "marketing messages" occurs. But at least the ad folks are not totally removing "faith" from Christmas however abstracted it may be.

If you want more discouragement from the media watch some "Holiday" specials such as Shrek the Halls and Prep and Landing. Totally vaporous on any faith element at all.

14 years 5 months ago

Christmas is a reminder and celebration of the spiritual reality that is only held close through faith, viz., God became one of us so as to be with us through this vale of tears. It occurs at a time when we also need to celebrate our lives with one another through gatherings, meals and drinks, and giving and receiving of gifts which are ultimately the result of a sharing of thoughts, feelings, a sharing of our very selves with one another. This time of year was a time for such celebrations long before Jesus walked the face of the earth and will continue to be as long as the days shorten and nights lengthen and we long for light. Whether shoppers are Christian by identification or not is secondary to their thinking about others and planning to give to others.

Christians do not own this time of year - humanity does and all celebrations of our common humanity, viz., our attachments to one another and love for and need for one another, to huddle with one another around a table or bar, are sacramental. I have come to feel grateful for the "commercialism" because it puts faith in the Incarnation in sharper focus and being in sharper focus His claims on us can be more acutely felt.

Mary Ellen Carroll
14 years 5 months ago
I'm sorry but I saw a ad that makes your examples pale by comparision. It must have been an ad for Victoria's Secret but I didn't pause long enough to find out. The ad features a young woman posed suggestively in her underwear offering comfort and joy. I was so disgusted with the ad that I left the mall without buying any Christmas gifts!
Paul Leddy
14 years 5 months ago
In a not too far distant past Christmas season, when I had just promised to, among other things, really live chastely, Victoria’s Secret ran an ad campaign for a few months which was posted all over DC’s METRO rail system. In the best (or worst, depending on one’s viewpoint) of circumstances it would have been difficult to ignore the advertisements &/or their not so subtle strategy that sex sells.
So, I wrote Victoria’s Secret and told them they weren’t helping matters any.
Someone from corporate called back!
I argued that any copy writer worth his/her salt could develop an ad campaign for lingerie without having to pander or without having to be to so blunt. I said they could do better, certainly with the budget they must command. Happily for me they said they appreciated my perspective and would keep it in mind for future ad campaigns.
I thought that was nice of Victoria Secrets; and since then, every Christmas season, I haven’t had to count tiles on the METRO platform while waiting for my train.

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