Like many Christmas shoppers, I am often welcomed by cash register clerks with the greeting: “Happy Holidays!” To which I like to respond, “Did you have a particular holiday in mind?” From there, the short conversation often goes to Christmas and its true meaning. Like the Grinch, I offer some version of: “Maybe Christmas…doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”

Even for those who are often too bashful to speak about their faith, Christmas shopping presents Catholics with a natural segue and an almost impossibly easy opportunity to spread the good news of the Gospel. Perhaps for that reason, I have always found it difficult to decry the evils of the “commercialization of Christmas.”

We have so few references to Christianity (even admittedly distant and increasingly secularized ones) in our culture, do we really want to speak out against the few remaining openings? Consider the alternative: If retail stores stop decorating for Christmas—even if they claim to be decorating for the amorphous and vague “Holidays”—how is Christianity better served? 

The problem is not that stores transform for Christmas; the problem is that stores don’t for the other feast days. I wish that lumber stores had sales on wood for the Feast of Saint Joseph, that home improvement stores had sales on lighting for the Feast of The Transfiguration, and that bedding stores had sales on pillows for the Feast of the Dormition of Mary. Note to American retailers: If you build it—if you have such sales—I will come.

“But Christmas is not about giving gifts!” some interject. Christmas is not about material things, they quite reasonably offer, but about spiritual things. But are material and spiritual things, both creations of God, at inevitable conflict with each other? After all, the Church recommends that we practice both spiritual and corporal works of mercy—clarifying that there is no inherent conflict between the two. To the contrary, they are intended to be mutually supportive. At least to the extent that Christmas gifts answer the call to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, Christmas is also about giving gifts.

At the risk of pointing out the painfully obvious, the Wise Men came bearing gifts. And, though, for that reason, there might be a stronger logic to exchange gifts on the Feast of the Epiphany rather than on Christmas Day, gift-giving is not only a long-standing tradition, but one that often answers the tender whispers of charity. If Yuletide gift-giving is our Christian legacy, the value of suppressing it is unclear.  

Christmas gift-giving can be a beautiful thing, rarely illustrated with more care than in O. Henry’s short story, The Gift of the Magi. If you have not yet read this wonderful tale, please give yourself a gift this Christmas and read it. Better yet, read it to your children. Better still, live its endearing and enduring lesson. O. Henry’s genius was in explaining how merely material things—trinkets though they may be—can represent our desire to express a powerful love and affection for our beloved. In the end, material gifts represent our desire for the gift of self.   

All this said, it is certainly possible for material trappings to overtake us. Materialism can supplant our focus on Baby Jesus. To fight against this, pray for the spirit of poverty, say the third decade of the Joyful Mysteries with more devotion, and spend a few quiet moments with Jesus in the Eucharistic chapel. But also realize that Christmas is time to light the candle of the Gospel’s Good News, rather than curse the darkness of its commercialization.

In our little corners of the world, the commercialization of Christmas will obscure the theological importance and meaning of Christmas only if we let it. Perhaps this is something to remember the next time we go shopping.