Given the berserk cultural focus at this time of year on buying things — a different catalogue has been arriving at our doorstep every single day for the past couple of weeks — I feel that it is almost obligatory for all of us to do some soul-searching. Presents and gift-giving are a beautiful thing, and I do not doubt that people are genuinely happier, at least for a while, during this orgy of spending. However, as John Stewart informed us (Canadian link), Americans spent $60 Billion during this past Thanksgiving weekend. For a population that is not generally in good economic condition, that is a mind-blowing figure — according to some estimates, that is a third of what the entire world would need to pay each year to end world poverty, and that total is composed entirely of money from private citizens.
My concern lies in the fact that this spate of consumerism is clouded in a significant way in an aura of religious authenticity. Jewish kids growing up love Chanukah because it is the holiday of presents, and while eating lots of food is wonderful (especially oily food),we do that every holiday, and it doesn’t hold a candle (pardon the pun) to getting presents. This is one of the clearest cases of religion being co-opted by the surrounding secular society. Chanukah did not start out as a holiday of presents. While I do think that the giving of gifts falls in line with the spirit of Chanukah insofar as it brightens our moods during the darkest days of the year, I would hope to live in a world where religion can be a loud voice against the pitfalls of capitalism rather than being part of the parade.
I don’t expect consumerism’s grasp on religion to slacken in one holiday season, but I can hope that more individuals take time during their holidays this year to remember what in their lives is truly valuable — I would bet all my dreidel winnings that nothing on that list comes wrapped in plastic.
חג אורים שמח