Once again the role of religion in the celebration of Christmas is a hot topic. Arguing for the sacredness of the day, religious proponents like GOP Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl stated that Democratic threats of keeping congress open during the holiday season were “disrespectful” while Sen. Jim DeMint called Democrats’ legislative push during the holiday season “sacrilegious.” Even adamant atheist Bill Maher called Oprah a religious hypocrite for leading her “congregation” away from the spirituality of Christmas to the throne of secular consumerism during her two “My Favorite Things” giveaway shows.
In order to combat the constant ploys to secularize the holiday and remove the “Christ” from Christmas, Christians flood the marketplace with Christian commodities, all intended to remind consumers that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” And, in fact, Jesus is no further than the host of websites that sell “Happy Birthday Jesus Party Supplies,” pre-assembled nativity scenes, special holiday editions of the Bible, sermon series’, and a catalog of religious Christmas music.
Paul Simon has presented us with such a Christmas present in the form of a new song, “Getting Ready for Christmas Day” (video below). The song questions, among other things, just how “religious” our holiday season really is. Ironically, Simon, who is Jewish, was inspired to write the song after hearing a 1941-recorded sermon of the same title by religious media pioneer Rev. J. M. Gates, who can be heard preaching his antiphonal sermon while being encouraged by his congregation. Simon’s use of the half-century-old sermon to critique the pseudo-holiness of the Christmas holiday is a great example of the timeless dilemma producers of religious commodities face in using the marketplace to remind the nation that “Jesus is the reason for the season.”
Gates, who died in 1945, gained popularity by using the phonograph and music industry to record, transmit, and sell his sermons across the country. “Getting Ready for Christmas Day” was the preacher’s last recorded sermon in a corpus of over two hundred. American clergy such as Gates, have thought of such religious commodities as the perfect union between the worldliness of consumer culture and the divinity of religion—an immaculate conception, if you will—when aimed at maintaining Christianity’s place in America. Yet, are such spiritual commodities really helping us to sustain religious devotion or are they just currency in the religion of consumerism?
While Gates’ sermon articulates his vigorous disdain for consumer capitalism overtaking the religious sentiments of the holiday season, his sermons were actually sold by and in the emerging institutions of consumerism of his day: chain stores such as Montgomery Ward and Sears. Simply put, the vitality and popularity of his national mass media ministry was dependent upon that which he critiqued: consumerism capitalism.
Whether or not a holiday can be secured as religious by virtue of its spiritual commodities is, of course, a topic that merits further discussion. But I, for one, have to get ready for Christmas day. My mother and father both want new gospel CDs, and… well, the mall is about to close…