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What Would Jesus Buy?

As retailers' "Black Friday" approaches, research shows that commerce and Christmas have a long history of coexistence, and the psychological effect may be generally positive.
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The editorial was blunt and caustic: Christmas, it complained, had become "a festival for store-keepers." Retail was replacing religion as the holiday's focus, and the editors of Ladies' Home Journal felt compelled to protest — in 1890. Six decades later, a group of French priests made a similar point in a literally more inflammatory way, hanging and burning an effigy of Santa Claus in front of several hundred children on Christmas Eve. The clerics condemned the bringer of presents as "a usurper and a heretic," according to an account by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

As these examples suggest, complaints about the commercialization of Christmas are as hardy a holiday perennial as holly. Social scientists have been documenting, analyzing and commenting on them for decades, often coming to conflicting conclusions. In a 1962 book, social historian J.A.R. Pimlott called the holiday's combined secular and religious nature "the paradox of Christmas," and the contradictions continue today.

York University marketing professor Russell Belk, who has probably done more research on Christmas consumerism than anyone else, noted in 1993 that "[at] least four of the deadly sins against which Christianity once railed are now seen by some to be venerated in Christmas celebrations: avarice, gluttony, lust and envy." But he added that "there is little real threat to the sacred status of Christmas, primarily due to the increasing interpenetration of values celebrated by the Christian and commercial sponsors of Christmas." The themes of love, family and generosity are preached from the pulpit and incorporated into advertising.

Jib Fowles, a professor of communication at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, goes farther. In a 1996 book, he argued that Christmas "was not much celebrated in the English-speaking world for the two centuries before the arrival of the production/consumption economy in the 19th century. As the holiday re-emerged, it used as gifts the goods that were at hand — in this case, manufactured ones." (The non-celebration of the holiday in early America can be traced to the Puritans. The colony of Massachusetts declared in 1659 that anyone caught observing the holiday would be subject to a fine. Eggnog sales did not recover for centuries.)

As Western attitudes spread around the world, it was probably inevitable that Muslim scholars would start worrying about the commercialization of Ramadan. In a 2006 study, Ozlem Sandikci and Sahver Omeraki of Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, examined the evidence and found no reason for alarm. Rather, they reported in the journal Advances in Consumer Research that a hybrid of Western and traditional Turkish traditions has been created, "combining a variety of symbols connoting religious values and beliefs as well as markers of a global consumption ethos." Sound familiar?

Santa has been a secular symbol of Christmas for more than a century, thanks in part to his ubiquitous presence in advertisements, including a decades-long campaign for Coca-Cola. (Given what we now know about the relationship between obesity and soft-drink consumption, the source of Santa's girth is no longer a mystery.) While Belk considers him a troublesome figure, one who encourages the belief that "if one simply deserves it, material wishes will come true," other scholars see the jolly man on the sleigh in a more benign light.

Writing in the British journal The Psychiatrist in 2004, Lynda Breen laid out the case for Santa Claus. "Encouraging children to believe in a benevolent Santa may foster traits of kindness and cooperation," she wrote. "Many children grasp the symbolic lessons regarding charitable giving and consideration of others from the Santa rituals. Many letters to Santa include a wish for someone else, including the poor or sick."

Her viewpoint is arguably supported by an experiment featuring kindergarten and first-grade students, reported in the journal Contemporary Educational Psychology in 1984. The children were asked to tell stories about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or their pets. They were then given nine pieces of gum and "encouraged to donate any amount of their gum to handicapped children."

The kindergartners, who were clearly not yet into sharing, tended to hold onto their gum. But the first-graders were far more generous, and those who had been discussing Santa were the most giving of all. They gave up an average of 3.63 pieces of gum, compared to 1.3 pieces for those who talked about the Easter Bunny and 1.63 for those who discussed their pets.

"It may be the case that children perceive Santa Claus — but not the Easter Bunny — as a contingent gift-giver, assessing the quality of a child's behavior before determining the nature of gifts," concluded the study's authors, Southwest Missouri State University researchers David Dixon and Harry Hom. "Alternately, children may see Santa Claus as more generally vigilant than the Easter Bunny."

Of course, being on your best behavior because you suspect you're being judged and expect something in return isn't quite the same thing as learning the value of kindness and empathy.

The sight of colorful Christmas decorations illuminating homes stirs so many feelings in one's heart. Warmth. Joy. And, of course, scorn for the tackiness of the lower classes.

At least, that's the case in Britain, according to geographers Tim Edensor and Steve Millington of Manchester Metropolitan University. In a 2009 paper titled "Illuminations, Class Identities and the Contested Landscapes of Christmas," published in the journal Sociology, they report that stringing multicolored lights on the outside of homes — a popular practice in the U.S. since the years immediately following World War II — has spread to the U.K. over the past two decades.

"While modest, chic white and blue lighting illuminates middle-class housing areas, more colorful extravaganzas pervade working-class residential districts," they write. These displays, which feature such festive elements as "stars, sleighs, snowmen, bells and parcels," have "transformed the British urban nightscape, causing much controversy, reflected in the derogatory term 'chav bling.'" ("Chav" is slang for "an imaginary rough working-class subject.")

The researchers report the "chavs" don't care much that certain upper-class twits look down upon their displays. The decorations provide them with "an attainment of status and a positive sense of social identity" within their communities. And community is what this practice is all about, on either side of the Atlantic.

As Brian Murray noted in the Spring 2006 issue of the Appalachian State University journal History Matters, "Christmas lights became popular in large part because of their ability to convey a small-town feel among strangers in an unfriendly metropolis." He reported that Christmas light competitions, which were popular both between and within cities in the 1950s, "provided people with a unique opportunity to gain a sense of participation within their large, impersonal communities."

And that dynamic continues to apply, according to a 1989 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology. A research team led by University of Utah psychologist Carol Werner reported that participants in an experiment "used Christmas decorations as a cue that the residents were friendly and cohesive." This suggests homeowners and renters — especially those new to a neighborhood — "can use their home's exterior to communicate attachment, and possibly to integrate themselves into a neighborhood's social activities." Love your lights. Care for a cup of cocoa?