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Part 3 in a series on Economics & Culture

So you’re out Christmas shopping, finding the perfect gifts for everyone on your list. You’re enjoying the sights and sounds of the season – the carols, the snow, perhaps the aroma of chestnuts actually roasting on an open fire. Even the Salvation Army Santa brings a smile to your face.

But something is there, nagging at the back of your mind. Something that tells you that what you’re doing isn’t quite right. It’s that guilty feeling – guilt for consuming during the Christmas season.

Gallup Economy reported in a recent article that the average U.S. consumer will spend at least $770 on Christmas gifts this year. Even kids seem to be affected by consumerist impulses. Jay Richards writes in his book Money, Greed, and God:

Every Christmas, millions of children plead for some new toy – Wii, or Playstation or an American Girl Doll – that didn’t even exist a few years earlier.

The holidays always provide a time to step back and take a fresh perspective on consumerism. What is it, exactly? Are we perpetuating it when we buy gifts? What’s a Christian Christmas shopper to do?

Defining Consumerism

Consumerism can be a problem in any season. But what is it?

Andrew Abela offers a simple definition of consumerism in his essay, “Is Consumerism Harmful?” Abela defines consumerism as “excessive desire for material consumption.” He then offers a nuanced perspective on consumerism’s key aspect: desire. Abela writes,

It is not the desire for material prosperity itself that is wrong, but rather the desire for having more in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself.

Eugene Cho echoes the need for nuance when thinking about your gift-giving impulses during the holidays. Discussing Christmas consumerism, he writes,

…there’s room and space to enjoy giving, exchanging and receiving gifts. It’s a beautiful thing or rather, it can be a beautiful thing — if we understand these gifts in perspective.

Cho goes on to explain what he means by the phrase ‘gifts in perspective’:

By that, I mean that we understand that gifts, goods, stuff and consumption don’t define us, our worth or the worth of others.

So purchasing gifts for others this season might not be a bad thing – if your heart is in the right place. Jay Richards describes the issue succinctly in Money, Greed, and God:

[Consumerism] is a serious moral problem when it involves misplaced loyalty to material things – to fine food, wine, clothes, cars, iPods.

To clarify: consumption differs from consumerism. We consume food, water, and air to live. In addition, we consume other things to meet non-basic needs not directly related to survival but still important. And some products we buy for enjoyment, to give as gifts to bless others, or other reasons that are related to the fruits of our labor and human flourishing.

The difference between consumption and consumerism, as these three thinkers point out, depends on the place consumption takes in our hearts.

Crowding Out the King

In Exodus 20:3, God commands,

You shall have no other gods before me. 

The problem with consumerism is that it too easily becomes an idol in our lives. Jay Richards further clarifies this notion when he writes (emphasis added),

Immoderate desire is the point, not consumption. Jesus said as much when he warned that we cannot serve both God and Mammon (Matthew 6:24). Paul made much the same point when he said that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. You can have only one object of ultimately loyalty and worship. God is the only proper object of worship. So however good something is in itself, if it crowds out God, it’s an idol

Ask yourself: is my consumption this Christmas crowding out God? If so, consumerism might be an idol.

Navigating the Christmas consumer conundrum need not be difficult this year if we keep in mind the proper place of consumption in our lives. Buy those gifts, bless your friends and family – but remember that consumption, if overblown into the idolatry of consumerism, makes a poor replacement for the King born on Christmas Day.

What do you think? How are consumption and consumerism different? How are keeping consumerism in check this holiday season? Leave your comments here

This post is part of a series on Economics & Culture
Elise Amyx

About Elise Amyx

Elise Amyx is a communications associate at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics. She has previously worked with the Values & Capitalism project at A.E.I. and the Acton Institute. Her articles have been published in Real Clear Religion, The Detroit News, and AFF Doublethink. She has a BBA in Economics from James Madison University. Read More...

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