Two hundred years ago, a child would be thrilled to wake up on Christmas morning and find in his stocking a single piece of candy. And if he were really, really good, he might also get an orange. That was all. His mother might receive a nice new handkerchief. As for his father, it was considered bad form for the breadwinner to receive any gift at all.
The Wall Street Journal, celebrating the advent of another multibillion-dollar sales season, carried a story (Nov. 27) by Cynthia Crossen on the history of Christmas gift-giving. In the late 19th century, people started buying manufactured gifts for each other on a larger scale: A leather-bound Bible embossed with gold was a popular, though expensive, gift, and children started receiving really fancy candy, and maybe a doll or a sled.
The haul kept getting bigger, Ms. Crossen shows, all through the 20th century. Sewing machines, Crayolas, and Tinker Toys in the Roaring Twenties. Household appliances in the 1940s and 1950s. Electronic gadgets and Barbies, G.I. Joes, and the start of TV's merchandise tie-ins in the 1960s. Then conspicuous consumption on a scale to stagger Croesus, as brand-names multiply, with video games and computers, the least of which has more capacity than the Univacs that designed the atomic bomb. Today, the sheer quantity of gifts in many families stacks up into a pile that dwarfs the Christmas tree.
It is almost impossible to comprehend just how affluent Americans have become. Even our most poverty-stricken households-not to minimize their hardships-tend to have a television set, indoor plumbing, often a car, and access to a level of comfort that even the very wealthiest of 200 years ago could hardly aspire to.
In the 19th and early 20th century, agonizing over the plight of the workingman spawned a whole array of socialist philosophies, culminating in Marx's revolutionary communism. But now, such are the wonders of the free market economy that ordinary blue-collar workers typically own their own homes, have more than one vehicle, take vacations all over the world, and are making money in the stock market. As Tom Wolfe points out in his new book Hooking Up, by the year 2000 "the average electrician air-conditioning mechanic, or burglar-alarm repairman lived a life that would make the Sun King blink."
Nevertheless, presidential candidate Al Gore won the popular vote by stirring up economic fears and demonizing "the rich." America's universities still solemnly invoke Karl Marx, interpret America as a vast conspiracy for economic oppression, and bemoan the evils of capitalism.
All the while, many teenagers-for all of their video games, CD players, MP3 files, computer technology, the television in their room, and spending power that gives them more clout in the marketplace than their parents-are plagued with an almost paralyzing boredom. And many adults complain, wallow in victimhood, and demand more and more.
By all the standards of the 19th century, we have attained the promised utopia. But for all our wealth many of us are still miserable after all. Material prosperity has not led to stronger or happier families, or moral improvement, or better government, or cultural health, or stronger faith. In fact, the abundance of Mammon has sometimes made our spiritual problems worse.
All of this is proof that material prosperity is not enough. Without God, it doesn't even seem like a blessing.
Prosperous American Christians should be grateful to the unmerited generosity of God, from whose hand comes every good and perfect gift. G. K. Chesterton commented that one problem with being an atheist is that when something good happens, there is no one to thank. We should not scorn the abundance with which God has blessed us. Ironically, that is what most Americans seem to be doing, not even noticing how much we have. Rather, Christians should enjoy God's gifts with a thankful heart.
But ultimately, there is only one Christmas gift: the Christ child, who turns all of our other gift-giving and gift-receiving into types of His grace.