By Edward Hadas

The opinions expressed are his own.

Ah, the curse of materialism. The true spirit of Christmas has been obliterated by a landslide of gifts. The crass commercialism which surrounds the experience of holiday shopping, not to mention the returns and post-Christmas sales, has turned this joyous holiday into little more than an exaltation of the worst aspects of our modern consumerist economy.

Or so it is often said. But is the complaint fair? It’s certainly true that the exchange of gifts on a large scale is a relatively new feature of Christmas festivities. In the 1840s, Charles Dickens has the Spirit of Christmas Present take the miser Ebenezer Scrooge to witness joyous celebrations of the feast. Food, drink and good cheer are in abundant supply, but there are no presents.

In the 1880s, hand-made gifts were making the day special for many American children. By the 1920s, a more commercial spirit had triumphed in the land of mass production and the factory-made Christmas was already causing complaints about inappropriate gifts. According to historian William Waits, some businessmen felt a little queasy about advertisements for such supposedly ideal Christmas gifts as a can of paint, a cooperative apartment, potatoes and floor wax.

Waits notes that Santa Claus had starred in many seasonal advertisements. He plausibly interprets this as a sign of discomfort with the invasion of the cash nexus into a holiday which was then still considered predominantly religious. The desire to make people buy things and the search for profit seemed to fit poorly with the poor infant of Bethlehem. But the reworked Saint Nicolas took gifts out of the marketplace. In Waits’ words, Santa “did not use money and was not engaged in making profit…. His gargantuan giveaway was antithetical to pecuniary self-interest and its only reward was the satisfaction of making recipients happy.”

The jovial generosity in the North Pole workshop can certainly be interpreted as no more than a feeble attempt to escape the dark reality of “pecuniary self-interest” (aka greed). There is no question that Christmas is now a big business. Holiday presents account for about 0.6 percent of U.S. GDP, based on spending intentions reported in a Gallup survey. Producers and retailers alike cannot easily separate the spirit of the season from the call of the cash register.