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Out with materialism, in with religion

Rather than take the holidays to learn about different cultural festivities, we focus only on the presents. (Adele van Wyk photo)
Rather than take the holidays to learn about different cultural festivities, we focus only on the presents. (Adele van Wyk photo)

The seasonal shift from autumn’s crisp leaves and warm apple cider to winter’s tranquil snowy mornings and gingerbread men is underway. The gentle beauty of the snowflake on the window brings with it the dreaded realization that alongside the shift comes an onslaught of conspicuous consumerism.

From the red Starbucks cups to the seasonally attired mannequins in every store, the entire world seems to issue a command to indulge in extravagant purchases for the sake of the season. While the spiritual core of the holidays reflects the giving of oneself through generosity, Western society has translated that message into the contrary ideal: the unlimited acquisition of material goods.

The holidays are named as such because of their inherently spiritual nature. Each holiday has behind it a religious value: triumph over oppression, the overcoming of discord, giving and generosity. The difference in the beliefs of each religion contrasts with the commonality of their celebration of positive values during the holiday season. While a secular culture may not embrace the religious features underlying the festivities, the holidays should still retain some aspect of their original purpose.

Regardless of whether or not a person subscribes to a religious ideology or a spiritual system, there are clear practical benefits to a change in focus from materialism to altruism. Through scientific studies, the positive psychology movement of recent years has demonstrated a correlation between an individual’s level of happiness and the acts of generosity that the person has performed. Whether through donation, volunteering or simply helping out a friend in need, a person’s expression of generosity has an undeniably positive affect on his or her happiness. By contrast, the accumulation of possessions does not decisively determine a person’s level of happiness. Rather, consumerism can often lead to an incessant desire for material wealth that may never be satisfied.

As a Jewish person, my celebration of Chanukah exults light over darkness and the spiritual over the material. On each of the eight nights of the festival of lights, an additional candle is kindled. The practice of lighting candles in accession celebrates a seemingly limited supply of ritual oil that miraculously remained for eight consecutive days in our Temple. The act also serves to commemorate the victory of spiritual strength over militarily might. Chanukah conveys the enduring message of the immeasurable ability of spiritual strength and goodness to overcome the idolatrous worship of the material.

The spiritual core of the holidays should not be sacrificed on the altar of our rabid consumer culture.  Though the acquisition of new clothing and products can be a way to celebrate the holidays, they should not be the main goal. By ignoring the aggressive invasion of retail advertisements ordering us to “buy, buy, buy,” we can manifest our spiritual essence with an open hand, an open mind and an open heart.

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