In the wake of Black Friday and the fervor of Christmas shopping, Dell deChant, who teaches courses such as Religion and Holidays, Religion and Popular Culture, and Religion and Sports, discussed the premise of his book The Sacred Santa: Religious Dimensions of Consumer Culture on Thursday in the Grace Allen Room on the fourth floor of the Library.
An undergraduate adviser and co-chair of the USF Religious Studies Department, deChant spoke to a packed room of about 50 students and faculty members who erupted in laughter periodically as he poked fun at consumer culture and reveled in the irony of promoting a book about the Christmas consumer season in the midst of it.
Rather than adhere to the popular notion that Christmas in America has become a holiday void of religious significance, deChant said that celebrating Christmas is an inherently religious experience, but not religion in the way most Americans perceive it.
He opened by outlining how religion and popular culture interact in America.
“(The study of popular culture) is interested in The Simpsons and South Park and the frequent appearance of religion in popular TV cartoon shows … It deals with questions such as: How is Islam portrayed in American movies? Is football a functional religion for its fans? Better yet, is the rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees better understood as a cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil?”
Then, deChant began to describe the term Black Friday, which refers to the day after Thanksgiving when the profit margins of stores across the country go from being in the red to the black.
“And so the world of American retail commerce gives itself over to an orgy of consumption on Black Friday,” deChant said. “And it keeps going on – the orgy doesn’t stop for a month.
“But why do we do so? And why do we do so with such (zeal) in the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day?”
Part of the answer is illustrated on the controversial cover of his book, where a baby Santa takes the place of Jesus in a nativity scene. It was inspired by a commodity deChant found that featured Santa praying with Mary and Joseph in the scene. The product didn’t sell, deChant said, and was found 75 percent off in after-Christmas sales.
“The competition between Santa and Christ is representative of a larger cultural struggle; that is, the struggle between secular and religious values.
“The argument that I make is, it represents a collision of religious worlds. … I’m suggesting that this seeming struggle … is possibly one between two religious systems … that our secular society is actually a religious society in disguise.”
What most people in America understand to be religion is what “looks and talks and acts like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism,” deChant said. The stories, myths, rituals and communities are clearly decipherable from one another. These religions are known as transcendental religions – they appeal to an intangible supernatural power separate from life on Earth.
The religion inherent in consumer society, exemplified during the Christmas shopping season, is a cosmological one, deChant said, that predates transcendental religions. Cosmological religions emphasize the sacredness of natural objects. According to his thesis, those natural objects have become manmade goods. Thus, the economy has become the most sacred element in American society.
“When the economy comes apart, it brings disorder to every other institution and enterprise that we value.” deChant said. “When my personal engagement with the economy is disrupted, if I get laid off … if I take a cut in pay … disorder and chaos enter into my personal life. This disorder is registered in my inability to participate in the rituals of acquisition and consumption. In other words, participate meaningfully in the economy.”
Therefore, Santa symbolizes the immensity of economic power. According to deChant, he is a cosmological deity.
“He is a changing god who can be at numerous places at the same time,” deChant said. “He is omniscient – as we all know he sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake – he brings both rewards and sometimes punishment, although rarely the latter today.
“He may or may not be real, but he certainly is coming to town. In fact, as you know, he is already here.”