There seems to be a new culture war on Remembrance Day every year as Christmas creeps earlier into November.
This year, the culture war exploded when a Montreal Mall scheduled Santa to arrive in a helicopter on the morning of November 11th, shortly before the sacred moment of silence. Consider the contrast between the Christmas consumer fanfare and the sobering moment of sacred reflection on the sacrifices of our men and woman amidst the tragedy of war. As reported by The Star:
“Sobering, sometimes grim stuff, but appropriate to the occasion Remembrance Day memorializes. What’s less appropriate is trying to do this reflection while “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree” blares on in the background and some elf with jingle bells on his feet dances around, drawing your attention to purchasing opportunities.”
The contrast between consumer culture and military culture couldn’t be more evident.
Upon sharing some of my earlier writing on this topic on r/veterans, exgiexpcv responded:
“…you’re used to doing things that mattered, and suddenly your life is simply digesting bullshit and consuming instead…”
In the military, the communal bond is sacred. Upon leaving the military, many veterans experience a loss of this sacred bond, causing a sense of isolation and disorientation.
Karl Marlantes, in his memoir titled What it is Like to Go to War, states that we can’t expect veterans to simply “adjust” to civilian life upon return. He writes:
“…adjustment is akin to asking Saint John of the cross to be happy flipping burgers at McDonald’s after he’s left the monastery.”
War is a sacred cathedral where warriors may come to fulfill a spiritual hunger in the midst of tragedy and suffering.
In the book, A Table in the Presence, Lt. Carey H. Cash tells the story of how a U.S. Marine battalion “experienced god’s presence amidst the chaos of the war in Iraq.” As a Chaplin in 1st battalion, Lt. Cash served with a decorated regiment, the first to cross the border into Iraq, fiercely bringing the fight to downtown Baghdad.
Before crossing the boarder into Iraq, the men of 1st battalion camped out on the boarder of Northern Kuwait for forty nights, preparing for the battle to come. Lt. Cash recounts this time:
“…in that vast, desolate and inhospitable setting, the ache of loneliness, and uncertainty became the blessing of solitude and spiritual hunger. It has always been in places of barrenness and isolation, where the heart of man begins to perceive that which, in the midst of his fast-paced life, he never could. Removed from the subtle pleasantries and his work-a-day world, his needs become simplified and yet more urgent; his ears become more sensitive and able to hear those gentle songs of heaven beginning to resonate in his soul… he listens to the whipping wind beat against his ears. And the all-consuming quiet, he is confronted with his own emptiness, his own spiritual poverty. He is forced to confront those inner recesses of the soul that craved the bread of heaven and the water of life; until now have only known the emptiness of a fast-food, image-driven world.
What do these accounts say about the “spiritual poverty” of consumer culture?
With the decline of religion and rise of consumer capitalism as the driving force in Western civilization, sociologists have tried to theorize this very question.
Shopping malls, Disney World, and Casinos have become our new sacred cathedrals. Sociologist, George Ritzer refers to them as our “cathedrals of consumption”.
Consumer spectacles, like Santa’s helicopter appearance, attract individuals from all walks of life, drawing them into the ritual of over-consumption.
Although sacred terminology can be applied to consumer culture, there is an obvious distinction to be made. What is the difference between our new sacred cathedrals of consumption and those of solemn reflection and remembrance? Perhaps the former are not sacred at all.
Throughout human history, sacred objects functioned to bind us together into bonds of loyalty and trust. Like the bonds formed in military service, traditional institutions maintained the centrality of community.
Consumer culture prioritizes individualism at the expense of community. Sociologist, Max Weber, puts it well when describing the perversion of the protestant ethic:
“…the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment…. But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.”
In short, the things we own have come to own us.
So what is behind these annual culture wars between Christmas consumerism and Remembrance? The value and sanctity of community.
Consumer culture has perverted the virtue of service, loyalty, and sacrifice. Consider the differences between the following: military service vs. customer service, unit loyalty vs. brand loyalty, and national sacrifice vs. sacrificing that chocolate cake on January 1st.
The real culture war is not between Christmas and Remembrance Day. Christmas itself is not the problem. The problem is corporations hijacking Christmas for consumer culture spectacles, extending their reach further into November to spark longer spending frenzies.
Although the Montreal veterans may find themselves sharing the day with helicopter Santa, we don’t need to let tone-deaf malls distract us from the real purpose of this solemn day.