fb-pixel Skip to main content
opinion | P. J. O’Rourke

Blame the commercialization of Christmas on the Three Kings

John S. Dykes for the boston globe

The sanctimonious, the puritanical, and the kill-joys raise the commercialization of Christmas issue about this time every year.

Stop it. Christmas has been commercialized since year zero.

Blame it on the Three Kings. They started the gift-giving. Casper, Melchior, and Balthazar “presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.”

It’s been that way been ever since. In Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,’’ when Scrooge undergoes a wonderful change of heart, does he go to church or does he go shopping?

The Three Kings also had to go to the bazaar — as the mall was then called — to buy gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The legend says Melchior was from Persia and a Zoroastrian, Casper was from India, so presumably an adherent of Hinduism, and Balthazar was from Ethiopia and not only black but Jewish. Christmas is for everybody.


The Three Kings invented many Christmas traditions. For example, the completely inappropriate Christmas present. Balthazar brought myrrh, used for embalming. Creepy thing to wrap up in festive paper and give to a newborn or what?

And the way-too-practical Christmas present. Melchior brought frankincense, a kind of incense or room freshener. Useful when swaddling clothes need to be changed, especially in a manger, but . . . really. Melchior is the forerunner of the aunt who always gave me socks.

Plus the Christmas present you aren’t allowed to play with. Casper brought gold. I’m sure baby Jesus would have preferred something from Fisher-Price.

It is to be hoped St. Joseph used the gold to open a franchised chain of carpentry shops — with bargain sale extravaganzas during the Holiday Season.

All of this commercialization of Christmas is in place by Chapter 2, verse 11 of the first book of the New Testament.

And you don’t have to go very far in the rest of the New Testament to find every other element of our loud, gaudy, hectic, mercantile, annual Yuletide blow-out.


“Shepherds abiding in the field” saw colorful Christmas lights that “shone round about them.” And “they were sore afraid” the way my wife is when I stand in the front yard slush and connect the socket that lights up the bulbs on the plywood reindeer that are about to fall off our roof (Luke 2:8-9).

Christmas music has its precedent. “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God” (Luke 2:13). Presumably with caroling, though presumably not with “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”

John the Baptist speaks of Christmas trees, “therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down” (Matthew 3:10). I guess Christmas trees are what John is talking about, because even the worst vegan wouldn’t serve pinecone pudding for Christmas dinner.

There’s Santa. Technically St. Nick is a saint. But do Saints go up and down chimneys? Their halos would get sooty. Do saints have a reindeer named “Cupid”? And “The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth”? Saints are tobacco-free. But Santa is implicit in “That thine alms be in secret” (Matthew 6:4).

Another vision of sugar-plums: “when thou doest alms. . . ” (which I’m taking to include PlayStation 4, Disney “Frozen” merchandise, an Aeropostle gift certificate, and something in a little blue box that sort of looks like it’s from Tiffany’s) “. . . let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth” (Matthew 6:3). I’ve got my bank statement in one hand and my credit card in another.


By the way, kill-joys, American charitable giving goes up by 42 percent during this season of crass materialistic greed and excess.

I don’t think Jesus is too upset by our holiday eating and drinking. His most famous miracle was making a few loaves and fishes feed a multitude. (Though, if the loaves were fruitcake like cousin Ida’s and the fishes were in my mom’s tuna casserole, it wasn’t that hard.) And his second most famous miracle was turning water into wine. I assume he turned something else into aspirin and black coffee the next morning (John 2:7-9, 6:9-13).

Jesus even mentions office Christmas parties. “But I say onto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). True, Jesus doesn’t mention Christmas office parties approvingly. But he clearly understands the spirit of the season and describes it pretty much the same way as my wife.

The commercialization of Christmas is a (more eggnog, please!) joyful and inclusive and non-denominational and, for that matter, secular-humanistic way to express the Christian virtues.

Love (. . . but don’t unwrap it at the office Christmas party).

Hope (. . . it’s not another necktie with purple boughs of holly like last year).

And, most of all, Faith.

You say you have none? You don’t even tear-up when “Miracle on 34th Street” comes on TV?

OK, then you write the 2014 version of the 1897 editorial in The New York Sun:


No, Virginia, there isn’t a Santa Claus. He doesn’t exist anymore than love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they don’t, which is why your life is so empty that you spend it writing useless letters to newspapers asking silly questions. How splendid the world is with no Santa Claus! It’s almost as splendid as it would be with no Virginias. Your existence contributes to overpopulation, climate change, and species extinction.


Jennifer Graham: A liberal’s conservative Christmas

2013 | Scot Lehigh: A word of Christmas advice

2012 | Editorial: Time to call a truce in ‘war on Christmas’

Jennifer Graham: Digital Sabbaths let us snatch back our power

P.J. O’Rourke is a columnist for The Daily Beast. This column was originally published in The Daily Beast.