The Sacred Santa: Religious Dimensioins of Consumer Culture
by Dell deChant
Pilgrim Press, 2002
ISBN 8298-1496-5

Making the distinction between cosmological religion (nature-based, as in ancient practices encompassing an entire society) and transcendental religion (revelation-based, as in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), Dell deChant begins the argument that American society today is profoundly religious in the cosmological sense. Our high God is Santa, with whose annual rebirth the high holy days of our religion begin each year. Santa is the subject of core myths and hymns, often retold and known since childhood to all members of the culture whether they consider themselves believers or not. He is omniscient, he brings reward and punishment, he can create and multiply and magically transport the objects of the material world to the devotee, he transcends boundaries of space and time for “children of all ages” , and he has in his reindeer a favorite mode of transportation resembling Ganesh's flying mouse. He can be found during the high ritual season on his throne in the sacred precincts of our culture, and his annual appearance is a theophany so common that most people fail to notice the religion that underlies his popularity. The religion has nothing to do with Christianity. It is the religion of the consumer culture. Oddly, we know that Santa is not real--yet it makes no difference.

The Sacred Santa outlines the many aspects of American culture that are religious in this cosmological sense. As the ancients once built their rituals, hymns, pilgrimages, sacred priesthood and holy seasons around nature, seeking for themselves a closer relationship to the source of all that sustained them in their world, we have evolved the same rituals in support of our own metamyth (an overarching story that makes sense of the world and provides direction and purpose within it). For deChant, our metamyth is “the myth of success and affluence, gained through a proper relationship with the economy”. Secondary myths--again, known to most people in the culture--involve the fables of those who have mastered “the mysteries of the economy” -be they Bill Gates, Britney Spears, Michael Jordan, or any of the other individuals whose lives are set forth in the sacred narratives of People magazine and the rest of the popular press. By knowing their stories the lay worshipper hopes to grow closer to the divine realms of material plenty. For most people the economy is like nature--capricious and beyond our grasp--and we hope to tame it by taking to heart the narratives of those who have crossed over.

In deChant's portrayal, the sacred text of our time is the television, carrying to us not only a frequent glimpse of the divine order (the realm of acquisition) but instructions through advertising about which products will best advance our own prospects for deliverance from the world of sin and evil (which, in this myth, is the world of lack and limitation). A proliferation of submyths tell us more about the specific holy days. In addition to Christmas, which begins early on “ Pilgrimage Friday” right after Thanksgiving, we have lesser holidays: “in advance of Father' s Day, we learn about men' s apparel, tools, colognes, and sporting goods. Prior to Easter, we discover narratives about the abundance of candies, plush rabbits, and spring apparel available at the various shrines. Valentine's Day brings us narratives of jewelry, cosmetics, and lingerie. The Fourth of July treats us to tertiary myths of cheap meats and equally cheap beer. Ecclesiastes 3:1 is just about right in affirming that for everything there is a season; and in the cosmological culture of today, for every sacred season there is an abundance of things and a spate of mythic narratives reminding us of the sacred significance of acquiring them” (deChant, 125). Shamans at local temples (the malls and stores of America) guide us in the realms we do not understand (technological devices, investments, automobiles). Once the sacrifice (money) is paid, the commercial priesthood helps us close the deal and assure that the transaction has gone through. They mediate between the sacred realm of the economy and the human world. Store managers see to what the philosopher Jean Baudrillard calls “the systematic organization of ambience” by attending to the ritual purity of the temple (the arranging and display of goods at the store). Temples are still placed at the axis mundi (the center of the world), for maximum transmission of the sacred domain.

In responding to deChant, one might argue that materialism has always been with us and that his analysis simply highlights that fact--and one would certainly be right. What deChant adds to the traditional discussion of this point is analysis of the depth of our commitment to this view of the world, and the ways in which the core stories of our culture all support it. It is, in fact, so much part of us that we do not see it as special or unusual--it is simply the way things are. deChant seems uninterested in condemning or attacking this worldview (there is almost none of that), but in illuminating its reach-as if to suggest that anyone who fails to see the level of the question will simply be left mouthing moralisms about how we ought to behave differently. He does not have a chapter on what is wrong with this mythology-perhaps because he sees it as obvious (i.e., such a culture is unsustainable both materially and emotionally for the vast majority of its worshippers/participants), or perhaps because his intent is simply to describe what is happening. It does seem clear that anyone who is interested in sustainability needs to understand that the mythology or worldview is the core issue.

One could see this as a profoundly depressing book, or one could read it as a necessary step toward understanding how the primary religion of our culture works, or both. Especially for teachers, it is essential that we have a good map of the world that our students inhabit perhaps even more fully than we do (although we err significantly if we see ourselves as above it all), and the book is extremely useful toward that end.

The book could be used in secondary school classes-in Part I, Chapter 1 provides a good overview of the history of what is often described as the secularization of society, although in deChant' s view God in the cosmological sense is not dead in the slightest. (His view of Christianity is that it lost-or sold-out to the religion of the consumer, not to a secular worldview.) Chapter 2 probably does more with Baudrillard, Marx, and Ellul than will interest most students, but Chapter 3 is quite readable in its comparison of the specifics of cosmology between ancient cultures and ours. The next part (Part II) is probably the most useful-a great section on myths and the media in Chapter 4 describes the ways that advertising provides direction and purpose to the members of the culture and could be used in conjunction with an assignment to look at the myths embodied in current advertising. Chapter 5 details the job descriptions of today's shamans and priests, and in Chapter 6 deChant tackles the question of why something so fundamental to our lives is so invisible and seemingly natural to us. Part III begins with an overview of the “liturgical year” for the religion of consumption, but then gets into a more detailed examination of the economics of the various holidays from Halloween to Father' s Day than is probably useful in class-the overall point has been made earlier.

Overall, The Sacred Santa is an excellent book for understanding religion in the postmodern era. Students who are heavily invested in the culture and not prepared to challenge it will likely see the entire book as an attack on something they hold dear. This is indeed sacred territory for many--their dreams and aspirations (and their entire sense of what it means to be free or saved or liberated) are closely tied up in it. One could encourage such students to critique the book in specific terms, showing why in their view it is not accurate or only partly so. But to read it, even to deny it, is to begin the possibility of insight into the phenomenon he describes, and the possibility of change as well.

review ©2004 by Kathy Brownback and RSiSS
Phillips Exeter Academy