0n-line commerce could have a positive impact on the cultural shape of Christmas. Think of it: One aspect of the holidays that people tend to resent is the panic attack that comes with its commercial side. These days, the problem isn't so much the money (incomes are up, and credit is freely available) but the time and frustration and demands of shopping itself.
The holidays sometimes seem to rob us of our private lives and moral obligations. Everywhere we look, someone is trying to get us to buy something. Advent used to be a period of quiet expectation for Christmas, but it has all but died out culturally because Christmas for retailers begins even before Thanksgiving.
This year, however, the problem is being addressed, not by getting rid of the commercial side of Christmas but by humanizing its scale, increasing the amount of choice and making shopping more efficient, thereby leaving more time for us to be with family and reflect on the deeper meaning of the holidays. In this, on-line shopping is making a contribution.
According to a study by Giga Information Group, one in four shoppers are expected to purchase gifts on-line this year. The volume of transactions reported by Yahoo!'s on-line shopping service are up 400 percent from last year. Amazon.com's holiday purchases are up 250 percent from last year.
More than half a million America Online users shopped on-line for the first time this season. Sites like Toysrus.com and KBKids.com are reporting the kind of problem any retailer would like to have: clogging resulting from too many people logging on their sites.
What this means in human terms is more gift giving while avoiding the crushing traffic, commercialized public spaces, sales gimmicks, and high-pressure tactics of brick-and-mortar shops.
Moreover, on-line commerce permits people to shop at home on the computer after the children are in bed, a far better option than dragging the kids around on the weekends. This means more time for the family to be at home together, spending quality time doing things that draw the family together.
Indeed, experts in e-commerce say increased time for other pursuits is one of the key attractions of on-line shopping. And the holidays are precisely the time of the year when we need to concentrate heavily on leisure, spiritual reflection and charitable service. So far, this factor has been the least appreciated aspect of on-line commercial culture: Its sheer efficiency means that the commercial side of our life need not consume us entirely.
There's also spiritual virtue connected with increased choice. One of the greatest gifts you can give someone during the holidays is an item that reflects their religious faith. But old-line retailers can be very limited in this regard. What you get in too many shops is a sanitized, watered-down assortment of religious gifts.
But on-line, there is virtually no limit to what you can buy. If, for example, I want to send a priest friend of mine a collection of writing by St. John of the Cross or St. Francis de Sales, I can now do that with a few clicks and a fraction of the time that it took to order such hard-to-find works from bookstores or through catalogues. Long out-of-print books on philosophy and theology, for example, are easily found in sites like bookfindercom.
Part of the danger of consumerism is that we are constantly confronted with buying temptations we cannot afford. This is especially true in large commercial spaces. But it is less true of the Web, where the consumer is able to target buying needs without being overly distracted by extraneous demands on your time and attention.
Would it not be ironic if on-line commercial culture ended up making an important contribution in helping us achieve what so many of us desire: recapturing the true meaning of holidays? And yet this may in fact be what we are beginning to see.
But let us not forget that on-line shopping is itself a part of that nexus of economic exchange that is often said to work at cross purposes with the holiday spirit. It turns out that more, not less, capitalism may be precisely what we need to recapture the time to cultivate our family and our faith. What we do with that time is up to us.