My partner and I went to Gay Days at Disney World in Orlando for the first time in June of this year. You may have read stories in the press about the economic impact of this yearly event, but it’s not news to the people who work there. We took cab rides on several occasions, and I think every single cab driver mentioned how they were working all weekend because it’s their best weekend of the year. Hotels all over the area host parties and events for the occasion. An event that used to draw criticism and controversy, including boycotts by religious groups and signs at park entrances warning patrons of large numbers of gays and lesbians, has given way to businesses tripping over each other to welcome and provide products and services to those same people. This is commercialism in action.

Sodomy was illegal in Texas until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law 4 years ago, but you wouldn’t know that from looking at the official web site of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau. Just click on Diverse Dallas on the right-hand side, and up comes a page with 4 links – Asian, African-American, Hispanic, and GLBT (complete with a picture of two handsome men raising their glasses together). The site helpfully provides a list of TAG-Approved hotels and other resources for GLBT visitors to Dallas. The Bureau isn’t providing this information as some selfless act of charity or the because of some new enlightened legislation – it’s because local businesses want your money and the city wants the taxes. Commercialism pushes them to be inclusive and welcoming in order to sell their products.

So it seems a little strange to me when people complain about the commercialization of Christmas. As an atheist, my winter holiday celebrations have nothing to do with Christianity or any other religion. I just celebrate life, which is pretty damn great despite all the bad stuff going on in the world. Retailers, in their attempts to appeal to people like me, make it a point to hang signs that say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. People have “holiday parties” and hang “holiday ornaments”. This is part of the commercialization of the holiday season, and it allows everyone to celebrate in their own individual way. The very atheist Ayn Rand wrote:

The charming aspect of Christmas is the fact that it expresses good will in a cheerful, happy, benevolent, non-sacrificial way. One says: “Merry Christmas” – not “Weep and Repent”. And the good will is expressed in a material, earthly form – by giving presents to one’s friends, or by sending them cards in token of remembrance…

The best aspect of Christmas is the aspect usually decried by the mystics: the fact that Christmas has been commercialized. The gift-buying… stimulates an enormous outpouring of ingenuity in the creation of products devoted to a single purpose: to give men pleasure. And the street decorations put up by department stores and other institutions – the Christmas trees, the winking lights, the glittering colors – provide the city with a spectacular display, which only “commercial greed” could afford to give us. One would have to be terribly depressed to resist the wonderful gaiety of that spectacle.

This doesn’t mean you should run around maxing out your credit cards during the holidays so you can spend the next year paying them off, or that you should buy a bunch of crap no one needs just so you can stuff stockings or have a huge pile of presents. The holidays don’t make it ok to break your budget and blow a bunch of money. That’s just as self-destructive during the holiday season as it is the rest of the year.

But take a moment to appreciate the holiday commercialism for what it is. It’s the result of the amazing capitalist economic engine that has been producing mountains of wealth for relatively free nations for the last couple of centuries. That engine has raised our standard of living beyond anything people could have imagined not long ago. That engine continues to push us toward a more inclusive culture as companies try to appeal to more consumers. And if retailers’ attempts to part you with your wealth mean you can score a few good deals on meaningful, useful gifts during the holiday sales, all the better.