Every year at this time, the Rev. Mark Brady in Moultonborough, N.H., warns parishioners at the United Methodist Church that if the season's shopping frenzy takes hold, "you can lose the holiness of the experience of Christmas."
But this year, Mr. Brady has fresh advice for those seeking the season's true meaning: Shop boldly with a clear conscience, and do it in cities that need economic help.
A light went on for Brady and scores of others this fall when President Bush and a terrorized New York City pleaded for help in the form of robust spending. Maybe, they thought, Christmas shopping isn't always a vice. Maybe it can be an act of compassion - or even moral duty.
"I certainly have not experienced this in 20 years of local church ministry," says Brady, whose flock is shopping two hours away in the depressed New Hampshire towns of Gorham and Berlin. "Who would have ever thought Christmas shopping was an act of kindness?"
Some Americans have taken kindly to the idea. One November shopping mission to New York, billed as "economic patriotism," rallied 5,000 people from 173 cities to buy everything from watches to fancy dinners in the Big Apple. Oregon sent 1,000 "flight for freedom" shoppers to New York for five days in October. Santa Barbara, Calif., sent its own delegation of splurging missionaries after Thanksgiving, as did Canada, under the stated auspices that both places love New York.
But not everyone is sold on the notion of consumption as virtue, even in a consumer-driven economy of interdependence. Americans have long considered gift-giving to be almost a matter of religious duty at Christmas, and now some deplore efforts to make it a patriotic duty as well.
"The whole argument illustrates our level of servitude to the consumer economy that we have built," says Bill McKibben, author of "Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas." If helping one's neighbor is an offshoot of indulging one's own urges, he says, "then we have even deeper problems than we suspected."
Indeed, "shopping as virtue" is stirring a debate within theological circles and among good Samaritans everywhere. Discussions include heartfelt questions about personal sacrifice, consumerization of a religious observance, and whether targeted shopping can even make a difference to communities in need.
Among the skeptics, Miroslav Volf, evangelical theologian at Yale Divinity School, sees better ways to give. "I am cautioning not to use 9/11 as an occasion to condone our own self-serving commercialism with the mantle of generosity," he says.
Both Mr. McKibben and Mr. Volf say better options are to donate food or money directly to the unemployed or to charity organizations, rather than bank on trickle-down economics to eventually benefit employees.
And even those who see merit in "moral shopping" are taking care not to make overconsumption seem virtuous.
"I'm very concerned about consumerism and buying things that we don't need," says Debi Paterson, the youth coordinator at the Moultonborough church. "But if you have a need, you can help the world while you help yourself." In her own life, that means she might buy a new car and wedding dresses for her two daughters next year in Berlin, N.H., where a recent mill closing put an end to 860 jobs.
All such charitable approaches - including high-dollar shopping trips - win praise from Irvine, Calif., entrepreneur Mitch Goldstone, who organized the 5,000-shopper pilgrimage to New York. All fall within what he calls "a moral imperative, not to spend a little more but to spend a lot more." He reserves moral indignation for thrifty Oregonians, who bargained to get airfare and five nights at the Waldorf Astoria for just $1,103 per person.
"I fail to see the economic patriotism in that," says Mr. Goldstone, a New York native. By contrast, "we paid full price for airfare, hotels, everything. The city asked if there was anything they could do for us. We said, 'No. This isn't about us. It's about you.'"
That criticism is not lost on Beverly Harkenrider of Hermiston, Ore., who traveled to New York on the cut-rate deal. "I felt almost guilty such a horrible event had made the trip possible for us," she confided in her church newsletter.
Even so, shopping to help a neighbor wasn't a new idea for this daughter of eastern Oregon's watermelon country: "It's always been preached to me that you support local guys. You don't go out of town to get something you can get here, unless it's much more expensive." After she got to New York, her sensibility for compassionate spending seemed to trump the one for frugality.
"I had a $40 bowl of oatmeal," she recalls. "Woo-hoo!"
For theologians such as the Rev. Thomas Massaro, a professor at Weston Jesuit School of Theology, the national need to develop people's character will not succeed if sacrifice is too easy. "All previous generations were asked to dig deep and give 'til it hurts," he says. "That part of our moral character is shriveling. If a whole generation loses that, then our moral abilities will have shriveled so much that I wonder if we'll ever be able to change our lifestyles to do good in the world."