Holiday hype. It’s unavoidable.

Walk into any Target by September 1st and you’ll be assaulted with skeletons, pumpkins, and ghosts galore. Thanksgiving turkey crafts are already clucking at you from the aisle end caps, and Christmas chintz is creeping quietly into the back corners of the store.

Make no mistake about it: consumerist culture has turned holiday preparation into a way of life. No wonder Pinterest took off when it did – how else would any of us organize the frenzy of planning and preparation it takes to celebrate month after month of over-the-top feasting?

According to my calculations, the secular calendar now looks like this: Black Friday kicks off six solid weeks of Christmas (since trees and tinsel have been stocked in stores since September). Then a brief bang for New Year’s to get us over the post-Christmas blues. Next we redecorate in a frenzied color wheel: one month of Valentine pinks and reds, one month of St. Patty’s Day green, one month of Easter pastels. Then break out the stars and stripes as we slide from Memorial Day to 4th of July to Labor Day in one breathless patriotic delight. And would you look at that? We’re back to September already: the de facto start to Halloween.

Every year I get grumpier and grumpier about the excessiveness of it all. We miss the whole point of a holiday – of a high, holy day – when every single one becomes a season in itself.

But this week as I wheeled my cart past screaming displays of werewolf masks and plastic pirate swords and pumpkin spice everything, a new perspective suddenly flashed into my over-stimulated brain:

Is it any wonder that this holiday hype machine came to life at exactly the same time when people stopped going to church?

Humans need ritual. We need feasting. Any anthropologist will tell you we’re wired to celebrate. And any theologian will nod that religion has always responded to these basic needs: to rejoice, to remember important moments, to remove ourselves from the daily grind and re-center on what we believe matters most.

But when we lose touch with the traditions, rituals, and holidays that used to anchor us, we are left moorless. I’ve heard friends who’ve left the church mention how much they miss the “smells and bells” long after they decided to leave behind the theology.

Culturally, we’re casting about for how to celebrate. Writ large it’s the same phenomenon that made Louis CK’s rant about smartphones go viral: we fear the void, so we scramble to fill the space.

So what does this mean for Halloween hype and the high holy Christmas shopping season?

My aisle-five insight made me slow down, for starters. I realized that I can breathe a little easier, since I can choose not to get swept up by the commercial monsoon of every excessive holiday. I’m grateful that as Catholics, my family can celebrate small rituals every week – each Sunday’s “little Easter” – that fill us with enough time-tested tradition to anchor us against the constant rush of popular culture’s “what’s new, what’s hot, what’s trending.”

This realization makes me more sympathetic, too. I used to roll my eyes at that Elf on the Shelf – who needs one more tradition to cram into an already dizzying December? But when I think about what I’d do if I didn’t have the richness of Advent to ritualize my preparation, I realize I’d probably want more ways to count down and celebrate the waiting with my kids, too.

More than anything, this epiphany about commercial celebration replacing church traditions makes me question how we as Catholics are called to be prophetic. Not preachy, not judgey, not holier-than-thou-and-thine-trunk-or-treat. But quietly and confidently prophetic.

To explain to our kids why we don’t need to buy all the plastic accoutrements that parenting magazines tout as essential for this year’s festivities. To choose to decorate slowly for Christmas, savoring Advent’s wait rather than racing to be the first in our neighborhood with the tree lit. To remember that how we spend our money – even in that tempting dollar bin with the adorable Thanksgiving dish towels – is a statement about how we act as stewards of our resources.

It will probably never be Pinterest-worthy to be prophetic when it comes to resisting the Halloween hype, or Christmas commercialism, or birthday party bonanzas. But maybe if we remember to celebrate well the feasts we’ve already been given, from every Sunday to the high holies of each liturgical season, then maybe we’ll remember that we don’t have to buy into the hype buzzing around us with every new holiday.

Our calendar is plenty rich enough.

Copyright 2013 Laura Kelly Fanucci