We are now in what is probably the most challenging time of year for those who crave or try to adhere to a simpler, less hectic, less consumerist way of life. At this time of year in particular, the dominant culture whips everyone up into a frenzy of materialism and overspending.
This makes my husband and I sad. For a number of reasons. People are chasing things that in the end won't make them happy for more than a brief period at most. Meanwhile, they are doing destructive things like spending more than they should, incurring debt and foregoing spending on things with longer lasting value (e.g., retirement accounts, kids' college savings account). And to us, as people of faith, it is particularly upsetting that all this is done in the name of Jesus. The Prince of Peace was born in an animal stable as a peasant. It makes no sense to us to remember his birth by spoiling our children and exceeding our credit card limits.
So, I have a couple of thoughts to share that I hope might be particularly apropos and helpful this time of year.
For those who are Christ followers, I encourage you to re-focus on why we celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas, Christmas and Epiphany. The Advent Conspiracy movement is working hard to help us do that. Their website is: http://www.adventconspiracy.org/. It helps us to avoid the secular trappings of the season to celebrate in a manner that is more in line with our faith.
Another resource you might consider is the 2007 film What Would Jesus Buy? It was produced by Morgan Spurlock, a West Virginia filmmaker who came to prominence with the documentary Super Size Me. What Would Jesus Buy? is an odd film. It follows a band of (what I take to be) performance artists who assume the persona of a flamboyant preacher and his choir who travel the country in the days before Christmas preaching the gospel of the anti-materialism as the "Church of Stop Shopping." At times, What Would Jesus Buy? was someone offensive to me because they caricature my religion (or at least aspects of it) and seem to denigrate the sacred (like baptism). But I always try to keep an open mind and there were definitely parts of the film that were very engaging, and thought-provoking. I particularly found insightful the people interviewed about their attitudes towards Christmas. It made me very sad to hear so many express that the holiday was only about buying a lot of stuff. That alone I find spiritually vacuous, but what I found even more tragic was the attitudes of parents who expressed that they needed to move heaven and earth, do whatever was necessary to give their kids lots of stuff to open on Christmas Day. I don't even know how to express my profound sadness over such cultural perversion over a beautiful holiday with a very different meaning at its core.
In my opinion, the Advent Conspiracy and questioning our perversion of Christmas is much more fruitful that the effort by Focus on the Family and others to get retailers to use the phrase "Merry Christmas" instead of the more inclusive "Happy Holidays." I hold the birth of my Savior as sacred, and find it patently offensive when retailers exploit it to make money. As a Christian, I much prefer the broader term "holidays" to the more explicit exploitation of the birth of Jesus.
Here is something else. To some of you, this will seem really radical, but my husband and I have also never indoctrinated our children into the modern Santa Claus myth. We believe in being honest and don't want to ever give them reason to not trust us. We also don't want them to believe in magical fairies who dump lots of toys on well-behaved kids from affluent families but somehow don't stop at the homes of well-behaved kids from families with less income. And as people of faith, we don't want a mythical elf to compete in any way with Jesus Christ.
If you think this is an extreme approach to the Santa myth, I encourage you watch a wonderful, insightful documentary from A&E's Biography series on Santa Claus. It was first aired in 2005. The episode traces the roots of the Santa myth as a tool for modern retailers to the modern Hollywood deification of the character. As you watch the episode, you will begin to realize the term "deification" is not an exaggeration. One aspect of the episode that particularly got my attention was when one Hollywood interviewee described the modern concept of Santa Claus as like God for grown ups. Wow.
Even if you are not a Christian or if you are not a person of any faith, this time of year is still hectic and stressful. There are social customs in our country that make it quite a challenge to avoid over-spending. For years when we were younger, my husband and I felt the need to buy presents for so many people in our lives. As if there was some shame in not giving someone junk they didn't need and probably didn't want.
For years, I also didn't question all the stuff I was gifted. That was part of life. But after a while, I began to realize what a burden it was. I felt obligated to make room for stuff, even if I didn't like it. Someone had given it to me, it would be ungrateful to throw it out or give it away. My home became cluttered with stuff like that. I began to think of all the money we spend giving each other such gifts. And all the time we waste trying to figure out what to do with it when we receive it and the emotional energy we use feeling guilty that we really want to throw it out.
So, now our family gives few presents. We give presents to our kids--more on that in a minute. But few to adults or anyone outside our family. We agree with the notion of showing appreciation for all the nice folks who make our lives better throughout the year, but now we only give gifts that can be consumed. We enjoy baking once a year and we share that bounty with people whom we appreciate and want to thank. They can eat it or share it with someone else, but it is not going to take room on their shelves gathering dust until they get the gumption to throw it out. And if I say so myself, our baking is pretty good, so it is a treat to receive our cookies and muffins.
It is difficult for all of us this time of year, but it is particularly difficult for parents, in large part to the cultural perpetuation of the Santa myth and the efforts of retailers. Even though we homeschool and don't watch much TV, even our kids are not immune from the frenzy of Christmas and the cultural expectation that the holiday is for receiving gifts. So as a parent, it is a tough situation to deal with. We do our best.
We try to talk to our kids throughout the season to remind them why we celebrate Christmas, to remind them that Santa Claus is a myth invented by retailers to sell more stuff, and to just enjoy each other's company. We give some gifts to the kids, but we try to not give many. We don't want that to be the main focus of the day. We try to do gifts at other times so as to not confuse our children about why we celebrate Christmas. Instead, we have a birthday party for Jesus. We cook together to have a special meal or two. We also make a special cake, which our kids like to decorate. We put a ton of candles on it because Jesus was born about 2000 years ago. We sing "Happy Birthday" to him and enjoy his cake. We play games. We take a walk at night to see the Christmas lights in the neighborhood. We drink hot cocoa to warm us up. We watch a fun Christmas movie at the end of the celebrations. It is an absolutely fun day. We don't just open a lot of presents, then spend the day apart with those presents. We spend the day together, which is a lot more meaningful.
One last thought I want to share with you about the season's frenzy of gift giving. Even if you aren't swayed by the harm done to our wallets or the perversion of a sacred religious holiday or the space/time/effort wasted on buying things people don't want, there is another reason why buying a lot of presents may not be the way to go.
In our modern culture, we've demanded access to a plethora of cheap consumer goods. These types of goods make up the bulk of holiday gift-giving. What we in the West don't often stop to consider is the high cost of making these cheap goods available for easy purchase. We may see the "made in China" or "made in Bangladesh" mark on the goods, but in our hectic lives, we may give that no thought. We should.
Workers in developing nations are leading lives of misery to make those goods for our markets. Some are so miserable in their dehumanizing work environments that they take their own lives: http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/asiapcf/06/01/china.foxconn.inside.factory/.
Many are forced to work poverty wages in unsafe conditions. Some are modern day slaves, but others nominally agree to such conditions due to desperation in economies with few other options. Many are children.
I encourage you--with some trepidation--to look at the link below. It contains a heart-wrenching photo and article about the collapse in April of this year of a factory in Bangladesh. 1129 human beings died in that tragedy, and 2515 other human beings were injured. Some of us heard of the tragedy, but may have paid it little mind because of our busy lives and our feeling that we are powerless to help. Others may be unfamiliar with the story. Either way, I encourage you to consider the article and the photo. I encourage you to consider the human toll of the low prices for consumer goods we demand in our culture. The electronics, the clothes, the toys. Beyond what the frenzy does to our own finances and our souls, what about the people who produce these goods at the exploitively low prices we demand?