By John Withum
It was Christmas Eve 2014, and I was in panic mode.
For a few years, my wife and I set Christmas budgets on what we could spend for each other. We left a little wiggle room, but always tried to stick to it. I had spent my budget, but the pile of presents under the tree seemed unimpressive. She was having a rough year at work, and I felt guilty that I had not put more effort into selecting her gifts. And that explains how I ended up spending almost $100 on last minute gifts at Target.
What in the world caused me to attempt to satisfy an emotional response with inanimate objects? Searching for the answer led me to re-examine the messages consumer capitalism has sold me about my self-worth, particularly around the winter seasonal celebrations.
Beginning almost immediately after the front doors have closed on the last trick-or-treaters, retailers roll out deals and decorations for the variety of celebrations between November 1 and December 26. Interestingly, very few of these sales focus on Thanksgiving, and most of them skip straight to the end of December. Why? No one gives Thanksgiving presents.
Consumer capitalism, at least the variety found in the United States, utilises every opportunity it can to earn money on the emotional response to various holidays and special days in cultures. As winter celebrations have continued to evolve in the U.S., consumer capitalism has ensured it has a hand in shaping public formation around two traditions: traditional winter cultural celebrations and the actual Christian holiday of Christmas.
Where did most of what we know as the “holiday season” in the United States originate? The long, dark winters of northern Europe is as good of a place as any to start. Think yule logs, wassail, the various iterations of “Santa Claus” (such as Sinterklaas from the Netherlands, Father Christmas from England, Kris Kringle from Germany), trees, and stockings. There are many, many more to be mentioned, but hopefully this is enough to make the point. It is easy for capitalism to co-opt these winter celebrations because, being cultural, they have developed over long periods of time. They can be further exploited by retail marketing, advertising executives, and businesses who are interested in cashing in on good feelings. Most of these traditions being exploited are from northern Europe, where the lack of daylight in winter months has encouraged celebrations revolving around community, light, warmth, and rebellion against the darkness.
What is surprising is how easily marketers have drawn in classic Christian celebrations of Christmas. The whole message of Christmas, in the words of Christian author Scot McKnight, is “about a God who entered into the world in a socially shamed family in order to lift the socially shamed to the highest name ever.” It is about Israel’s true king being born into a feed trough while the false king of Israel murdered children. Christmas, situated at the end of Advent, must deal with looking back on the moment when our help in this world arrived and looking forward to the day when justice and righteousness reigns in fullness through Jesus’ return to Earth.
There is a long history—dating back to the late 300s—of Christmas being used to lure followers of Jesus away from the sort of northern European pagan celebrations mentioned earlier. It seems, sadly, that Christmas has a bad reputation for being compromised. For whatever reasons, Christians have constantly been willing to trade the deep, world-shaking message of Christ’s arrival for a more comfortable place in society. It is not insignificant to consider the trade-off of message for comfort began after Constantine imposed the will of the Roman empire on the church by declaring Christianity the official religion in 317 C.E.
And here we are today. We are still trading comfort for our witness in the world. We would still rather tell our children about Santa Claus than have them be outcasts. We continue to drain our wallets and pile up debt in the name of hoping our loved ones feel our love in the weight of the possessions in their hands. We want to go with the flow of society, except on Sunday when it’s time to proclaim and sing the Scriptures of old about the arrival of our Saviour. Jesus Christ, Son of God, forgive us.
Consumer capitalism helps all of us to feel better about all of this by appealing to the same sensitivities that gave birth to the aforementioned winter traditions. The sunlight grows short, the darkness grows long, the cold creeps in—so bring us light displays and fireplaces. The change in the season often brings loneliness—so tell us it is time for families and parties at your local chain restaurant. We become thankful for all the people who help us get through the tough seasons of life—so thank them with lots of gifts, purchased online or at your local retailer.
But what if we flipped the script on consumer capitalism and collusion with old pagan traditions? When we realise God is not far from us (Acts 17), we see there could be one thing the winter celebrations have to offer: the focus on light.
Read John 1. Read Isaiah 9. The arrival of Jesus Christ is a light in the darkness. These old winter celebrations are awake to a reality that darkness is difficult to live with, and light is necessary for survival; what they miss is how the light truly arrives and is manifested. God sent his light in the world to illuminate the darkness, and has called followers of Jesus out of the darkness to be witnesses to this light.
When we are confronting the darkness as followers of Jesus the Light, we must be careful not to fall prey to the traditional consumer capitalistic agendas for our world. Splashing the cash on a bunch of gifts is not going to bear witness to the Good News of God being born to rescue the world. There must be a difference between the way we behave towards Christmas—a Christian holy day—and whatever this watered down, consumer capital nonsense is. It begins by asking ourselves what is actually redemptive, especially in the face of what the rest of culture tells us.
Most of us, at this time of year, have calendars full of events and activities. What if we reconsidered which of those were actually important? Colossians 4:5 (NLT) tells us to “Live wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity.” Carefully consider what is occupying so much of your precious time. Which social events will be enhanced by your presence and allow you to spread the light? Which events are merely obligations and only require you to “make an appearance”? Your presence and absence is a message to others, and we are poor stewards of our time if we say yes to every gathering.
If our time matters, then it makes little sense to spend our time in stores (or online shopping!) when that time could be used to remind your loved ones, children, etc. that they are actually a priority in your life. Use the opportunity to rest and recharge (which is absolutely a biblical response to free time) or to find a way to increase the light of Jesus in your neighbourhood, community, or family. Again, if how we spend our time makes a statement, it will make a statement to our families if we are spending time with them rather than being elsewhere.
What about the thorny business of gift-giving? We can fairly thoroughly dismantle lots of the persuasions of consumer capitalism, but since childhood, we have been taught to expect we will give and receive gifts at this time of the year. Our desire to please our loved ones is not intrinsically bad; our desire to quantify our love with possessions is. We have a choice of whether to buy presents for a few people who we truly love and care about, or a lot of people we feel obligated to give a gift to. When we pare down the list, we can reduce the time and potential financial damage due to guilt, and we can increase how much the gift means to us. My uncle regularly travels throughout the country, and takes beautiful pictures everywhere he goes. One year for Christmas, he combined some of his photographs with my mother’s favourite hymn out of an ornate older hymnal and presented it to her in a beautiful frame. It was very thoughtful, and it hangs on her wall to this day.
This is also an excellent time to teach our children new expectations when it comes to gifts. I grew up making lists of desired toys from adverts in the newspaper, then eagerly storming the living room on Christmas morning to see the piles of presents I expected. No matter what the haul was, I always felt empty by Christmas evening. The presents were opened, the meals were eaten, and there was no longer anything to look forward to. If we teach our children early about the good news of Christmas, and tell them in their terms about our priorities for Christmas, we create an opportunity to form their lives around the Gospel rather than consumer capitalistic desires. Consider the “Want, Need, Wear, Read” approach. It involves buying one thing your child wants, one thing she is in need of, one thing to wear, and a new book to read. This allows children to see gifts as purposeful, meaningful, and that there is more to Christmas than wrapping paper.
Reconsidering our behaviour towards Christmas is not nearly as tidy as tweaking a few shopping habits or taking back our calendars. These long-held consumeristic patterns are tied up with our emotions and, often times, can mingle with our fears of hurting someone’s feelings or disappointing our children if we change these ways. To be sure, toes will be stepped on and boundaries must be created and enforced.
Since the fateful trip to Target two years ago, my wife and I have slowly taken back Christmas’s meaning in our lives. We started a Christmas morning pancake breakfast and service at our church for anyone who needs a warm, bright, inviting place to be. We have tamed the number of people we buy gifts for, and focus on gifts that involve spending time with the ones we love. And this year, rather than giving each other gifts, we are scratching an item off our bucket list and going to Minnesota to see the northern lights.
Reclaiming Christmas is hardly easy, but it is worth it.
About the author
John Withum is the associate pastor of the First Baptist Church of Aurora, Illinois. He also serves as the recess supervisor at a local elementary school. He has an MDiv from Northern Seminary of Lombard, Illinois and a BA in Journalism from Marshall University of Huntington, West Virginia. He and his wife, Katie, live in Northern Illinois with their dog, Bacon.
Image credits: pixabay.com