The insightful Krista Tippett of MPR's Talking About Faith offers an argument for celebrating Christmas at a more spiritually profound level than our consumer society would have us do. Keep reading past the opening Scroogey-ness.
(Here's the original link: http://www.onbeing.org/blog/why-i-dont-do-christmas/4964)
I played the Christmas game when my children were little. I was not
reckless with the sense of wonder that collects around Santa Claus and
the Baby Jesus and, alas, morphs the two together. I bought presents.
Some years I even decorated a tree. Though some years I could let their
father do this — a rare plus of raising children in two households. As
he is an Episcopal priest, they would also go to church with him,
leaving me to stew in my Scrooge-friendly juices.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy giving gifts. I think ritual is essential
to human flourishing and to family life. We need more of it. I have a
deep reverence for the incarnational heart of Christianity. I even still
recognize faint glimmers of these impulses in the trappings of
Christmas as we know it now, 21st-century style. But I think this season
has more overwhelmingly become a distortion of them — a distortion of
us as a culture, as humans, as families. And I for one am done.
Why do I dislike Christmas now? Let me count the ways.
I don’t like — don’t approve, refuse to throw myself into — the
spirit of obligatory gift-giving. In my lifetime, this has become
existentially linked to a commercial orgy that has now even co-opted the
ritual angle. We have Good Friday and Maundy Thursday; we have Black
Friday and Cyber Monday. Unlike Good Friday and Maundy Thursday, however
(though like “fiscal cliff”) these terms are repeated and reported by
the most serious of journalists. Like all mantras of ritual, they work
on us from the inside. They are an economic event by which we measure a
certain kind of cultural health.
This form of cultural health is not health at all. It is overwhelmingly an exercise in excess and trivia.
When I was growing up, even in a financially comfortable family, we
waited all year for the new bicycle, the new Barbie, the new book.
Christmas was a reward for a kind of patience. It was, in some sense, an
exercise in delayed gratification. Those gifts were even presumed to be
a reward for a year of goodness — a proposition, to be sure, that
always had its fluff factor.
But we who are fortunate to have money to spend on Christmas presents
inhabit a world now where the new bicycle — in modern-day translation:
the new phone, the new video game, the latest greatest shoes — are
purchased on demand throughout the year. I routinely wake up to find
that my teenaged son has left my laptop desktop open to the “checkout”
page, usually of a sports clothing website, where he has graciously
filled in all the fields but my credit card number. I don’t always buy
what he wants, but I cave in more than I’m happy to admit. That’s
January through November.
Then there is the religious distortion of Christmas. Good Christians
out there who do this with dignity, I don’t mean you. In most of the
churches I’ve attended as an adult, Christmas is dressed up as a
children’s holiday. A play. Not really for grown ups, not really about
us. Make no mistake, I’ve teared up at that re-enactment of the manger
scene many times myself, especially when my own children were sheep. It
does not begin to do justice to the message of God become human.
When I became a mother for the first time, I was studying at Yale
Divinity School, learning vocabulary like “Christology” — all the ways
Christians have pondered the complex notion of Christ as both fully
divine and fully human for the past two thousand years. So it was with
incredulity and not a little annoyance that I found myself, in a state
of severe sleep deprivation, singing “Away in a Manger” where “the
little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.” Please.
More recently, there is also the maddeningly superficial way we’ve
thrown other holidays into the mix, subsuming them all into general
cultural buzz. The December that the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was
full-blown, my daughter traipsed through the house playing with her
imaginary friends and singing “Oh Monica! Oh Monica!” to the tune of “Oh
Here’s what I take seriously. There is something audacious and
mysterious and reality-affirming in the assertion that has stayed alive
for two thousand years that God took on eyes and ears and hands and
feet, hunger and tears and laughter and the flu, joy and pain and
gratitude and our terrible, redemptive human need for each other. It’s
not provable, but it’s profoundly humanizing and concretely and
spiritually exacting. And it’s no less rational — no more crazy — than
economic and political myths to which we routinely deliver over our
fates in this culture, to our individual and collective detriment.
So here’s what I’m thinking about this Christmas. Recently I followed
up on a promise I’ve been making myself for years: to wash and sort and
give away all the good clothing my kids have outgrown as they’ve left
childhood behind. It’s embarrassing that I never took the time to do
this all along. In the course of digging around for where to donate, I
stumbled on the site of a charity that works with homeless teenagers.
It turns out that they’re not asking in the first instance for all
these Levis and good-as-new, cool t-shirts. They’re asking for donations
of socks and coats. They’re asking for newly purchased underwear,
noting that most of us take for granted our ever-renewable supplies of
clean underwear that fits.
I’m not going to buy any presents this year. We will go shopping as a
family for these homeless teenagers, and I’ll try to be honest about
the equivalent I would spend on my own children on the commercial holy
days if I believed in them. I report this in some hope of feeding a
little rebellion I sense many of us are quietly tending. But I also make
it public to be sure I follow through.
As I said, we need each other. And that impulse, surely, is deep in
the original heart even of the most secular things like Santa Claus and
surrounding your home with lights: examining what we are to each other
and experiencing that, sometimes when we do this, something transcendent
Emily's Note: I've been thinking about this since I read it last night, and what I
keep returning to is a talk I heard by a lovely woman from Kenya about
what Christmas was like for her family at home. The answer: Christmas is
about church, about worship, which includes lots of music, family &
neighbors, and good food. I don't know whether such celebrations would
capture the holy mystery of Christmas that Ms. Tippett is longing
for--much probably would depend on the song lyrics--but it seems that
such a celebration might combine the glimmers Ms. Tippett is longing for
with the aspect I'm longing for as I read this article: community.