Last Advent, a religion class in the Catholic grade school where my wife teaches took a poll of the students that asked only one question: “What do you think of when you hear the word Christmas?”
The good news is that Jesus won because his name came up most often. Unfortunately, he took only 42 percent of the vote. “Presents” was first runner-up with 25 percent.
It may not be happy news that one quarter of the students ina Catholic school say they think about Christmas presents before they think about Jesus. But the truth is probably worse. I suspect that a healthy portion of the students either played to expectations, answering the way they knew would make their teacher happy, or were more focused on Jesus because the poll was conducted during a religion class.
Whether my hunch is right or not, it’s easy to see that at least one out of four students missed the point of Christmas. Or did they?
Maybe it would be more accurate to say that, like most people in consuming cultures, these students confused the Christian holy day of Christmas with a consumer holiday of the same name. Alternatives for Simple Living (simpleliving.org), a Christian-oriented organization formed in 1973 to protest the commercialization of Christmas, calls the consumer holiday “Consumas.” That name may never catch on, but it’s a helpful way to distinguish two very different seasons.
Christmas and Consumas don’t even occupy the same time period, although this isn’t apparent because they do overlap. Christmas is part of a cycle that begins with the First Sunday of Advent and ends only with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. The waiting that precedes December 25 and the celebration that continues after it are essential elements of the holy season.
The commercial holiday, on the other hand, officially begins with a mad shopping spree on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Many stores open early so consumers can have more time to spend money, which they do. It’s the biggest shopping day of the year, with almost sacred significance in U.S. culture. How appropriate that a newspaper once headlined its day-after-Thanksgiving shopping coverage with the words, “Shoppers begin their rituals anew”!
But the celebration of the commercial holiday doesn’t really begin there. Christmas sales seem to start earlier and earlier each year, as do the Christmas store displays designed to spark spending. A few years ago, a newspaper story dated November 8 began, “The Christmas season is here, ready or not.” The story, decrying the encroachment on the sacred day-after-Thanksgiving ritual, reported that Macy’s department store had put a mechanical Santa on sale for $50 the previous August.
But on December 26, Consumas is over, totally. The Christmas sales morph into after-Christmas sales. (At some stores the last stretch is a 12 Days of Christmas sale that begins on December 13, reinterpreting the 12 days that traditionally started on December 25 and ended with the coming of the Wise Men on January 6.) Christmas carols on the radio and Christmas specials on television disappear just when they should be beginning, according to the Church calendar.
These overlapping Christmas seasons have different heroes. The central figure of the Christian Christmas is Jesus Christ. The central figure of Consumas is Santa Claus. While Jesus gives us love unconditionally, Santa Claus gives us things if we’ve been good. Obviously, there’s a big difference.
Almost everything that Santa Claus brings has to be bought. The whole meaning of Consumas—commercial Christmas—is to sell stuff. By that measure, it’s a tremendously successful holiday. Your Money magazine estimated that Americans charged an average of $3 million a minute between Thanksgiving and Christmas in 1997. The Wall Street Journal once described the day after Christmas in hangover-like terms with a headline that read: “The Morning After: A Few Gifts Too Many.”
A whole parade of publications, including such business-oriented ones as The Wall Street Journal and U.S. News & World Report, have written stories about the longing that many people express for a more spiritual and less commercial Christmas. This is nothing new. One history professor found complaints about the over-commercialization of Christmas as far back as the early 1850s. But it’s harder now to escape the message of commercial Christmas because it’s coming at us from so many different directions through the ubiquitous mass media.
So how can a Christian celebrate Christmas, instead of Consumas? It’s not easy, but here are a few suggestions:
Be aware. The first step is to recognize that commercial Christmas is a non-Christian and at times even anti-Christian celebration. That’s why Consumas is a good descriptive name: It can consume us.
Take responsibility. You can’t change the culture but you can change your own actions. A few years ago the comic strip Baby Blues illustrated the way we like to blame others for what we ourselves have done to Christmas. The father of the family is explaining to his young daughter, “Tonight is the night that eight reindeer and Rudolph will land on our roof, and Santa Claus will slide down our chimney with a big bag of toys for you.”
Naturally enough, the tyke responds, “Wow!”
Dad continues: “Tomorrow morning there will be lots of presents and candy under the Christmas tree for you and Hammie to open.”
The daughter says, “Yay! Oh boy! Toys! Oh boy! Toys! Oh boy! Toys!”
In the last panel, the father looks at the mom and says with obvious disgust, “The media should be ashamed for turning this into such a commercial holiday.” Don’t blame the media for your own willing seduction.
Present gifts from the heart. Buying or making a few gifts from the heart is an appropriate way to share the holy season of Christmas with those you love. The key is to keep it simple and meaningful. Think of several friends or family members right now. Do you remember what they gave you for Christmas last year? Do you think they remember what you gave them? Try to find the most thoughtful gifts instead of the most hyped; they will be remembered and your love will be communicated each time your gifts are used.
Observe Advent. Maintain the four weeks before Christmas as a time of preparation instead of acting as though Christmas were already here. Bring out your Christmas CDs at the beginning of the Christmas season, not the day after Thanksgiving. When you hear Christmas songs on the radio, switch stations or turn the radio off. When you hear carols in a store or an office where you have no control over the music, mentally think of it as getting ready for the Incarnation that is to come, not a celebration of what already is.
Slow down. You can’t celebrate Advent as a spiritual season if you’re in a constant whirl of activity—parties, shopping, the Advent luncheon at school. Minimize the Advent angst that many people (especially women) feel by practicing triage to separate what you have control over from what you don’t. Decide what you have to do, what you want to do and what others expect you to do that doesn’t fit into the first two categories. Increase your Christmas preparation time and reduce your stress by cutting out the latter.
Watch what you watch. The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day are a prime time for many people to watch favorite Christmas TV specials or movies such as It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street. This year, pay more attention to your media consumption just as you do to your product consumption.
Even TV shows or movies that profess to be about “the real meaning of Christmas” usually aren’t. They might be about charity, repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation. These are all good Christian virtues certainly. But that’s not what Christmas is about. Christmas is about a divine/human person whose life, death and resurrection teach us that “God is with us” (Emmanuel) and that God loves us and is alive and active in our world.
The problem with communicating values, even good ones, instead of Christ is that commercials attach values to products and use them to sell products. Better to give than to receive? Buy a present! A time for forgiveness? Send a card! Need to reconcile with an estranged family member? Use our long-distance service! These are the kinds of commercials you’re likely to see Christmas specials wrapped around.
A few programs do tell us that Christmas is about Christ and consumption is not salvation, most notably the classic A Charlie Brown Christmas. Some others are The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, The Fourth Wise Man, The Little Drummer Boy, Amahl and the Night Visitors and Red Boots for Christmas.
And even with the best Christmas programs, don’t stop at watching. Let that be just the start of interacting with your children, grandchildren or godchildren. After The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, go to a Christmas pageant. After A Charlie Brown Christmas, read Saint Luke’s entire Nativity story together.
Celebrate all of the Christmas season. Don’t stop on December 25 as the secular season fizzles out. Plan some of your Christmas-season socializing with family and friends after Christmas Day. More important, find appropriate celebrations for the liturgical feasts of the season. For example:
Get all of the immediate family together for dinner on the Feast of the Holy Family. (In many families this will turn the day into a major event, especially if there are teenagers and young adults.)Take time on the Feast of the Epiphany, a gift-giving day in many Catholic cultures, to go through your wardrobes and toy chests and decide what you can now give away after all the new things you received at Christmas. You can also use the Epiphany to make decisions about how to donate your time and money in the new year.
The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord reminds us of our own Baptism. Take this day to reflect on how you have lived out your baptismal promises.