It isn't easy to know who my audience is, on a blog, so I can't assume that you know the relationship I've had with Christmas. I'll just say, it's complicated. I love to give gifts, and I'm not disinclined to receive them. What's turned me off is that we've taken a good idea so far that it no longer represents that good idea. We celebrate Jesus' birth by giving gifts to people who can/will match our gifts in return, in a way that almost begs for reciprocity. As a student, working in retail at Christmas didn't make things any better. Oh, the things I have witnessed, all done under the banner of Christmas. Some of you know that, in order to draw attention from the deluge of selfishness that would turn me into a bitter observer of human indignity this time of year, I contrived a new holiday, Great Pumpkin's Eve. Unabashedly borrowed and augmented from Charlie Brown, this holiday falls on the first Saturday of November, and is an Eve to which no Day exists. It is a gifting holiday, and that's all. The purpose of this was two-fold. I couldn't deny that a certain amount of consumerism exists naturally, without which our skin would eventually dry up and fall off, or something horrible like that. So, to borrow entirely out of context a quote from an already oft-misattributed source, let them eat cake. But, if you're going to gorge yourselves, let's rather do so on a day that is inherently void of any deeper meaning. The ultimate reason for this was to allow for the slow rebirth of celebrating Jesus' birth.
Now, before someone reminds me that it's not his actual birthday, and our traditions are almost all borrowed from non-Christian rituals and festivals, let's just assume that we can all read, and we know that only a little of our traditional Christmas celebration calls upon Biblical foundation. Nonetheless, there is still, among other redeemable qualities, one theme that I have sought to draw out. This season represents a monumental, undeserved and unrequested gift. We couldn't have put it on our list for Santa, because we didn't know that we needed it or what it would look like. In fact, only a few of us recognized it when we finally saw it. And we certainly have not, at any point, done anything to deserve it. This gift would change the world. That's worth remembering. Appropriately. So, I wanted a bait-and-switch holiday that would still allow us to exchange gifts, and let us use Christmas to remember Jesus' birth by in turn giving gifts to people who didn't know us, couldn't have asked for anything, and would have no way of returning the favour. To me, that sounded a lot like the gift I received.
Fast forward to children. No one wants to be that dad, the anti-establishment Grinch who screws up his children by making them think that non-holidays exist, and then Scrooges them out of gifts at Christmas time. For the sake of my children, I accepted that their social development was more important than my personal, reasonably quiet vendetta against the steady decline of what I held to be a central theme of Christmas. Great Pumpkin's Eve disappeared, Christmas tried to look like how normal people would do Christmas.
Fast forward again, to last week. We were having supper, and Keegan started talking about how he didn't really want gifts this Christmas, because there are lots of people who don't even have homes. "It makes me sad to think... actually, I have tears..." and he put his head down and began to cry, his chest heaving as he cried, thinking about people who have nothing. As a parent, what do you do? He actually broke down crying, thinking about the less fortunate. Of all the days in the year to show our appreciation to loved ones, to gather and to exchange gifts, we do so on the one day that represents the advent of a free, undeserved gift that can never be returned in kind. I felt bad. We quickly assured him that, even though we're in a new place, we would find a way to connect with people who could help us share what God has given us.
Let me reiterate, I'm not against gifts, or even stuff. I'm fond of stuff, and I'm not engaging a discussion of asceticism. What concerns me is that the justification of stuff continues to allow the cozy cohabitation of selfishness and Christmas, in that we spend ourselves empty giving to people who can/will give back to us. We talk about the problem, say things like "the reason for the season," but it's so deeply embedded into our traditions that we continue contributing to the problem. To be normal, or something. As we try to understand and meet the needs of our family here in Germany, seeing that God has continually provided beyond our basic needs, it feels downright shameful to ask for anything beyond the marvellous Gift we have already received. Let's not allow the way that the world celebrates Christmas distract us from the gift of Christ. Taking a cue from my son, let's not stop with our loved ones, but share our gifts with those outside our circles. If we're doing it right, we should be close enough to those in need that this will be easy. If we have a hard time knowing what to do, then we have a solid twelve months to make next Christmas really simple.
Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. James 1:27
If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. Matthew 5:46