Confessions of a half-hearted Christmas radical

Stewardship SantaAs a Mennonite, and an activist, I’ve always been aware of the huge gaping problems with Christmas as practiced in America. I know all about the Christmas industrial complex and the way it has stolen the true spirit of Christmas. I’ve read many an article about simplifying Christmas and getting back to it’s true spirit. I know that corporate America has taught us to live to consume rather than consume to live. I honor Buy Nothing Day.

But somehow, none of this has ever stuck very well. It’s not that I’m a shop-a-holic or even an extravagant gift giver. But despite my radical aspirations, there’s something sentimental or romantic in me that really enjoys the Christmas tree and the Christmas carols and the warm, fuzzy feeling I start feeling sometime in the week after Thanksgiving. And I’ve never really found a way to shape a consistent alternative Christmas tradition.

But this year, I’ve finally come across someone who takes liberating Christmas seriously. My good friends Tim and Patty Peebles are featured on the cover story of the Mennonite: Throwing out the tree. Ten years ago, Tim and Patty decided that they needed to start from scratch in building a celebration worthy a child whose birth challenged the foundations of empire and financial domination. Read the article to hear about they looked to the 12 days of Christmas and Epiphany to build an authentic radical Christian Christmas.

I first heard about Tim and Patty’s witness a few months ago during a small group discussion that focused on spiritual practices. We talked about centered prayer, Celtic prayers and meditation. And then Tim talked about their Christmas tradition as a spiritual practice.

I have to admit that my first (and second) reaction was resistance. How could you give up on the Christmas tree and giving gifts and stop seeing family? Isn’t that going a little overboard? Charletta and I went ahead with putting up our Christmas tree and all the ornaments from Ten Thousand villages. So I sat down over a puzzle to hash it out with Tim and Patty: can’t we have our cake and eat it to? Isn’t it enough to use ornaments made from old cereal boxes? To give practical or home made gifts? Isn’t there some value in a holiday that brings us all together?

I went so far as to argue that the holiday season is the last remaining “universal” festival that harks back to the days when clans and tribes and nations would take whole weeks off to party together. Christmas is an appropriated pagan holiday after all. Isn’t that worth something? In short, I was clutching at straws.

Patty listened quietly and then responded by pointing out that Advent is about waiting expectantly for justice. The lectionary readings are filled with talk of how the coming Messiah will level the of the mountains and raise up of the valleys (Isaiah 40:30-5). I mean look at the Magnificat for goodness sake:

51He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51-53)

Then they sent me to read Why the Devil takes Visa. In this extensive article, Rodney Clapp lays out the vast historical shift that moved Christians from condemning usury and rejecting excessive profit to wholeheartedly embracing a Christmas centered around consumption. I still haven’t made it the whole way through, but here are a few enlightening excerpts:

John Wanamaker, founder of Wanamaker department stores, was a lifelong, intensely faithful Presbyterian. He was an inveterate Bible reader, a close friend and supporter of Dwight L. Moody, heavily involved in the Sunday-school movement, and refused to sell wine and liquor in his stores “on principle.”…

Wanamaker, who died in 1922, was also a main player in the commercialization of the Christian holy days of Christmas and Easter. At Christmastime, Wanamaker turned the Grand Court of his Philadelphia store into a veritable cathedral, replete with stained glass, stars, and angelic statuary. The effect was so churchlike that gentlemen, upon entering, instinctively doffed their hats…

It brought Christianity lock, stock, barrel, and Bible into the marketplace and redefined faith in terms of the marketplace. It refined close observation and exquisite stimulation of feelings, and, “since the Protestant imagination was free to venture forth on its own without the intervention and control of priests, it luxuriated in novelty.”

The article goes on to tell how Industralists conscious cultivation of consumers that industrialists as a way to deal with production levels that was out-pacing demand. While much of this may not be news to YAR readers, Clapp puts all the pieces together in a very enlightening way.

But what convinced me more than than anything that the Peebles are on to something was turning on the television. A combination of living in the UK and not having a television last year meant that I haven’t watched any holiday programming in a number of years. Either things have changed or I had completely forgotten how slimy and brazenly manipulative the ads are. Suddenly in the commercials I saw every last piece of the sentimental holiday spirit that I cherish appropriated and exploited in an utterly crass attempt to sell, sell. How can I in good conscious defend any sense of shared Christmas spirit or joy when our only common cultural experience is grounded in everything that Jesus calls us out of?

The final straw for me came this morning when I sat down with two Jewish friends who shared how they sometimes feel lonely and isolated when everyone says “Merry Christmas” and they take their son shopping for a star of David and can only find Christmas themes. We talked about how Hanukkah has been made into a gift giving holiday in order to keep up with Christmas. One friend shared her experience of isolation on Christmas day when all the shops were closed and they retreated with a few Jewish friends to watch movies and eat Chinese take out. My last remaining straw of traditional-Christmas-as-shared-cultural festival snapped with a quiet sigh.

So that’s my confession. I found myself on the wrong side of the Christmas debate and I lost. I’m still going to be driving over 2000 miles in the next two weeks to be with family. And the Christmas tree is still standing in my apartment decked out with lights and ornaments. But next year, I think I’ll be taking a page from the Peeble’s playbook.

Image by Eric Meyer and Tim Nafziger

Comments (2)

  1. Sean F


    It’s encouraging to hear that there are others struggling with this. As a personal note, I think it’s important to point out the community aspect of how this all ends up working out. As someone that didn’t grow up Anabaptist and has always been pretty transient (military brat), I don’t feel like I have much support in the simplicity/anti-consumerist stances I take sometimes. Because I don’t have a stable community around me that is committed to simplicity, it can be difficult to actually practice it.

    Three or four years ago, I asked my parents not to buy me anything for Christmas and instead to sponsor a girl through Compassion with the money they would have spent. I did this as an experiment, but it backfired on me. They did the Compassion thing, but then they bought me even more crap because they were proud of me. I tried to explain that they were missing the point, but it didn’t click. I don’t want to come across as self-righteous when I talk to them, so I mostly just avoid the subject any more.

    I think the problem is probably self-evident. I know it will offend or alienate my family if I refuse to give or receive gifts, but I’m challenged and inspired by people like the Peebles. This is where the community comes in. I think there are a lot of people out there who really hate what consumerism has done to Christmas/family/everything, but feel trapped. If there isn’t a group of committed Christ-followers around encouraging and challenging us, we’re going to find ourselves compromising and burning out fairly rapidly. Anyone else have any thoughts?

  2. Morgan Grainger

    Hi Tim,

    I decided for the first time this year that I wasn’t going to give or receive gifts for Christmas. My success was somewhat mixed, but mostly positive. Even though I made the decision in August, my parents had already purchased some gifts for me. My parents tend to be utilitarian gift-givers anyway, so the things they gave me were things that I needed anyway. I did end up buying gifts for my brother and my sister, since I didn’t communicate my intentions to them in time, and they had purchased gifts for me. (Compromising myself? Maybe, but I didn’t want my decision to look like a cover for frugality.)

    Like Sean, I also didn’t “grow up” Anabaptist; my parents went to church when we were younger, but have now stopped. However, I didn’t experience too many challenges. For one, my parents tend to see eye-to-eye with me on issues of consumerism, even if they don’t have the same religious justification for it. As a result, they were an easy sell. I also didn’t think to tell my grandparents about my decision, so I’m sure I’ll be getting gifts from them tomorrow.

    Around my family, I find myself justifying my decision to stay away from gift-giving on the basis of the consumerism it implies, and the reasons why that consumerism is bad for society (let’s call this the “Adbusters” argument), rather than giving the full religious justification for it (what might be called the “Geez” argument). It’s definitely the easier argument to make (and, as a bonus, I get fewer “you’re a religious freak” looks than I probably would otherwise). I’m more open about my religious motivations with my friends, who also tend to be Christian.

    I have, however, also felt pretty much by myself. Most of my friends seem to view it as an interesting perspective, but not one that they share. (One friend in particular thought it was fascinating, but paradoxically also wanted to get me something as a gift. After numerous discussions about the topic, he purchased a tree in my name from Ten Thousand Villages… and gave me some postage stamps so I could write to him.) While I wouldn’t say that I feel “trapped,” it would be nice to feel like I wasn’t just in it by myself.

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