Is it just me, or does Christmas seem to be mostly about spending money?
Gifts, parties, decorations, feasts, cards, fancy clothes, photo shoots, more gifts – it all costs money. It’s what we’ve become accustomed to. We anticipate the December stress of stretching our budgets and paying off the excess in January, or February. Consumerism is all around us this time of year, and we all buy into it. There are things you just need in order to have Christmas. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without _______________ (fill in the blank). And the price tag ends up being ___________ (fill in the blank).
Many Christians have become uncomfortable with the hijacking of Christmas by consumerism. And so we try to do something different. Instead of Christmas being all about us and what we get, we want to share some joy with others. This is truly a noble intention. After all, Christmas is about God giving Himself to us, so we want to give something to others.
But what are we giving?
We see others in need at Christmas. The obvious disparity between our lavish celebrations and their lack of means makes us feel especially conflicted, so we want to do something. We want to be better people, we really do.
But it seems to me that we are just giving the “needy” the same consumerist Christmas we ourselves are trying to escape. Now, instead of buying gifts for family and friends already overloaded with stuff, we give the needy stuff. Isn’t it too bad that they don’t have a mountain of toys under their tree? No problem, we’ll supply the mountain of toys. Because that’s what Christmas is all about, right? We can’t have Christmas without the turkey and presents and lights and chocolate and singing, dancing Hallmark toys, and neither can they.
So we’ve traded in one form of spending for another. Instead of spending on our family, we have to give to charities that will spend money for other people. You want to escape your selfish consumerism this year? Easy, just spend more money on _______ noble cause. But it’s still about the money.
I know, I’m sounding Scrooge-like. It sounds like I’m making up excuses for why I don’t want to open my wallet to others. But I honestly feel exhausted thinking about all the money I should be spending on charity to show that I know what Christmas is really all about.
It’s not that giving is bad. It’s not that these charities are bad. But what are we giving and why do we feel the need to give in this way at Christmas in the first place?
I read posts like this by a good friend, and I am truly challenged. Greed, stinginess, selfishness, hoarding – these are all markers of our society, things which should not mark the people of God. This is not what marked the Gift at the manger.
So what is Christmas about anyway? Why do we give gifts in the first place?
We can trace it back to good people like Saint Nicholas, who gave to the poor at this time of year. Of course, our Western Santa and his bulging sack is one bloated mutation. And we say we give to others in honor of God’s gift to us. But maybe sometimes His gift gets a little obscured beneath all the others…
To be honest, I really like giving and receiving gifts. But I’ve never really challenged the practice before in my own life. It’s tradition. It’s a wonderful way to make a connection with family far away and the ones around the tree; it’s one of those ways to show love. And you can get some really cool stuff! But is it necessary to Christmas?
Is gift giving essential to the celebration?
Because celebrate we should. God incarnate come to dwell with us? That’s worth celebrating!
So the question becomes, how do we celebrate this coming of God? How do we celebrate in a way that is fitting to the event we mark?
Is it fitting to plunge ourselves into a pit of spending and consumption and not come out until we are at least 5 pounds heavier and several hundred dollars in debt? Is this the best we can do?
We get many of our ways of celebrating from various traditions all over the world, many of them adapted from pagan and cultural practices surrounding the winter solstice. This is why we have lights and bring various evergreens into our homes. Do I have a problem with that? No, actually. I don’t think culture is something that is thrown away when Christ arrives. Christ redeems culture. Instead of tossing the Christmas tree as a pagan object, the symbolism of the tree is fully realized in Christ, and we can transform this tradition into one which points to Christ as the one who ever lives in the midst of our winters.
There are countless other beautiful traditions and expressions of the season, many meaningful ways to celebrate, to mark this holy day. I'm not saying strip your house bare and sit in silence.
But I think our main approach to Christmas should be found in the pages of the Christmas story itself.
Here’s what I see.
Worship – this is our gift to God.
This is the Spirit leaping within us because God is near. This is my soul magnifying the Lord, rejoicing in God my Saviour. This is the music we sing to the Mighty One for His mercy. This is a holy multitude, filling up the horizon, shouting “Glory in the highest!”
This is the outburst of exceeding great joy that comes after seeing His light. We direct our pilgrimage, our finest gifts, our worship to him.
And it can only come after we behold His glory, after we see Him filling up the manger with grace and truth. Worship is the fitting response to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
Proclamation – after we have seen, how can we not spread it abroad?
If this is truly wonder-full news, how can we hold it back? The coming of God means the Spirit speaks again through the Word, and through our words. It is the loosing of tongues to proclaim good news of great joy to all people.
It is the telling of the ancient story and its fulfillment. It is giving thanks and speaking of Him to all who are looking for redemption.
It is not a script, it’s a testimony. Proclamation is the fitting response to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
This is how we celebrate.
We don’t arrange our stuff to make a magazine spread fit for a king. He must come first, come in His way, the only way.
He comes to the humble. He fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty handed. (Have you ever laid down at the end of it all and felt empty handed?)
His coming is the substance of it all, and out of that our celebrations take on fitting form. Celebration is response, not preparation.
And He can come where there is no feast, no fanfare, no money for presents. He must be able to come there, if at all. Could He come to you this year without ________________?
So I am left thinking of Him. Thinking that worship and proclamation don’t cost anything, at least not in our market economy. That without worship and proclamation we are all bankrupt, and all our celebrations tainted. All our giving tainted.
If even our charitable giving does not come out of our free response to Christ, it is not love. It is only making ourselves feel less guilty on Christmas morning. So you see, we can still give. But if the only giving you ever do is to pass on consumerism to the needy at Christmas, you have not learned from God’s gift. If your Christmas giving is not an extension of your way of life year round, you might as well just buy yourself another luxury, because you have not truly opened your heart. The poor don’t need a nice Christmas with all the trimmings like the rest of us. They need Christ. And they need Him year round. They need the people who get upset over “Merry Xmas” to know that Christ doesn’t live in a neon sign over a store display. You take the Christ out of Christmas all year when you ignore the hungry. So give, but not because it’s Christmas. Give because you are Christ’s.
And celebrate! Celebrate with worship and proclamation and soon the gift that God has placed in your humble heart will pump its life into all you do.
If you have the means, feast! And remember who Jesus invited to His feasts.
If you have the money, give! And let it be out of love not obligation.
If you don’t have the money, give! There are other currencies far more valuable.
You don’t need a thousand LEDs. If you have a single candle, that’s enough to welcome the Light of the world. If you don’t even have that, He will still be your Light.
Above all, rejoice and proclaim Christ.
Make all your celebration fitting to the One we celebrate.
We don’t need to spend money to welcome Christ. And if we can’t imagine how that can be true, maybe it’s time we tried it.