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Redeeming Christmas: An Advent Jeremiad

December 8, 2007
Part of an Advent series: (Part 2) (Part 3)

What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, and not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in `em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will every idiot who goes about with `Merry Christmas,’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!” — Ebeneezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (1843)

When I think of how badly we have screwed up Christmas, I am almost inclined to agree with Scrooge. What’s Christmas to modern America but a time to bury ourselves deeper into debt? A time for thoughtlessly consuming the environment and casting it aside like the wrapping paper a child feverishly tears from a pile of gifts? A time for indulging in soul-numbing excess while much of the world struggles under the cruelest poverty? Imagine how mild Scrooge’s words would sound compared to the fiery wrath the old testament prophets would pour down on our heads were they to walk among us today!

That the insane debauchery of our all-consuming society should be intensified to mark the birth of Jesus Christ should be the bitterest of ironies for Christians. Jesus Christ, our savior who came into this world in the humblest and most vulnerable of persons, the prince of peace, whose kingdom promises comfort to the poor and oppressed and woe to the rich and powerful! For Christians, what modern consumer culture makes of Christmas should be the bitterest of ironies, but alas mostly we are too busy doing it ourselves to notice. Imagine where Jesus would dine and rest if he walked among us this holiday season: at our excessive tables, around our glittering trees surrounded with expensive gifts, at our pompous liturgies? I think not. I imagine most of our holiday preparations would be ignored, if not scorned. Scrooge just might fair better: “Ebeneezer, come down at once. I must stay at your house today!”

Well, I am capable of working myself into a fine righteous lather over what we have done to Christmas. Of course, much of my anger is fueled by my own complicity. For many years now, I have felt that Christmas is holiday badly in need of reform. If I had my way, we would begin by freeing it of the burden of the extravagant gift-giving rituals of modern consumer culture. I cannot see how our patterns of gift-giving can possibly be consistent with the story of the birth of Jesus we have from scripture. (Sorry, “Happy Birthday Jesus,” with us standing in for the blessed birthday boy just doesn’t cut it.) Epiphany would perhaps be better, but it still seems a stretch given the kinds of gifts we are talking about. (I-tunes gift cards and play station video games seem a long way from gold, frankincense and myrrh.) If we must gift each other in this way — and I am actually not against an annual gifting ritual, albeit with a dose of moderation compared to what the privileged class has grown accustomed to — why not do so on a secular holiday like the New Year?

But I recognize I am pretty much alone in that idea. Because Christmas is so bound up with the expectations of family, church and society, it is painfully difficult to change the rituals that surround it. Still, as we enter the advent season, I continue to hunger and hope for change. At least a little bit of change. And in fact I do think there are many hopeful signs this season that the hunger for change is growing.

So this advent I will spend some blog time focused on the many hopeful signs that there is still time, that the spirits have done their work in one night (of course they can, they’re spirits after all, they can do whatever they like!), and that we can somehow wake up to the real meaning of Christmas and live it all through our lives.

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