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
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 in a 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 (www.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
Central figures differ
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 Consumascommercial Christmasis
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:
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
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.
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
Opt out of the post-Thanksgiving buying frenzy.
A friend of mine buys gifts throughout the year so that when Advent
comes she can bake cookies and make wreaths with her children
instead of spending that time in a mall (or even online shopping).
Join those who celebrate the day after Thanksgiving as Buy Nothing
Day, a 24-hour moratorium on consumer spending promoted by anti-consumption
You can't celebrate Advent as a spiritual season
if you're in a constant whirl of activityparties, 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
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.
When aired on TV, though, they're surrounded and interrupted by
commercials. You can circumvent the barrage of Christmas commercials
by taping the good shows and zapping through the commercials when
you watch. Or you can buy or rent the videos. But remember to
keep Advent in your TV and movie watching.
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 St. Luke's entire Nativity story
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.)
On New Year's Day, when we celebrate the Solemnity
of Mary and World Day of Peace, reflect on Mary's role in the
Incarnation as you pray the joyful mysteries of the rosary for
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
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.
Little adjustments, right focus
These suggestions are not a program for radical
change. Your friends and family may not even notice what you're
But making these adjustments will help you live
the Christmas season that most people say they wantthe one
built around a Christian holy day instead of a commercial holiday.
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