Tag Archives: holidays

The problem with Christmas

Happy Boxing Day, everyone.

I hope that, for those of you who celebrate it, you had a very blessed Christmas. I’m officially back after finishing my semester and, more importantly, spending time with my family for the last 10 days.

Speaking of family, one of the weird things about having a sister 15 years younger than you is getting to catch a glimpse of how Christmas works from a parent’s perspective without being a parent.

Before I go any further, let me first acknowledge my eldest child status so you can get your speculations about jealousy and resentment out of the way.

That aside, getting to watch Christmas festivities with this sort of weird observer status is eye-opening into the bizarre cultural conflation that is Christmas as we observe it in much of the Western world. I already blogged about this a few weeks ago here on this blog, safe from the confines of my Delaware bedroom, still weeks removed from Christmas and hundreds of miles away from home.

That was before my grandparents ended up in the hospital a week and a half ago. At a Christmas Eve service in downtown Grand Rapids, I could hardly manage to hold myself together, thinking of my grandma in her rehab facility, how she probably will never go to another Christmas Eve service again, how this might be the last year I get to hear her endless commentary on A Christmas Story since she actually was alive at the time. This sort of sentimentality tends towards favoring the preservation of our traditions, I admit, and even here you see how hard it is to distinguish the religious aspects of the holiday from the extraneous cultural appendages we’ve added on.

Of course, many of these added on things are not intrinsically wrong, evil, or bad. It’s not for us to judge the practices of others, but rather to evaluate ourselves and our own practices, to ask ourselves why it is we do things.

The point of this manifesto is not to insist that Christmas must be stopped, but rather that we must re-evaluate this business where we open up billions of dollars of merchandise, most of it produced by underpaid laborers in other countries and sold by underpaid workers with minimal rights here at home, all of it wrapped in tons and tons of wrapping paper that will end up floating in the Pacific.

But I’m a pragmatic. I’m not an idealist. I believe in supporting the economy because I think that ultimately it does more harm to withdraw from it. I buy presents for my family, too.

The problem with Christmas is the way that the economy uses what is a religious holiday about a god born in the most despicable of conditions for its own purposes, to glorify the exact antithesis of the very first Christmas so many years ago. Practically speaking, in America, Christmas is about the economy. Christmas is about keeping up with the Jones’, making sure that you have the latest phone or gaming system or car. Whatever it might be.

Rather than instilling our children with the mindset that Christmas is a competition for the best present, we should instill in them a tradition of generosity where the act of giving rather than receiving is at the heart of the holiday. It’s amazing that a brown man born in the projects 2000 years ago has now become the central focus of a holiday adorned with so much bourgeois sentimentality in the white man’s Western world.

So, maybe even if done with an improper mindset of materialism, there is still nothing wrong with giving presents to the ones you love. But why don’t we include Christmas traditions that involve associating ourselves with the very world where God was born to us and for us? Why do we automatically associate a new XBox with Christmas but not working in a soup kitchens? Macy’s commercials and Black Friday sales, but not preaching the good news?

Christmas has been co-opted by the 21st century version of the very empire which overshadowed Jesus’ birth. We’ve wrapped it up in bows and lights and tinsel and we continue to ingrain this in our kids so that we raise yet another generation that’s taught to expect more and more for Christmas and give less and less of themselves. All this to say that maybe the answer is not to skip Christmas, but to fundamentally change it. To reclaim it and redeem it from the Western Empire which has subverted it up to a point where it is no longer recognizable. If the original Christmas message has anything to do with excess, it is an excess of love from our Creator.

If we can only be thoughtful once a year, maybe we’re not being thoughtful at all. If our way of showing our love is through an excess of material gifts bought on sale on Kohl’s and Walmart, then it’s about time for us to re-evaluate our capacity to show love to one another.


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The annual quest for meaning

I went to church for the first time in a year or so tonight.

Maybe I’ve been taking the whole French thing too seriously and I’m turning into a French Catholic who only attends at Christmas and Easter.

My relationship with church attendance is weird. Like a lot of people I went as a kid because it was obligatory in my family. Then, after high school, I was all over the place. Sometimes I was in chapel three or four times a week, sometimes I didn’t go at all as I became increasingly cynical about my institution of higher learning.

Since then, it’s been pretty dry for me. Whenever I do find myself in church, I’m incredibly self-conscious about what I’m doing there; I usually spend half of the church service trying to think of reasons to give if anyone asks me why I’m there. What if they ask to see my baptism card? What if they try to make me go to their young adults group? Where’s the nearest window I can jump out of if I need to?

Oh, and another thing: I’ve changed denominations. Ish. Kinda… sorta.

After having had enough of suburbans megachurches over the first 20 years of my life, when I do go to church now, it’s been at either Reformed Churches in France (not quite the same as the American CRC) or Episcopalian churches here in the U.S. (I still can’t spell Episcopalian, Alissa.)

You know what? There’s already enough sparkle and glitter on the TV and at the shopping mall this time of the year, I don’t need any more when I go to church. I don’t particularly want an overdone Christmas drama with thousands of lights and tear-jerking stories. There’s already enough noise.

I went to a service tonight at the Episcotheque down the road from me (there’s a story behind that) and the service probably would have been far too dull for most people. There were only about twenty people in the room. There wasn’t even any singing.

This time of the year I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a Christian and, you know what? When you start to think about a god who deigned to lower itself not just to the level of a mortal, but to the level of a homeless person, a marginalized Jewish man living on the fringes of the Roman Empire, you start to wonder what he would think about a bunch of white, privileged folks getting together in their nicest clothes on a Sunday morning. Every church has it’s own problems and there is no perfect denomination, but having spent 20 years in evangelical megachurches, I can’t fathom going back. This time of the year in particular, though, I can’t help but think of all the extraneous things that we associate with Christmas and, you know what? Most of them aren’t intrinsically bad or wrong – definitely not immoral or anything like that.

On this, the first night of advent, I wonder why we so often prioritize these extraneous things over what the gospel is really about. The gospel is GOOD NEWS, and not just GOOD NEWS but GOOD NEWS delivered to the poor, the oppressed, to agricultural workers on the fringes of the empire.

Why aren’t we taking the GOOD NEWS to the fringes of the American empire? Instead, we use our money to support the empire. We go out on Black Friday and buy loads of shit that’s going to be out of date within six months or broken or forgotten.

Sure, maybe, just maybe we’ll donate a meal to an underprivileged family. That’s really great – I think you should do this. Donate two if you can.

But we need a fundamental change in the way that we celebrate Christmas.

I’m not suggesting anything but that you try to figure this out for yourself.

For me, that means that I’m trying to attend as many advent services as I can.

I’m buying my loved ones gifts, I can’t lie. But I’m trying to give preference to supporting local businesses by doing things like purchasing gift cards from local restaurants or buying gifts on Main St rather than at the mall.

And I’m particularly inspired by Cory Booker living on food stamps for a week. I’d like to try to do that as soon as I can find a meaningful way of being able to participate – maybe it won’t be until after Christmas. I’m not sure.

Like I said, I’m trying to figure this out and I’ve been trying to figure it out for a while so I’m writing about it, not to make myself look better, but to help myself figure it out and maybe encourage anyone else out there who is living in the empire and trying to figure out an ethical way of participating in this holiday season.


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