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The coming of the commercialization of Christmas

This blog post was originally published for and on Scarritt Bennett Center’s blog.

Soooo, I wrote this blog post a couple weeks ago about the consumer culture of Black Friday. Naturally, the day after Thanksgiving, I was going to go to The Santa Claus Parade in Peoria, IL, which basically celebrates the commercialization of Christmas. Go figure. Now, I’m a total sucker for the romantic Hollywood movies about Christmas and true love and giving gifts, all of which seem to take place in a big city in a department store (cough, New York, cough, Gimbels, cough). Whether you’re a native Clevelander going to meet Santa and asking for a Red Ryder BB Gun or Will Ferrell dressed in much-too-tight green leggings and blithely quipping: “the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear,” Christmas is pretty commercial. We are bombarded since at least October with advertisements for “the best gift of all” to give to our loved ones.

As a December baby, I was always kind of frustrated at Christmas, and thereby Jesus, for having the audacity to celebrate a birthday a mere ten days after mine. I had no place in Christmas cheer or decorating because all of the lights, tinsel, and wreaths were for Christmas. December 15th would pass and I’d be kinda upset that I didn’t get large presents for my day, but I had to wait until Jesus’ birthday to do that. I had to share. It was hard. (Go hug a Sagittarius, they will appreciate it).

Now, advent is my favorite time of year by far. Those who know me probably get frustrated and annoyed with how much I reference the birth of Christ and “the coming of the light into the world,” etc. Amid all of the holiday hustle and bustle, something beautiful and wondrous is happening. No, it’s not the fact that Barnes & Noble has a great sale on the Harry Potter book set. It’s the inbreaking of God into this human world, into this beautiful creation. Again the breath of God infuses our lives and changes our world.

On one hand, December 25th is a day where we wake up too early, open brightly wrapped packages under a practically bedazzled tree, and then spend the day reading our new books and watching our new movie sets before eating entirely too much food and pie (though the last one is hard to do!). That’s probably too cynical, but you probably have your own pictures of the commercialization of Christmas in your mind. From the beautiful Victorian postcards and advertisements with St. Nick popping open a Coca-Cola to the Polar Express and the Grinch’s warming heart and, of course, It’s A Wonderful Life, our Western United American society has become used to having a few images of “the perfect Christmas” and spending a bunch of time trying to achieve this picture postcard image in our own homes. That’s not to say we don’t have beautiful traditions with family and friends, but to consider how Christmas has become something that is marketable…do we even know the point anymore?

First, let’s acknowledge the reindeer in the room. The United States is not a Christian nation. Not all Americans celebrate Christmas. Are those of us who do celebrate this holiday showing hospitality to the folks who don’t by saying, “Well, at least you get a day off from work, so that’s enough” instead of actually learning about and respecting their holy days? Sales at Target and lots of movies with mistletoe in them don’t equal the acceptance and affirmation we should be giving other folks’ holidays.

Second, what is the true meaning of Christmas? Yeah, yeah, I know this is the central question to most movies and TV episodes that air between Thanksgiving and January 6, but really…what are we celebrating? The very name of the holiday references the “Christ,” the one whom Christians call the Messiah. This day is in honor of the birth of Jesus and the coming of God into our midst.

One of my favorite advent devotionals is by Loretta Ross-Gotta, entitled “To Be Virgin.” She writes: “Jesus observed, ‘Without me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5). Yet we act, for the most part, as though without us God can do nothing. We think we have to make Christmas come, which is to say we think we have to bring about the redemption of the universe on our own. When all God needs is a willing womb, a place of safety, nourishment, and love. ‘Oh, but nothing will get done,’ you say. ‘If I don’t do it, Christmas won’t happen.’ And we crowd out Christ with our fretful fears…” (Wait for the Light: Meditations for Advent and Christmas, 98-99).

Who makes Christmas happen? I think Ross-Gotta is right, sometimes we do act like we have to do everything ourselves. This is not to say that we can accomplish nothing on our own; indeed, God has given us individual talents as well as the wealth of knowledge and love and care that is in community, but we have to start living like God is real. We can neither sit back and wait for God to fix the world nor pretend like our own actions alone will change things. We must live up to our call to be co-conspirators with God, and bring about the grace and peace and mercy in how we live and move and have our being.

Ross-Gotta goes on to issue a challenge to her readers, a challenge which I bring before you now: “Imagine a Christmas service where the worshipers come in their holiday finery to find a sanctuary empty of all the glittering decorations, silent of holiday carols….What if on Christmas Eve people came and sat in the dim pews, and someone stood up and said, ‘Something happened here while we were all out at the malls, while we were baking cookies and fretting about whether we bought our brother-in-law the right gift: Christ was born. God is here’? We wouldn’t need the glorious choruses and the harp and the bell choir and the organ. We wouldn’t need the tree strung with lights. We wouldn’t have to deny that painful dissonance between the promise and hope of Christmas and a world wracked with sin and evil. There wouldn’t be that embarrassing conflict over the historical truth of the birth stories and whether or not Mary was really a virgin. And no one would have to preach sermons to work up our belief. All of that would seem gaudy and shallow in comparison to the sanctity of that still sanctuary. And we, hushed and awed by something greater and wiser and kinder than we, would kneel of one accord in the stillness…Probably few of us have the faith or the nerve to tamper with hallowed Christmas traditions on a large scale, or with our other holiday celebrations. But a small experiment might prove interesting. What if, instead of doing  something, we were to be something special?”

Christmas is special. So we should celebrate it. Advent is special. So we should celebrate it. But aren’t we always in a time of advent? Aren’t we always waiting for the goodness and grace of God to show itself in the midst of this really screwed up, harsh reality of a world? Aren’t we always waiting for the voice inside us to tell us to reach out a hand, meet people’s eyes, listen intently and love unconditionally? Isn’t that just the state of how we live? Waiting for the strange, unthinkable grace to align itself with us in our human condition, understanding the weeping, laughing, desiring, mourning and loving pieces of us?

I guess the goodness of advent is that it through all of the expectant waiting, we are sure Christmas, Christ, the light of the world is coming. Perhaps it’s already here, dwelling among us. It doesn’t need anything extravagant to be welcomed. It doesn’t need songs of grandeur and presents and honor. The light of the world is naked and shivering before us, waiting to be shown hospitality, waiting to be brought into our homes and our hearts. That’s advent. That’s Christmas. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it.