Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

A Christmas Conversation
distributed 12/19/03 - ©2003

There is an uncomfortable pairing between Christmas as one of our faith's deepest holy-days, and Christmas as the holiday which sustains the retail economy. Through long December weeks, the largest expressions of the spiritual and the material sit side-by-side. Like strangers stuffed into adjoining seats on a trans-continental flight, there's little conversation between these two manifestations of our holiday awareness.

Our society as a whole, and many of us individually, keep a polite silence between the religious and secular sides of Christmas. It seems obvious that they have little in common to sustain a dialogue. And there is a well-founded anxiety that things could get messy if a serious discussion got going.

So we go to church through the weeks of Advent, preparing ourselves for a celebration of the incarnation of God, but our disciplines of preparation generally don't touch on the ruinous credit card debt that many parishioners are racking up for the holiday. And we go to the store to deal with an expansive and expensive gift list, holding the message of Jesus at bay while perusing designer clothes and electronic gadgets.

Are we, as people of faith, destined for some sort of multiple personality disorder? Must we alternate between two different consciousnesses as we make our way through this season?

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I heard the story from one who was there. She got to the punch line with a mix of humor, chagrin and thoughtful reflection.

Several Christian educators and youth workers have been meeting to plan a big youth event on the theme of "consumer culture." Their preparations are already well underway, and now they are working on the details of how to address the theme.

They have spent hours reviewing some of the most significant sociological and psychological literature on consumer culture. They discussed the Christian traditions and ethical norms that can critique our materialist society. They began to sketch out classes and activities that can help youth resist the forces of advertising and peer pressure. They are excited about the chance to address such an important subject in depth.

At the end of last week's meeting, the conversation turned to family celebrations of Christmas. And they all agreed that they really like Christmas presents -- both the giving and the getting.

There's something important that I need to hear in that story. A collection of faithful people, folk who are deeply concerned about our consumer culture, find great joy and meaning in gifts. They are a reminder to me that there is a point of contact between the emotional and the material, the ethical and the commercial, the spiritual and the secular.

I am reminded that an exchange of gifts can have a different meaning than an exchange of greetings. The thought, time and dollars that are invested in a well-chosen present can convey love in a different way than words and gestures.

The one-of-a-kind item purchased in April for the coming Christmas because it is "just right" for a dear friend has rich emotional content. It acknowledges something personal and shared in a relationship. It says, "I know and respect who you are." The thing being given is an essential part of that message.

That's very different from an impersonal present given to fulfill an obligation. A department store gift card tucked into an envelope doesn't convey a lot of intimacy (even if it is exactly what the teenager in your house wants). The stereotypical necktie for Uncle Fred, who never wears the things, mostly says, "I did my duty." The much maligned fruitcake symbolizes gift-giving gone bad.

The material side of Christmas can be, and often is, shallow and stressful. The exorbitant purchasing of stuff repudiates the principle of sustainability that is central to any attempts at caring for creation. The giving of lots of cheap things, instead of a few meaningful things, is a driving factor in a globalized economy of sweatshop labor.

There is much to condemn and critique about our consumer culture, and about Christmas giving as an expression of its distorted values. But a blanket condemnation of Christmas gifts is not helpful, or realistic. A more nuanced discussion will be more fruitful.

The spiritual and the material sides of Christmas need to sit down for a lengthy conversation. If we let those two parts of our selves talk about it, the emotionally rewarding and spiritually grounded aspect of giving gifts can be affirmed and clarified. And the limits of physical things in providing real meaning and happiness can also be brought into focus. Without such a conversation, we'll tend toward the two extremes.

Bringing together the two sides of our holiday observance can be helpful. But I don't anticipate the Realm of Retail to initiate that discussion. The initiative will have to come from the other side -- from families and from the churches. In those settings, the days following Christmas can be a good time to reflect on what really was joyous and meaningful in gift giving, and what was stressful or empty. It is a conversation that can be profitable next fall, too, when the Christmas catalogues start to arrive.

Rather than ignoring the materialist excess that goes on around us, or writing off the whole frenzy as an environmental and socio-economic disaster without redeeming qualities, churches can explore the significance of gift-giving in a way that helps our folk find appropriate boundaries. When we remember that gifts do have meaning, we can look into alternative ways of giving that convey love without exploiting people and the earth.

I know that finding that meaningful middle ground will be good for my spirituality and my sanity. And I think that there are many others who need to be delivered from the extremes of the season.

By the grace of God, may we find our way there.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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