Doing Christmas Differently: Spend Less
Welcome, everybody, to Advent, week 2, the Sunday of Peace.
As Christmas gets closer and closer I don’t know about you, but I am feeling the pressure to ramp up the gift-buying. I thought I had the process under control…I usually try to keep lists and work on them throughout the year, but this week a strange panic hit me:
I’ll bet there’s someone I forgot.
And I put all of the gifts I have, wrapped, under the Christmas tree already: it doesn’t really look full enough.
I just can’t think of what to buy this one person on my list; I am wondering if I should just wander around the store until I find a few things that maybe he will like? Can’t have him opening less than everyone else….
I suddenly realized this week that I have become a victim of the ten hidden gift-giving rules. You don’t know these rules? Oh yes you do. Listen:
- Give a gift to everyone you expect to get a gift from.
- If someone gives you a gift unexpectedly, reciprocate that year (you can use pre-wrapped, generic gifts you keep on hand for such occasions).
- When you add a name to your gift list, give that person a gift every year thereafter.
- The amount of money you spend on a gift determines how much you care about the recipient.
- Gifts exchanged between adults should be roughly equal in value.
- The presents you give someone should be fairly consistent in value over the years.
- If you give a gift to a person in one category (for example, a coworker), you have to give a gift to everyone else in that category, and the gifts should be similar in value.
- Women should give gifts to all their female friends.
- Men should not give gifts to their male friends, unless those gifts are alcoholic beverages.
- Whenever the above rules cause you any difficulty, the solution is probably to buy more gifts.
I’ll add one more rule: a lot of peoples’ happy Christmases hinge on your compliance with these rules. Miss one and you can screw up the whole thing.
See what I mean about pressure?
This year, though, we’ve been talking about doing Christmas a little differently, and surely…surely…this impacts the whole area of how much we spend at Christmas, don’t you think? I hope so…because in theory this season is a season of stillness, of waiting, of waiting for a radical Savior whose aim and message it is to change the whole world with standards of justice and peace, to transform the way we think about the distribution of resources and how it is we manage our share.
And if our main preoccupation is blessing consumerism at Christmas, it’s easy to get sidetracked and forget that we’re waiting—not for the presents under the tree—but for Jesus, the one who comes to save us. It’s an ongoing battle, isn’t it?, between the instant gratification of our culture, with all the ads and the enticements to spend and the guilt over not spending enough, versus an attitude of expectant waiting…just waiting…looking around at the despair and hopelessness that pervades our culture and still…waiting…waiting for God to break into our world and to make hope, peace, joy, love all realities even in the middle of the wreckage that surrounds us.
(Oooo, I had to take a break at this point in my sermon writing. Did you see that FB ad for $5 off when you spend $20 at Amazon.com? I just got a gift idea for that one hold-out on my list…).
See how pervasive it is? It sneaks in even in the middle of sermon writing!
We’re trying something new this year, though. It’s called Advent Conspiracy, and it is a movement started in 2006 by a small group of pastors who were alarmed by the growing hyperconsumerism they were finding, even among Christians. The intent of the movement is to spend these four weeks of Advent focusing on four guiding principles: worship fully; spend less; give more; love all.
The hope of Advent Conspiracy is that if we are willing to engage in intentional spiritual practice this Advent, that we will be able to avoid being caught up in the consumer craze that surrounds us, that we will cultivate hearts that are open to the coming of a Savior, that we will nurture lives that reflect the radical message of Jesus…even in the middle of a culture that encourages the opposite.
I know you want to have a meaningful Christmas season, filled with love and family and joy and memories…and Jesus. None of us wants a holiday season filled with stress, or debt, or missed moments. So every week during Advent you’ll have an Advent Conspiracy assignment, printed in your bulletin. I hope your first week of Advent Conspiracy gave you some moments of intentional reflection, some impetus to take a step back and really think about how you move through Advent this year. There’s even more to think about this week as we consider what it might mean to spend less this year.
I did a lot of reading this week about the strange compulsion we Americans have to spend, spend, spend, in ridiculous amounts, around Christmastime. Somehow this is not the image I have in my mind when I think about Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House on the Prairie Christmas…I mean, you know, the one where they got an orange in their stockings and it was the best thing they’d ever seen in their lives?
So I decided to do a little digging about how it has come to be that we celebrate Christmas to such extremes these days.
Sure enough, in the late 1800s, around the time this church was founded and this building was built, Christmas was celebrated differently in America. In the media of the time there was scant evidence of Christmas consumerism…just a few ads here and there, most for toys. The only people who really got gifts at Christmas were the kids; the adults sometimes exchanged something they called “notions,” but those were small tokens, like pipe tobacco, or a book, or a package of pins, or a handmade handkerchief.
The focus of Christmas back then was not gift giving at all, really. It was a holiday that took a much smaller effort to prepare, it lasted for days after the 25th, and it focused on going to church, visiting friends and neighbors, playing games with family members.
So what changed?
In the beginning of the 20th century, you can think back to what was going on in our country and remember that mass manufacturing was taking hold. Factories were springing up everywhere and that good old American ingenuity kicked in. We were producing tons of stuff; we needed to learn better how to consume it.
So the advertising machine stepped up to the plate and in the 1920s Christmas ads started appearing much more often and starting even a whole month before Christmas. Couple this with the end of WWI and concerns about the possibility of a stagnant economy, and Americans were definitely along for the ride. Stores began to see almost 50% of their annual profits during the Christmas season. They began extending “special liberal Christmas credit” to those who could not afford to keep up.
It was an intentional push by merchants to make us want to buy, and why wouldn’t we? It seemed like progress to graduate from oranges and rag dolls for kids to bicycles and electric trains and jewelry and fancy clothing, gifts, gifts everywhere, for everyone! We were buying under the guise of generosity and even family, but the reality is that we’ve gone so overboard by now, a whole century later, that all we’ve created is stress and pressure, guilt and debt.
Think with me, if you will, to the very first present you opened last Christmas. Can you remember what it was? How you felt?
Okay, now think back to the fourth present you opened last Christmas. Can you remember what it was? How you felt?
Neither can I.
A recent AP article reports that last year alone Americans spent over $450 BILLION dollars…on Christmas gifts. And spending that much money on gifts for Christmas is proving to be extremely stressful for us. In a survey of 1000 Americans taken to gauge how they were feeling about the financial pressure to buy enough gifts for everyone on their list, 45% of those surveyed…45%!…said they would prefer just to skip Christmas altogether.
Into our consideration of all of these things this morning come the words of the prophet Malachi. Malachi was one of the last of Israel’s prophets, working in the years 515-445 B.C., when the people were back from exile, the temple was rebuilt, and the restoration of the city was well underway. The strange thing is, his message was nothing new. He had the same message for the people that had echoed over and over through the ages, the same warning that had led them into exile in the first place. You aren’t listening to what you hear in the temple. You are failing to follow God’s commands for your life. You are not caring for your neighbors. You do not urge work for justice and peace. Your lives endorse policies that give those who already have too much even more, all the while there are so many who are suffering without.
The people were bankrupt in spirit and morally impoverished, Malachi says. They needed to know that the God of the covenant, whom they claimed to follow, was on his way. His expectations for them had not changed. And when he arrived, his aim would be to set this world to rights; unless they got serious about repenting…about turning things around…it would not be pretty when he got there.
Any of this echoing from so many years ago in ancient Israel…all the way to us?
There are impoverished all around us, and many more in other parts of the world. We continue to sacrifice the health of our planet in the name of excessive consumption. The weakest among us are stepping stones for those of us with the most power. We are a people in danger of bankrupting our souls.
Lest you think this is yet another stern lecture on cutting back at Christmas, I want you to know I don’t think you should head home and shred the gift list today. I just want to invite you and me to think about how we are spending our money, to see if we might spend a little more smartly, to not get sucked into the cultural craze of buying and spending just for the sake of doing it, but instead refocusing and being thoughtful and strategic about how we spend and give this year.
One thing that will help us in the weeks ahead is our Advent Conspiracy assignment for the week. I’ve invited you to sit for a few moments and write down three values you hold, ideals that you’d like to think define you and your life. They could be things like: God, family, kindness, honestly, fairness…whatever are three that you claim as vitally important to who you are.
Then, spend some time going over your gift list this week. Do the gifts you have planned for folks on your list reflect those values? Is your plan for giving consistent with what you know to be the great needs of this world? Are there some ways in which you might reorient your gift giving to reflect your deepest values? Do you need to spend less, to think more creatively to make that happen? Chances are, if you’re like me, these are questions that merit some consideration.
We don’t have to be caught up in the Christmas consumer craze of our culture; as you heard, it’s a false construct anyway. And, worse, it has the potential to bankrupt our souls, like the people to whom the prophet Malachi was preaching.
We can do things differently; we can.
And so, I invite you to think outside the box this week, to consider your spending and to invite the little one who is coming to change the whole world, to come and change…you.
 From Unplugging the Christmas Machine, page 92.