Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Christmas is an Obscenity

I am sick and tired of "Christmas" as it is practiced (not observed) in the U.S.! It's hideous that Christmas "goods" were on display in retail stores even before Halloween. Back in early November on our local NPR affiliate, one "sponsor" was trying to sell cars with the tagline "it's not too early to think about Christmas," followed by the suggestion that we run out to their car dealership and buy our loved ones a new car for Christmas. [And don't get me started about NPR stations like ours that pretend to be "commercial-free" while carrying such plugs as that.]

Stores in my little town were opening as early as 4 a.m. on the day after Thanksgiving, in a frenzy to kickoff the "Christmas season." As far as I can tell, "Christmas" in our nation means "Go charge as much as possible on your overloaded credit cards to show people you love them."

Well, I quit.

Over the last few years, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the guilt tactics that are played out in television, radio, and the print media. Once I spent a few days among the Episcopalians in southern Sudan, I finally decided "enough is enough." Simply by virtue of my being born in the U.S., I am one of the wealthiest people in the whole world. There is almost nothing I "need" (so long as my paycheck keeps arriving). And, thanks to my friends in southern Sudan, I find that I "want" less and less. Given the choice between drilling a well in southern Sudan that can provide clean drinking water or having one more gadget in my house, the choice is pretty simple for me.

Last week, just before Thanksgiving, Michael Russell (Rector of All Souls' in Point Loma, California) posted this on a listserv to which we both subscribe. He gave me permission to post it here. His tone is angry. I'm with him all the way.

Friday is "Black Friday" – the midpoint of the winter holiday consumer frenzy that characterizes our cultural observance of the birth of our Lord and associated PC Winter Holidays. Between the beginning of November and the 24th of December Americans will spend approximately $439 billion on the holidays or $1,600 for every man, woman and child (though this may not include undocumented people) in the United States. This is a little down perhaps from the $450 billion spent in 2005. In the first three years of the Iraq war we spent a total of $439 billion.
Get that? Last year, people in the U.S. spent more on Christmas fripperies than we had spent on three years of the obscene war on Iraq. Does that not make your blood run cold?

Michael continues:

One billion people, the extremely poor, live on less than $1 a day which, if we round it up, would be $356 billion for the year. $439 billion for our Christmas ... $356 billion for a billion people to live, in extreme poverty, for a year. In 2006 humanity managed to watch fewer than 10 million children die from preventable causes for the first time since records began being kept in the 1960s. 9.7 million died. One every 3.25 seconds.

The United states has balked at committing $25 billion dollars a year to eliminating extreme poverty in the world or 1/17th (7%) of what we spend each year on ourselves to celebrate Christ's Mass. Say just $110 dollars of the $1,600 we will spend on ourselves.

Let those numbers sink in. The MDGs ask us to give to the world just 7% as much as we spend (on average) on Christmas gifts. Doesn't this make it clear how easy it would be for us to end global poverty?

Michael continues:
So as we Anglicans wrangle about appropriate intimacy, thinking somehow this is worth tearing a Communion apart over, children are dying as well as their parents. Our moral compass is so out of whack it is hard for me to even find an appropriately caustic metaphor.So as we enter the season of consumer madness, I pray we might spend our energy redirecting cash towards those most in need in the world.
I'm with Michael in this. Our priorities are profoundly, deeply out of whack.

Last year, the people in this country spent an average of $1,600 apiece for every man, woman, and child in the U.S.

Let that fact sink in. $1,600 for every man, woman, and child in the U.S. on "Christmas" gifts.

Is this not an obscenity?

Christmas is supposed to be a holy day – not just a holiday, not just a day off work with a great feast, and certainly not a national orgy of consumerism.

I remember Michael posting something similar a year ago, and it spoke deeply to me. It put numbers to the growing unease I'd been feeling about the consumerization of Christmas. As a result, I asked my family and friends to donate to our diocesan relationship to Lui (Sudan) or ERD instead of giving anything to me, and I asked them what causes I could support in their behalf. I'm doing the same this year.

We have it in our power to end abject poverty and disease on this planet, if only we could get our priorities straight. Or we can receive yet another gadget we don't need, another sweater or tie we won't wear. To me, it seems like an easy choice.

Thanks to MadPriest, I learn there's a group that demonstrated for a "Buy Nothing Day" in New York on "Black Friday." I gather he found them pointless – maybe even silly. Indeed, their tactics may have been silly. But I wish that we Christians could observe something like a "Buy Nothing Advent" in the coming weeks.

Later, MadPriest has reported: The Bishop of Hulme, the Rt Rev Stephen Lowe, said that the celebration of Christ's birth had descended into a "great orgy of excess." (Full details in the Telegraph.) I concur 100%.

I tried last year, and I will focus more intentionally this year, on observing the season of Advent in my church while ignoring the hysteria to just buy something! that pervades our pitiful culture.

If you, too, are sick and tired of the consumer orgy that has come to characterize the American observance of "Christmas," please join me. Let us make it a holy day again.

Please join me.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lisa, I hope you (or maybe you with Michael) could write this up as an "Op-Ed" and get the message out beyond the choir.

Beyond what a redirection of even a small percentage of the per capita spending to resolving poverty might do, a reduction of the per capita spending to a rational level would likely leave us richer, too. Richer because we'd value the gifts we had, richer because more of those gifts would be simple or token expressions, not adding to the general glut, perhaps with more time together, as there would be time without the frantic rush to consume more.

And, well, just plain richer because $1,600 per person wouldn't have been spent. I'm glad to say that my little family doesn't even come close--even if we add in air fares to visit distant family (and the cost of boarding the dog). That's an appalling number.


11/29/2007 12:39 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Thanks for that encouragement, Karen. I'm pursuing ways to get it published more broadly. If you have other ideas, please tell me about them.

What you said is so very true! Thank you.

11/29/2007 10:05 PM  
Blogger Tandaina said...

Lisa I agree, you've said far better than I could what I've been feeling for the last few weeks.

So here's another member of the choir, I would love to hear about your preparations for a holy advent.

11/30/2007 8:38 AM  
Blogger xhepera said...

Hi Lisa. As you know, we are of like mind on the issue of the Christmas-season consumer idiocy. The issues that you raise are some with which I struggled for a long time in my life. And not just during the Christmas season, but year 'round. Western civilization is incredibly privileged and spoiled. And most of us have no clue that most of the rest of the world is not. Some thoughts occur to me regarding Christmas in particular though. As we recently discussed, you know that Christmas has been problematic for many Christians for a very long time. The rampant consumerism and marketing push are only the latest manifestations of issues that have troubled some from the earliest days of the celebration of Christ's birth by Christian communities. I think part of the problem is that, although Christians see Christmas as their special holy season, this particular time of the year belongs to a great many traditions and has for long before Christianity even existed. Blame the Roman church for playing religious politics by declaring that Christ's birth was to be celebrated at precisely the time when the ancient Pagans of the Mediterranean region had celebrated the Saturnalia and the birth of Mithras for ages. And those of Europe and elsewhere had celebrated the Winter Solstice for comparable periods of time, if not longer. Of course this more or less ensured that Christmas would be embraced popularly, but it also meant that inevitably Christmas would be many things to many different people, despite what the church wished. The bottom line, from my perspective, is that this is always going to be a problematic time for devout Christians who understand and wish to observe the deeper essence of their faith, but who must live in the world at large. Anger or resentment toward those who don't "get it" are natural, but at what cost to the soul? All one can really do, I suppose, is hold fast to the principles that are important to one's spirituality and take refuge in what one knows to be right for one's faith and practice. And ignore the rest. Of course, as you know, this advice comes not from a practising Christian but from the unrepentant Universalist that I am. Your mileage may vary. :)

Wishing you a blessed Advent season,

12/01/2007 8:17 PM  
Anonymous Nitpicker said...

Lisa, we have six granddaughters, and today I was cajoled into joining my wife to go shopping at what was once a delightful toyshop for one very young granddaughter, who had dictated her own "want list" to her doting father.

It included "Sharpay" dolls, and we ended up with a fully dressed but very shapely brunette.

I'm no prude and not easily shocked, but I hated what I saw in that section. Almost all the female dolls wore extremely sexy clothing--and often not much of it.

Dolls often serve as role models for young girls. I remember many wholesome dolls, dressed as brides or nurses. As an ardent feminist and long-time member of the EWC, I would liked to have seen some priests, lawyers, executives, etc.
No such luck! Apparently, what sells today is sexy "trainee tarts".



12/01/2007 8:31 PM  
Blogger Catherine + said...

Lisa, I join with you and those who want to return the holy to the birth of Christ. You have written a gifted piece here. I will link to it when I do an entry on returning to the sacred mystery of His coming to us.


12/01/2007 9:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I usually don't go to the Adult Ed session at my church, preferring to have either adult conversation or quiet time while the kids are in Sunday school. But today's topic used Walter Brueggemann's "Countering Pharaoh's Production-Consumption Society Today" program (see as the foundation for a discussion on how to get out of the box of consumption and into the possibility of covenental neighborliness--using what is truly needed and living faithfully. We spent the time on the first couple of sections, which focused on the Exodus through the 10 Commandments. In other words, these questions have been around for a bit ...


12/03/2007 12:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I rather dread Christmas season. I'd rather it be the season of dietary indiscretion than financial indiscretion. The occasional ethanolic indiscretion (which for me is anything more than one beer per month) is ok too. Making a mess in the kitchen is fine.


12/04/2007 12:38 PM  

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