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Me and ThemIllustration by Libby Levi

I played the Christmas game when my children were little. I was not reckless with the sense of wonder that collects around Santa Claus and the Baby Jesus and, alas, morphs the two together. I bought presents. Some years I even decorated a tree. Though some years I could let their father do this — a rare plus of raising children in two households. As he is an Episcopal priest, they would also go to church with him, leaving me to stew in my Scrooge-friendly juices.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy giving gifts. I think ritual is essential to human flourishing and to family life. We need more of it. I have a deep reverence for the incarnational heart of Christianity. I even still recognize faint glimmers of these impulses in the trappings of Christmas as we know it now, 21st-century style. But I think this season has more overwhelmingly become a distortion of them — a distortion of us as a culture, as humans, as families. And I for one am done.

Why do I dislike Christmas now? Let me count the ways.

I don’t like — don’t approve, refuse to throw myself into — the spirit of obligatory gift-giving. In my lifetime, this has become existentially linked to a commercial orgy that has now even co-opted the ritual angle. We have Good Friday and Maundy Thursday; we have Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Unlike Good Friday and Maundy Thursday, however (though like “fiscal cliff”) these terms are repeated and reported by the most serious of journalists. Like all mantras of ritual, they work on us from the inside. They are an economic event by which we measure a certain kind of cultural health.

This form of cultural health is not health at all. It is overwhelmingly an exercise in excess and trivia.

When I was growing up, even in a financially comfortable family, we waited all year for the new bicycle, the new Barbie, the new book. Christmas was a reward for a kind of patience. It was, in some sense, an exercise in delayed gratification. Those gifts were even presumed to be a reward for a year of goodness — a proposition, to be sure, that always had its fluff factor.

But we who are fortunate to have money to spend on Christmas presents inhabit a world now where the new bicycle — in modern-day translation: the new phone, the new video game, the latest greatest shoes — are purchased on demand throughout the year. I routinely wake up to find that my teenaged son has left my laptop desktop open to the “checkout” page, usually of a sports clothing website, where he has graciously filled in all the fields but my credit card number. I don’t always buy what he wants, but I cave in more than I’m happy to admit. That’s January through November.

Then there is the religious distortion of Christmas. Good Christians out there who do this with dignity, I don’t mean you. In most of the churches I’ve attended as an adult, Christmas is dressed up as a children’s holiday. A play. Not really for grown ups, not really about us. Make no mistake, I’ve teared up at that re-enactment of the manger scene many times myself, especially when my own children were sheep. It does not begin to do justice to the message of God become human.

When I became a mother for the first time, I was studying at Yale Divinity School, learning vocabulary like “Christology” — all the ways Christians have pondered the complex notion of Christ as both fully divine and fully human for the past two thousand years. So it was with incredulity and not a little annoyance that I found myself, in a state of severe sleep deprivation, singing “Away in a Manger” where “the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.” Please.

More recently, there is also the maddeningly superficial way we’ve thrown other holidays into the mix, subsuming them all into general cultural buzz. The December that the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was full-blown, my daughter traipsed through the house playing with her imaginary friends and singing “Oh Monica! Oh Monica!” to the tune of “Oh Hanukkah!”

Here’s what I take seriously. There is something audacious and mysterious and reality-affirming in the assertion that has stayed alive for two thousand years that God took on eyes and ears and hands and feet, hunger and tears and laughter and the flu, joy and pain and gratitude and our terrible, redemptive human need for each other. It’s not provable, but it’s profoundly humanizing and concretely and spiritually exacting. And it’s no less rational — no more crazy — than economic and political myths to which we routinely deliver over our fates in this culture, to our individual and collective detriment.

So here’s what I’m thinking about this Christmas. Recently I followed up on a promise I’ve been making myself for years: to wash and sort and give away all the good clothing my kids have outgrown as they’ve left childhood behind. It’s embarrassing that I never took the time to do this all along. In the course of digging around for where to donate, I stumbled on the site of a charity that works with homeless teenagers. It turns out that they’re not asking in the first instance for all these Levis and good-as-new, cool t-shirts. They’re asking for donations of socks and coats. They’re asking for newly purchased underwear, noting that most of us take for granted our ever-renewable supplies of clean underwear that fits.

I’m not going to buy any presents this year. We will go shopping as a family for these homeless teenagers, and I’ll try to be honest about the equivalent I would spend on my own children on the commercial holy days if I believed in them. I report this in some hope of feeding a little rebellion I sense many of us are quietly tending. But I also make it public to be sure I follow through.

As I said, we need each other. And that impulse, surely, is deep in the original heart even of the most secular things like Santa Claus and surrounding your home with lights: examining what we are to each other and experiencing that, sometimes when we do this, something transcendent happens.

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285 Comments

Change is unsettling. We continue to do many things even when they don't feel right. It takes courage to say, "Hey, this is not working. Change is better than doing the same thing expecting different results." Kudos to you Krista to face it and then share it.

You say with such eloquence that which I have felt for years. I am a deeply religious person who is angered that my holy-day has been hijacked by commercial concerns. In these difficult economic times, we have been told that to be a good citizen is to buy, buy, buy. The holy seasons of Advent and Christmastide have become corrupted by competing values. I despair.

THANK YOU KRISTA FOR BEING SO BOLD AND ARTICULATE!
AS A HUMAN RACE, WE HAVE LOST OUR TRUE SENSE OF WHAT WE WERE CREATED TO BE....TOLERANT, COMPASSIONATE, KIND AND YES, LOVING TO ALL OF GOD'S CREATION.
WE GIVE SO FREELY DURING THE CHRISTMAS HOLIDAYS, BUT WE AVERT OUR EYES AND SENSES DURING THE OTHER TIMES OF THE YEAR....FOLKS ARE ALWAYS SUFFERING NOT JUST AT CHRISTMAS.
CHRIST HAS BEEN TAKEN OUT OF CHRISTMAS. A TRUE EXAMPLE OF WHAT IT IS TO BE ALTRUISTIC IS TO BE CHRISTLIKE AT ALL TIMES. THANK YOU AND PLEASE CONTINUE TO ILLUMINATE US WITH YOUR OPEN-HEART.

As a child, I remember my father saying Christmas in America was all about the loot. I remember watching an in law family showering their grown children and toddling grandchildren with so many gifts at the Christmas we shared that the opening started at 9 ended at 2 or 3 in the morning as we all oooed and ah-ed over gifts individually opened and displayed. As a young adolescent, I was embarrassed at the disproportionate "wealth" displayed between our families. As an adult, I watched my own inlaw family shower us with Santa Claus chairs because there were so many little things that no stocking was big enough and then the opening of family gifts. It was such a financial struggle for us to meet the expectations so carefully not spoken but so carefully signaled with Christmas lists, postures, grimaces, false smiles, and inquiries about return policies. Now I have become my father -- not a curmudgeon as I thought -- but a sad observer -- yes, Christmas in America is about the loot and I just want to get together with people I love and care about who want to be with me instead of checking the obligatory "Christmas list" has been filled.Thank you for your thoughts. I don't feel so out of step.

I, too, have moved away from the commercial Christmas and back to the traditional season, Dec. 25 - Jan. 6. In this way, I can let the shopping and pressure wash over me, knowing I can share with others throughout the year and celebrate my Lord during the church's season. Happy New Year and thanks for the wonderful podcasts.

Oh great! Someone actually said it! You said it! I read with anticiapation your article about why you don't do Christmas but was left wanting more explanation of spiritual content. At 65 with a combined family of six children and ten grands and all the accompanying in-laws, I dread the annual gluttony of unappreciated gift giving and just move through all the actions by rote, but I still try in vain to proclaim the "reason for the season" at every opportunity, only to come away feeling shallow. As my own relationship with God deepends into the cave of my soul, the outward demonstrations feel false, like a table setting that will be put away when the company leaves. Perhaps we should discount any Christian relationship to the holliday and acknowledge that it is simply a time to give a gift. Do you think then it would be more joyful? Just give a gift because you want to -- no strings attached to religious significance. By george, that sounds very Christian, doesn't it!

Thank you for bringing us back to the reality that to overcome the commercialized Christmas/Hanukkah gift-giving, all we have to do is look around and see that there are many more far less fortunate...giving to the least is the best gift ever!

Personally, I dislike the cover on the James book. I much rehtar liked the others. I wonder if it's maybe that this doesn't focus on any of the women we've seen so far and so he's the focus. But I could be wrong.

We are now about as far from Christmas as we can get - in weather, in spirit, and in expectations.
Perhaps this would be a good time to "report out" on how Krista's actions last December met expectations.
Anything unexpected? Any plans for the coming Christmas season? Any lived insights?
Thanks

The true meaning of Christmas is to live its message and meaning every day...you have captured that essence...thank you for the gift of OnBeing!!!

Thanks for the courage to take a stand. That's what Jesus did.Also Dr. King. May you have a wonderful Christmas!

I love you. Thank you.

Growing up (and remaining!) Jewish, Christmas has always been a fraught time for me. It was the time when have felt most alien in American society, for any number of reasons. The growing materialism of Chanukah, a very different holiday, only made things worse. However, since becoming a parent, I have begun to see things differently. The wonder of the incarnation -- that, as Krista says, the divine would take on a human body, not only in all its frailty, but at its most frail moment, as a newborn, has led me to appreciate more some of the warmth and wonder that many Christians seem to feel at this time of year.

Thank you Ms. Tippett.
Your post gave be an opportunity to reconsider what I do in this season. I am a Japanese living in Japan and I am a Buddhist, but Japan has a strange mixture of events of different religions, including not only Buddhism events but also visiting Shinto shrines for prayer in the new year's days and the Christmas where we give gifts and have parties with friends or girl/boyfriend (not with our own family unlike in the western countries).
In recent years, Japan is in a kind of gloomy mood where nothing -- politics or economy or any social things -- seems to look bright and hopeful. So this year, I thought I should cheer up others and myself using the joy Christmas can bring us, and have been thinking of and actually buying gifts for my family members, relatives, and friends. But now I read your post and I started doubting myself. Feeling the joy of the season may be harmless and not that a bad thing, but the fact that I was unconsciously part of this materialism and consumerism made me rethink the way I should spend this season. Though I was acting that way, buying gifts, in recent months I have been having doubts about this materialistic societies (I mean mostly Japan since I do not live in the US or other countries). You post was a wonderful reminder of the doubt I have been having and was losing again little by little. So thank you. I will find my way of "gift-giving", not to my families or friends, but those who are in dire need.

Hi Krista; Good comments, as always. For years now many, many people have been in to "alternative giving". While members of my immediate family do get some carefully thought out, small gifts we pretty much give donations in the names of others that go to support education, health care or life enhancing projects in developing nations. Our loved ones appreciate these gifts. They know they do not need another belt or shirt. They also love the idea that a gift was given in their name that truly makes life better for someone who has less opportunity in this life than they do.

So beautiful written and clearly from the heart. So many teenagers are profoundly in need of very basic needs...shelter, food, clothing. It will make a difference!

That was so refreshing to hear! As a family we do the same thing! No more passing around $50 bills , no more hours of needless shopping for needless and thoughtless gifts. Now we take our time and money and adopt a family. We enjoy our together time as a family to shop for these people, we wrap their presents and sometimes drop the presents off at their house. As a non- Christian, raised as a Catholic, I find this to be my meaning of Christmas. A time to give, a time to love and a time to be together with loved ones. Because time is greatest gift of all.

Your gift is well received. God bless you.

It's all too easy to get caught up in thinking Christmas is an event we stage or "do" instead of entering into it, participating, sharing it. One solution is to give up on "doing" it. I've chosen a different approach.

Visiting the Capodimonte museum in Naples I was amazed at the nativity scenes there, centuries old: exquisite and tender depictions of the mythical manger scene surrounded by hundreds of Neapolitan townspeople going about their day -- growing tomatoes, making pizza, shoeing horses. To me these conveyed Incarnation, the divine powerfully present and alive in the midst of our everyday lives.

Since seeing those I have turned from worrying about what to me risks being a fundamentalist approach -- this kind of Christmas is sacred and that one is profane -- and instead tried to keep asking myself the question, "What does this particular action mean?" If children are given material things all year without any sense of their relationship to money, I am not convinced that doing a 180 on Christmas is logical or meaningful. We never gave our children junk or the toy of the year. They still cherish the books they received, the science and art materials, the building blocks they will give their own children one day. Oh, and Silly Putty etc. We do not take ourselves too seriously. Even gifts can convey love and connection! I think kids learn from giving them to each other and to us -- both choosing them and saving for them. I have found that as they reach their twenties and are supporting themselves they do definitely experience the old-fashioned anticipation of needed items -- a bathrobe and slippers, for instance.

Giving these things does not get in the way of also giving gifts to needy children or to various organizations and causes that desperately need money. We do that too. We've been broke and we've been comfortable. Somehow it all fits together in a messy, wonderful way.

I don't agree with you on this on, Krista, but I appreciate all you do.

Just another suggestion when looking for ways to donate. I worked in a program that provided housing to homeless families and among the people we served, there was a constant need for personal hygiene items for girls and women and disposable razors for men. These are some of the things that people, when they don't have them, sometimes resort to shoplifting and further complicate already complicated lives. They are also a reason why girls may not attend school at times. These are things that people not in those circumstances tend not to think about. Lots of people donate socks and underwear, and though needed and people are grateful for them, they are usually available in much more abundance than these other items.

Krista Tippett, this was fantastic! What a great thinker and writer you are. I have just been thinking this season about the triumphant music that comes with this season. The talk of the "king." I don't know. It occurred to me that all of the pomp and circumstance flies directly in the face of the inherent, devastatingly poignant, humility of Christmas. So I enjoyed this bit. Right there with you. You should write more often! (I was planning a long trip to see family recently. I bought a jump drive and downloaded about 25 of your shows--yes, the unedited ones--for the duration.) Keep up the great work.

It's good to do what you've done for the teens who need subsistence. I admire that result from your discussion of Christmas, but I think you have taken a jaded view of us, who may or may not have the motives you ascribe to us. I'm sorry you have chosen to take the Christmas celebration many love to its worst interpretation.

What was your turning point one wonders? Is it because it is a commercial success? Can't we get beyond that?

Thank you. You nailed it! We are always looking for meaningful traditions that allow our souls to connect but the gift/ spending glut always feels so empty to me. I didn't celebrate Christmas as a young single adult, but embraced the tradition once we had kiddos. Consumerism hijacked an opportunity to celebrate renewal of the solstice, the return of the sun, reflection of our psyche and lives. Right with you in searching for ways to bring it back.

I love that you took the time to write what so many of us feel so deeply but find hard to express in the midst of our own family friends and co workers !!! So many people hop on the holiday train on Black Friday and ride it all the way through the excess of New Year's Eve

S. Mateo 1:21-23 HCSB

She will give birth to a son, and you are to name Him Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.” Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: See, the virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will name Him Immanuel, which is translated “God is with us.”his is my reason for celebrating Christmas:

Great article. Where can I drop off in kind donations, website didn't clarify for me?

Krista, I love your radio show, and look forward to it every Sunday morning, even though I must often miss the end of the program to begin getting ready for the Sunday School class I teach. What you have to say here about Christmas is thought-provoking, and I hope it will inform my future actions. Alas, it's far easier to continue along the same path, especially when you are seventy- three years old, and somewhat set in your ways! But perhaps I can help to make a difference in my own family. It would be the greatest gift I could give them!

Trying something new on the 25th, with my wife's consent.

Last year, I saw a group of Filipino helpers (there's a lot of them here in Hong Kong) at our local McDonald's celebrating Christmas. How I take my own space for granted.... This year, if I see a group celebrating Christmas like that, I (with my wife by my side) will invite them to use our place.

(I'm posting here, in public, so I will follow through.)

i shamelessly celebrate the gift giving. in some years i celebrate the birth of the sweetsweetbabyjesus also.

santa claus is real. he is real because we see the effect of him.

god is real. "he" is real for the same reason.

microsoft is no more or less real. for the same reason.

things mean exactly what we choose. when i was in iraq, i kept a hamdful of random rocks in my pocket. these were my children. this brought me comfort of company and centered me.

it was just a handful of rocks. and the old green ballcap i wear at all times is "me and steven" because i SAY it is.

things mean exactly what we individually say they mean.

You are speaking what has been in my heart. Thank you!

Krista, Just because Christmas has been so commercialized, by so many, doesn't mean that for a lot of us, the sacredness of this 'man made holiday', escapes us. I thank God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit for bringing Jrsus Christ into this world as man to save our weary souls. My family hasn't exchanged gifts for many years. We do things in the community, give to those less fortunate, spend time worshipping together, enjoying each other's company and lots of good food. We are truly blessed and we know it. We thank God that Christ came into the world to save us.It is to each of us how we celebrate this 'man made holiday.' We choose to celebrate this time of year as the 'Birth of our Savior.'

Hi Krista - I really love your shows, insight, humanity and your gift which you share to us all. May I hold up a mirror to you, like you try to do to the intellectuals who don't like the pop culture, internet, etc, which you wrote for the acapella(sp?) Lorde piece? Few people like the overcommercialization of Christmas, but I submit that we shouldn't let the businesses poison/manipulate us to avoid the goodness which can come from the season, if we chose to do so. Just like we should not let the nasty stuff on the internet and in pop culture manipulate us to avoid engagement with them for goodness or the right reasons. One can give a gift (material, time, loving kindness, prayers, listening) to loved ones and the needy at Christmas, and throughout the year, even while all that advertising/pressure is going on. - A Caring Fan

I am not a fan of obligatory gift-giving either. Nor capitalism, when it comes down to it. But the thought of robbing children of the wonder and excitement of Christmas that I felt as a child fills me with sadness. We only get the one shot at being a kid. Sure, we won't know what we're missing if our parents were jaded. But I feel like I've managed to carry the spirit of the holiday that I felt when I was young through to adulthood, and I don't know who I'd be otherwise, so I'm probably going to stick with the tradition and try, like my parents did, to instill an understanding of the illusion of commercialism into my kids when they're old enough, and encourage them to seek out their own spiritual truths as they get older. I have to have enough faith in them to figure things out for themselves in the context of whatever messed-up world they inherit. And I get the added bonus of that delightful joyous smile when they rip that paper off the boxes on Christmas morning. Year-round instant gratification is a much more worthy target than Christmas, I think. But I can't afford to constantly shell out cash for NFL jerseys, so maybe it's a case of two different worlds.

Thank you for stirring this pot of reality. I will try to be more aware of the rampant commercialism that invades our true holy days.

Thank you.

Americans have bought into the lie that Christmas is about giving gifts. "The holidays" are just an excuse for "the people" to spend, spend, spend so the "haves" get more and the "have nots" spend money they don't have. I do give a few gifts to those closest to me but I also donate dollars and other goods to those less fortunate than me. Thanks for exposing the lie of the American Xmas plus the multitude of other holy days lumped into the Xmas group for no other reason than to make money.

Yes! thanks for sharing, Krista. from personal experience, the season brings more peace, joy, and contemplation when not preoccupied with shopping! Christmas blessings to u....

Only to say thank you.

Beautifully put. And inspiring. My family will gather and our focus will be on our one small child. Her mother too requests that that the gifts be modest and our time together be what it is about. Having read your piece, I understand my daughter much better now.

I don't usually give gifts outside of my immediate family. But one year I decided to give my fellow band members books that I read, choosing ones I thought they would like. My wife has expanded this to a tea and book swap with the church as an auction fundraiser item. Giving something meaningful makes sense. Otherwise it' all hype.

We are on consumerism autopilot. Driven, as Krista notes, by years of marketing mantras that seep into our cells like a spiritual poison. The only real goal is to enrich the marketers. But it takes two to tango. This essay is a thoughtful and courageous wake up call and a way to reclaim one's power.

Beautifully put, Krista. Thanks for sharing your reflection and for imparting a sense of hope as you affirm basic values.

Krista, well said. And the public forum to compel follow through is brilliant. The Creator of worlds set us up on time delay to manifest our own small desires to give us pause to consider the desire's worth. We have circumvented that pause of consideration through our "modern" life style's ability to deliver instant gratification. In service to others who find themselves outside looking in, we can experience the gift they offer us of the Divine plan of Pause.

This is just what I needed! We decided not to do presents this year and instead, revel in each other's company, experiencing each other. The Experience, not the things.

Experience over stuff. Love over poverty. Let the spirit of giving continue through the year.

Thank you so much for stating this perspective on Christmas so well!
Cheers, C2

I always appreciate your posts. I too am the parent of a teen-aged boy and, while I feel there is lots of room for improvement in my parenting, there is one thing I feel good about having done right: I've raised a kid who isn't BURDENED by a sense of entitlement. For it is, truly, a burden. Particularly in this uncertain economic period, when our kids may finish college in debt and find no decent paying employment awaiting them, I believe it is essential to arm them with the ability to go without, to postpone gratification, to live on very little. It is, in the end, freeing to be able to get by on nearly nothing -- I know because I've done it as a young adult and will probably be doing it again as I grow old.

Mazal tov on deciding to divert needless accumulation of yet more stuff towards those who have little or nothing. "Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers."

For years I've felt that Everyday should be Christmas...Give when the spirit moves you to give, why wait till one day a year to "reward' those you love, and others. I don't buy into commercialism and advertising that has guilted you/me/others into giving .....
Everyday is a Good One and some are Better .....

First world problems: I'm upset that society makes me spend my expendable income on others. Grow up.

Great!

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