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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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Thank you for expressing so eloquently the aversion I have developed over the years towards a holiday that was so meaningful when my adult children were young. Then we focused on the mystery of new life in the dark of the year, the opportunity to celebrate with family and friends, the beauty of light and music. As we all grew up together, we've forgotten some of that wonder. The challenge now is to reject the dominant culture's perversion of ancient rituals and return to what my kids used to call "the true meaning". Blessings!

A wake-up call indeed.

All these rules and all this angst about giving. Let me remember my Brother who blessed us by coming to live among us. And let me give without attaching a whole lot of stuff to it. I am happy to give -- for whatever reason and for whatever need -- and in remembrance of this -- to whomever and whatever -- and without a reluctant spirit. Why withhold? I step away from consumerism because there is nothing to be gained from it. But a thoughtful gift -- this is a joy. It's part of being in the flow of life.

Bravo! I believe that we have marketed away the sincere love and appreciation for family and friends that once flooded the homes and communities of our ancestors. Perhaps its through maturation that the importance of gift giving (receiving) has declined for me.

Hello Krista - we've never met - I appreciate many of your programs/interviews - I am a grad of Harvard Divinity School and then went on to medical school and psychiatry - I practice in Des Moines, Iowa - where I am a rare breed who still spends 45 minutes with the folks I see - I am of like mind as this piece on gift giving at Christmas thanks for your work

David Drake

David E. Drake D.O.,
Clinical Professor of Psychiatry
Des Moines University,
Private Practice, Des Moines, Iowa


why is it that there seems to be more self-guilt at Christmas than at Easter?

I grew up in a church that has many extremes about iconography - such as believing it's sacreligious to wear the cross as jewelry, or to have an image of Jesus in the sanctuary - but also in this church Christmas was not celebrated as a religious holiday. Many of the extremes my church practiced I found silly or counterintuitive, but I liked that they didn't try to claim Christmas. For one, I understand that Christmas as a celebration of the birth of Christ replaced the pagan celebration of the winter solstice. I'd rather just celebrate the solstice! And two, I never enjoyed judging others for the way they celebrated Christmas, so i'm glad my church didn't encourage me to do this. My family celebrated it as a family holiday - a time to be together and sing, eat, share. Still, there are people in my family that embrace Christmas as a consumer holiday. So every year there is a little guilt felt when I'm given "stuff" and don't have anything to give in return. Or do I? It brings up the question of what giving is. Giving to charity is certainly one selfless way to give, but there are so many others- we just need to recognize those ways as gifts.

Thanks for sharing your heart and mind on this Krista.I agree that much of the activity we ascribe to Christmas (or other Christian holidays/events) often focus on other than the intent of the holiday. Thank you for this reminder. However, I will challenge you on one point. I will continue to "do" Christmas, and do it with joy, for the very reason you stated. We need each other. I just came from Christmas at church where I though the same thing about it being a children's service. There was a time I would have said, I not "doing" this. Unfortunately, this created a condescending "holier -than-thou" attitude in my heart that once harbored, was difficult to move away from. This attitude was destructive to my relationships, and, just like the commercialism of Christmas had distracted me years before, my desire to live my life in a right manner replaced my desperate need for Jesus, and to share the love and grace he generously showered on me with all other I know and don't know. What I have come to understand is that I don't want to be defined for what I "don't" do;rather for what Christ calls me to do. Love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul and mind, and love my neighbour as I would love myself. What does that look like? We have traded some of the self-centeredness of Christmas with clothing donations, time spent at the food bank, fundraising for the local youth centre etc., but we still celebrate Christmas. We exchange gifts with those who value that ritual, we spend time with family & friends eating things we don't usually eat, we watch church programs that maybe don't speak to all about the true nature of the coming of Christ. Te reality of what this looks like changes from year to year as we grow in understanding. We do this to be salt & light, to share what God has so abundantly bestowed on us, and to point to Him when someone asks why we do what we do.

Well said Krista. We are not self-interested enough. The materiality of Christmas distracts us from the extravagant inner gift we can give to ourselves and others.

Bravo! We are the gift to each other! I am because of you! Ubuntu!

I am so glad I am not alone on this. Several years ago I stopped giving gifts to anyone but family and made donations to charity. Now all adults get donations to charity as gifts. Thanks for saying it so wonderfully.

Thank you for expressing many feelings I've had for years. I love the idea you came up with. You're helping me find the courage to make a change.

Krista, thank you so much for your honesty on this. I blogged about my own similar Christmas journey, recently, though you managed to state yours so much more eloquently and less emotionally than I did (no surprises, there!). May you be encouraged to continue to speak, write, blog, etc... I cherish the podcasts...

Someone said to their children, " Jesus only received three gifts, I think that's enough for you too."

How completely idiotic!

You need to find a better church lol

Thank you for this. It is what I've felt for years. I once asked my family to join together and skip the gift-giving that year. It didn't go over well. I dislike Christmas and most holidays for that matter because it has all become so commercial. There is no meaning anymore. I hate the feeling of obligation… I want to give from my heart and not from obligation.

Oh how I wish i'ld read this earlier ... Before the running to stores unsure that what I was getting would be needed & appreciated. Help me get out of the trap of contemplating the right gift, finding it & then watching the let down of "not what I wanted."

Hi Krista,
Loved the article. First time to your blog. My family isn't celebrating Christmas either, at least not the culturally acceptable Christmas with santa, reindeer, malls, and wrapping paper. We will celebrate the Christ en Mass with others who bear witness to the incarnation in the midst of our messy lives. As a family we made the decision to move gift giving from Christmas morning to St. Nicolas Day, who could be against giving gifts to those we love. We have freed Christmas for the pondering of the mystery of God come near and our call to service in the world God loves and is working to redeem. I have often wondered if we were along in these Christmas reformation/restoration efforts. Your commends resonate with me.
Blessed Advent and Christmas!

"In my lifetime, this has become existentially linked to a commercial orgy that has now even co-opted the ritual angle."

Perhaps you mean synonymous...NPR hosts, at least I've noticed because existential is a very important concept to me, sometimes use 'existentially' to perhaps sound more intellectual.

Ex: "Iraq's latest actions pose an existential threat to Israel." (A made up sentence but correct in the NPR usage.).

An existential threat to Israel means it would no longer be a 'jewish state'. Literally destroying the country, which is what I think is meant, wouldn't be would be real... really real... 'conventional'.

A person pointing a gun isn't posing an existential threat. A slanderous article about someone's gravitas is an existential threat.

Nice post. For me getting or giving presents has never been part of Christmas. I didn't grow up with that, and I still don't do it. And it is not hard at all, it's just a matter of what you are used to. Food and family are more important, but in a way that food should be about sharing and about showing an effort to your guests to offer them something special. And family should be the family you want to be part of, the community that you create around Christmas, not necessarily the family you belong to or come from.

I would say, don't swap buying gifts for your kids to buying stuff for others. You are still buying. Why? There are plenty of things to share when money is not involved, or at least not the main thing.

Although deliberate consumerism, waste and want are ugly aspects of our culture, I think she has somewhat missed the point of Christianity as it relates to Christmas. Belief in what we don't see before us. And I think this is significant to the secular celebration of Christmas and the ritualization around the holiday as well. Jesus didn't appear a King laying in that manger. I don't think he really glowed. I don't think the star lit up all of Bethlehem like a neon sign saying "this way to the savior." In the same way, I don't think we see what is in people's hearts when they are at a crowded mall the weekend before Christmas. We don't know who is frankly purchasing crap because its on sale, and who scraped together enough cash this year for a tree, a ham, and a few dreams come true for their kids. We only see what is plainly before us; tis the season also to believe in everybody's unseen magic, love, or spiritual self. I learned a lesson this year through forced giving. I was ba-humbugging around about how I wanted only to give presents to people on my "good" list and not my "naughty" list. When all is said and purchased, although I'd love to buy a sailboat and some new black shoes for my besties instead of anything at all for some people on my list, I grew as a person by being forced to find a "thing" for them, wrap it in forgiveness and present it with love. Lesson learned. Things are not always what they appear. Relish in it once a year.

Thank you for this BEAUTIFUL and spot ON post. ... May I suggest you use person first language in discussing these teens? It doesn't seem like a big deal but they are actually children/people first versus their condition, we so often use the circumstance to describe the person before their humanity. These are children who are homeless - it is a correctable condition NOT who they are.

Thank you for sharing your struggle; this helps validate all our struggles! I learned from the movie Scrooged many years ago that I didn't just want it to be 'one day a year', so I keep a Christmas tree up all year round; just the ornaments change! And every day I look for some way to give. This frusrrates my children, but they put up with thier old man's 'excentrcities'. And they don't complain about the periodic 'just because I love you' gifts throughout the year.

Thanks Krista for talking about something that I struggle with.

We are a blended family and most of our children are young adults. My partner's daughter, 27, with her own 4 year old, announced this year that she wasn't doing Christmas presents. Her father and I started thinking in terms of supporting her by minimizing our present giving behavior and also concealing it "so she wouldn't feel bad.". Then my 25 year old and 21 year old launched into their gift list, finding out what their 12 year old brother and us parents wanted, and pinpointing what would be welcome in their lives. Practical young people, this amounted to each person listing what they needed anyway and exchanging wrapped boxes rather than each just buying things for themselves. Last night my partner got a call from his daughter finding out what everyone wanted, and I felt better about my guiltily purchased and wrapped presents for her and the grandson. (The twelve year old decided to write a book and give a copy of it to each member of the family, retaining his Christmas money for taking us all out to movies and buying more legos for himself.) Lately I see things in terms of "acting out your commitment" and "every action, however pragmatic, being a symbol for your commitment" such that $1 given to save the wolves or feed the hungry is infinitely more powerful than nothing, in the life of the giver. In my view the symbolic act of thinking about each other and wrapping the presents for each other and giving them to each other and hoping the person is pleased and delighted... the INTENTION of giving, is very very important between families and communities. I do not see how it really detracts from anyone's relationship to Christ. I do agree if it's all about Getting, and the birthday of Christ gets sidelined in a commercial splorgy, how it can be detrimental. Balance in all things.

Beautiful articulated article on the insanity of Christmas but shared so gracefully x Thank you

thanks for the thoughtful piece. Everyone could turn gift giving into a an opportunity to support charities, causes worldwide and I think everyone would find it infinitely more meaningful. It always shocked me that Oprah with her big Christmas giveaway never utilized this idea

We can always look for the evil in this world if we choose that path. I choose to see the Love, Joy, Peace, Hope and Grace that is lived out at Christmastime better than any other season of the year in spite of the foolishness that society encompasses. All the truth of the Christ Child is still true and was and will be forever. I choose optimism.

thank you

thanks for sharing your experience.
It is terrific to seek core principles at their finest when shared with others we love,
extended toward less fortunate ,who genuinely benifit and are grateful for compassionate charity.
we can be charitable in daily practice, breaking the grip of commercialism individually.
preferring presence over presents any time!

Krista won't do Christmas. She's in good company - nor does most of the rest of the world. Albeit for a rather less frivolous and rather more substantial reason: most of the rest of the world doesn't buy "the message of a god become human "

Christmas' origins are unrelated to Christianity. The date, the trees, the gifts, the eggnog, the caroling, the mistletoe and holly, the candles and lights, the yule log; pretty much all of it (except the manger scene) comes directly from European Pagan and Animist traditions. Christmas is (still) the celebration of the Solstice, the most significant annual astronomical event, harbinger of warmer weather and therefor survival itself, for both hunter-gatherers and farmers. The solstice is significant to every temperate-latitude indigenous culture globally, which is to say (almost) everyone's ancestors. With all this in mind, it is wholly appropriate for us Atheists to get into the "spirit" of Christmas--it is Applied Astronomy through-and-through, and celebrating it helped our ancestors survive long enough to make our births possible. Just ignore the manger scenes; they are recent newcomers to the holiday season.

Your comment (I see what you did there with the scare quotes on “spirit” – very naughty) is appreciated, though perhaps a tad too stridently (you are, I trust, familiar with that epithet) fact and reality laden for the tastes of the fan boys and girls (judging by most of the comments here) the producers and patrons (bestowers of grants) of this show.

You could have taken your observations even further and still be on firm factual footing by mentioning that even the virgin birth of a deity is not Christian in origin. It’s just the only time it really, ahem, truly did happen. But that would have had you flagged as even guiltier of waging the “War On Christmas™” than you already find yourself by recommending we “just ignore the manger scenes”.

To be fair, the Dalai Lama, another one of Krista’s faves, is also a god become human. Indeed, the most recent reincarnation in an entire line of such humans. Though, he plays it down just enough not to be seen competing with the One and Only True Son of God (Krista’s) but not too much as to risk losing his cachet.

Thank you for this article as I feel much the same but could never have expressed it so well. I am trying to eliminate this obligatory giving of gifts to friends and family who have everything to begin with. I prepared food for the LGBT shelter in the neighborhood and contributed a grocery store gift card for one of the families my church adopted. If I can fight off this cold will visit a friend in the hospital and two others who are shut-in at home. I think this is more important and in keeping with the reason for the season. Thanks again.

Thank you.

Well said. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!
I have been trying to articulate this to family for years, only I do it very poorly.

Thank you.

Thank you Krista! You are not alone with these thoughts and deeds. We live in entrapped in many illusions. Refreshing when we choose to follow a different path often amidst family criticism.

Wonder-ful......I totally agree! Thank you.

The discussion reminds me of the Apostle Paul's teaching on eating meat sacrificed to idols. Eat or don't eat. The important issue is that you not offend your brother/sister.

My daughter and I did this years ago. On a whim we bought socks and gloves and blankets and coats for the homeless. Also, please remember food banks in deepest winter, after the giving spirit of Christmas may have worn off but the needs remain...

i used to be cynical about the whole Christmas thing. But when giving stared to become a lifestyle so my cynicism disappeared as well. I realized that while many people give our of sense of obligation it is better than not giving at all. I too despise our consumerism. The way we celebrate Christmas is simply a reflection of where our hearts really are. So at this time of year I still give gifts as I do through out the year not because obligation but because I like to give gifts. My hope and prayer is that even when people give for all of the wrong reasons that the simple act of giving will cause a spiritual awakening in them.
I have grown to love the season. Perhaps because it high lights what zi desire to be dong year around. So let us encourage more giving and even when "they" "me" do not get it right I know that I have a God who gave it all 2000 years ago and still gives today and forgives today as well. I only have to make sure my heart is in the right place and if I am so fortunate as to get it right maybe somebody will follow me.

At one point I emailed my local NPR station - WCAI - here on the Cape about the 'business of mankind' during the holiday season. It was just TOO MUCH from my viewpoint. So I turned my station off, put on the music and just veered off the road of deep winter holiday hype to the peaceful road of focusing on essence of the 'season.' it's hard and thank you for putting your path into words. I always appreciate the podcasts. Happy to you and yours ....

An arrogant essay.

A smug and An arrogant comment.

This has really helped me get more clarity on how to celebrate Christmas, as being raised culturally Christian, and now Buddhist. But MY BIG COMPLAINT ABOUT CHRISTMAS IS THE THOUGHTLESS KILLING OF SO MANY EVERGREEN TREES. With the reality of global warming, do we really need to kill a tree? especially the really big ones that grace the town centers of most cities in our country? For those like me with sensitive hearts, it truly HURTS to see all the trees being killed. HURTS!!

I appreciated Krista's essay as a thoughtful counter to the out-of-control materialism and commercialism that have drowned out the meaning of our holidays generally, but most particularly Christmas. I give to the SPCA or local pound, and I prefer trees living, growing, giving us their natural gifts of oxygen and beauty. The older I get the more I realize the best gifts in life are somehow freeing both to giver and receiver. I like the Salvation Army with their bells and simple donation ritual. And the poppies on Veterans Day. There's something lovely and comforting about the understatement which makes the experience of giving such a pleasure. I love "On Being" -- what a gift that is!

why didn't you post my comment about the killing of trees for Christmas? It's relevant, and on topic, and respectfully said. ????