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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

Thank you for this article. I go along wholeheartedly with what you say. But what do you do when you're a lone voice in this insane time of year.

I too grew up in a much leaner Christmas environment. Most young people who are not poor are fairly inundated with "things". The consumerist environment that we are all encouraged to participate in has left our children with no appreciation for anything they receive. To correlate it with their ethics is out of the question in their minds and those of most parents. I am left to think back to the 1940's and my Christmas with Mom and Dad and the sparse and simple gifts we had. My heart warms now to a situation in which the material could not distract from the central messages that reached our hearts.

Well aren't you a special snowflake.

♫ snowflake roasting on an open fire ♫ ♪

Interesting piece. Many many years ago I was one of those Christians who knew just enough to be dangerous, and had a pole up my @$$ about how people were trivializing my religious holiday, all the while never refusing a gift from anyone.

Then I gained a little knowledge...and wisdom. When I learned that we did this to ourselves by putting the Feast of the Nativity on the same date as an already overdone Yule/Solstice/Saturnalia celebration, I realized that it was sort of like deciding to get married on the 4th of July. Both things get mixed together, and called by one name.

And so I've made my peace with the fact that there are two parallel Christmas celebrations. One is religious, the other is secular and cultural. And I celebrate both just as I would celebrate Independence Day and my wedding anniversary had I been foolish enough to schedule them for the same time. They are cousins with the same last name...maybe even fraternal twins...and one does not easily disentangle one from the other without losing something.

And the gift-giving...while we do try to keep it modest in our family, I also look at the "obligatory gift-giving" as a time to teach my children about thinking about other family members and keeping an eye out for things that they might like.

We also, though, do make a point of buying things for the Salvation Army tree...or this year, donating to the family of a woman who was killed in a car accident a few weeks ago. It doesn't have to be either/or. It can be both/and.

God Bless You!

Thanks for the thoughtful message and for your beautiful insight I get every Sunday at 7 am in On Being.

Amen…Amen….thankyou, Krista…deeply for writing, for saying in absolute words... for being with me..for being with us in giving up on Christmas….
Your sharings, your gifts of insight, your relentless willingness to dive deep, deep…all through the year….make life better…richer.. life in this culture, in this day…possible….meaningful…ALIVE….

Not surprisingly, this is an exceptionally well thought out and beautifully persuasive account of why a Christian might not participate in the Christmas "traditions." I would only add that these economic and political myths that are so damaging to our cultures are fed by a fundamental myth about science and the nature of reality. We put our faith in and are deeply comforted by science and technology. The myth is that we are convinced that this faith and comfort are themselves supported by scientific facts, which is a distortion of the nature of reality and the mystery of human spirituality. Walker Percy sums up well our trust in science:

"What has happened is not merely the technological transformation of the world but something psychologically even more portentous. It is the absorption by the layman not of the scientific method but rather of the magical aura of science, whose credentials he accepts for all sectors of reality. . . . Such a man could not take account of God, the devil, and the angels if they were standing before him, because he has already peopled the universe with his own hierarchies."

Well said! Personally, I believe gifts should be given from the heart , when moved to do so- not out of obligation. And I have disdain for all "commercial" holidays that do nothing more than place us deeper in debt and make the credit card companies even richer.

Our church started participating in Advent Conspiacy several years ago and our family liked it so much, we've been doing it ever since.
http://www.adventconspiracy.org/

Thank you, Krista, for putting my thoughts about Christmas into words, in a much-better (and kinder!) way than I ever could have. You hit the proverbial nail on the old noggin. I've been struggling with holiday commercialism side effects for many years, but until I ventured into some dept. stores myself recently, the enormity of it all hadn't really hit me at a "soul" level. I found myself crying in the middle of Target, after listening to parent after parent trying to placate their kids' wishes for this, that, and the other. The tension and stress was so palpable, I had to keep from shouting out, "People, people, people! You're all missing the point of Christmas. We've all been given a wondrous gift, available FREE to everyone!" But I didn't, and instead announced to my church folks and friends that, instead of buying endless gifts, I was going to commit random acts of kindness and giving, and encouraged them to do the same. And, some of them did, and shared their experiences with me. I hope what you and I have done spreads to as many people as possible, and that the true "gifts" of Christmas will be given all year round. Thanks again....

After struggling to stay awake through an irrelevant mid nite mass sermon about some bishop giving refuge to an Imam who was being hunted down by his peers, sure leads one to also rethink the modern production of Christmas too! Happy Birthday dear Jesus!!! My gift to you is .....

I am so glad that a friend shared this with me. And I have been a silent, unchanged member of that little rebellion for several years. Thank you for giving voice and plausible action.

you put into words feelings I cannot always articulate. Thank You.

Hallelujiah!!! I have been listening every Sunday morning @ 7am since long before the name change and have spent happy hours at the site. This year I was provided a huge and exhausting (Amazon) wish list expressing the wants of my 2 under six year old grandchildren including a motorized scooter, various superhero costumes, electric trains etc...I dug in my heels but still went shopping. To the extent that my gift, a telescope suitable for moon gazing and yet to be opened, I can only imagine how Grandpa Ken is being thought of over these party days. Thank you Krista, your voice coming loud and clear singing through the commercial fog that I can only barely avoid here in NYC, was more then refreshing, it was healing. P.S. I am looking for a spiritual community here in NYC...all suggestions much appreciated & will be acted on.

Thank You Krista for expressing what i could not say better. Turning it around to help those in need is the spirit of giving that cannot be commercialized. The fruits are heartfelt. Happy New Day every day!

I know that surrounding one's home with lights is indeed secular, but there is something in the hanging of outdoor lights and putting out the decorations that seems to be a gift to others. Even when the front yard is filled with kitschy blow-up Santas or a singing Rudolf, I realize that someone has taken the time to create a display for others to enjoy. I always smile when I pass by a humble manger scene put up in a yard in a not-so-well-to-do neighborhood, just as I smile when a see a 50-ft. tree adorned with lights in my own neighborhood, knowing someone cared enough to risk his or her life to string lights on their tree. I assume that these efforts are done for the enjoyment of others. And I do believe that the lights and decorations are put up in a spirit of joy--secular as they might be.

I wake up every Sunday morning by seven, so that I may imbue myself with one of the most deeply spiritual, politically intriguing, or uncommonly interesting science-research radio interviews that I listen to on WNYC in New York City. Krista Tippett and her show, "On Being", has captured my heart, mind, soul and spirit with humor, great intelligence, and profound empathy. I have begun to read some of the earlier segments online. One of my favorite ones was especially dear to my heart: Alan Rabinowitz's beautifully moving narrative of his life, leading up to the establishment of the first (and perhaps THE ONLY ONE IN THE WORLD?) jaguar preserve in Belize, Central America. I lived for the major part of seven years, from 1974 to 1981, in southern Belize, with my now ex-husband, Jack (who still lives there); our daughter, Kamil, (the "Harutu Garifuna" of Barranco Village); our former fellow Peace Corps volunteer-friend-in-El Salvador, Ed; his Salvadoran wife, Vilma; their daughter Rosalynn; and various and sundry friends and occasional back-packers. What an amazingly inspirational and astounding story Mr. Rabinowitz told about his encounter with the jaguar on the jungle path !! We had heard other incredible tales of "meetings with remarkable jaguars" ! Thank you so much, "On Being" and Krista Tippett, for these superb programs !!!

Bill Moyers and Company on PBS this week interviewed Thomas Cahill, His new book Heretics & Heros . It was a riveting conversation and very much described my own feeling about what Christmas and christian churches have become in our culture. Your comments only adds to my feeling of great Hope that we are on our way to a better understanding of our yearning. Kindness & Cruelty ,A walk with Tom Jefferson. by Philip Levine a recent poet laurette was even further illuminating about our culture. Thank you Krista Tippett

Yes ,quietly tending indeed. I wonder in more than a few years when grandchildren are born how we do ?

I enjoy your interviews very much.

Hi Krista - Redeeming the Day! Love you post. Over the past few years my income has diminished to next to nothing. I now have 11 grandchildren and one of the most difficult things is to feel like someone looking through the window of a restaurant in the snow at my family gatherings. I can't afford to travel much less make any purchases that would keep me in the top 'something' category of 'giftings'. All of them are very kind and warm about my lack of 'presenting' and I have also made it quite clear not to be gifting me as I have more accumulated over my life than I need. I spend more time giving bread to the more needy year round and giving away 'things' I once treasured and felt were important perhaps to next generations. (They could care less I found out). Now we are busy with a few folks sharing the gift of communion. In our home each morning, others homes, on the street, in a coffee house - wherever the Shepherd leads - there is always a 'tab;e prepared before us'. Its short and sweet and deliberately non-churchy, We do it to share the 'tangible Jesus' in the bread and the cup and the fruit of the vine. In addition we find bread donated each week and distribute it freely to neighbors, missions, less prosperous churches and our street people friends.I love your comments and suggestions for alternatives and the insight about Good Friday vs. Black Friday - good 'un! Anyway just wanted to chime in as a fellow sojourner in the community of faith who by economic conditions can no longer participate in the dizzying confusion of christlessmas activities. More because I can't not because I wouldn't. If there was a couple of extra dollars I probably would try to send the grand kidlins something from 'bob-bob'. I do love them so much and only hope that my lack of ability to give something temporal might be realized in the eternals of the genuine Christmas - where Baby Jesus lay in a Manger to become the very Bread of Life for all us mangy critters! 100,000 Blessings to you, your family and community of faith in the coming year!

I am deeply moved by your essay, as a avid listener of yours for the past 5 years I often find my self in awe of the woman you are, the woman with such great compassion and listening skills, and the magical way you use words to bring others passions to light. I work for a non-profit here in California that work with many young children, ranging from age 6 to 18, with many life challenges and life obstacles, not from their own doing but the unfortunate life choices their parents have made. So when I read your article I was touched that you and many others have found some small and big ways to touch the hearts of our youth, with deep gratitude for all that you do in touching our hearts and reminding us to do our own part to touch the hearts of others, isn't that truly what Christmas is about…thank you!!!

It is interesting to read this perspective. As a non-believer who was raised Christian, I love everything about Christmas. I don't really buy that "God gave his only Son," but I love the lights and carols and food and gifts and family part. I would be pretty upset, though, if I was a believer, as I do think Christmas has become all about the parts I like, and not about it's origins at all. All of that said, I cannot imagine raising young children and denying them gifts when all their friends will get gifts. That borders on cruel to me.

Here, here! Well done Krista Tippett. I agree wholeheartedly with you and am going to have to add the homeless teenagers website to my charity list. Thank you. Good Health to you and your loved ones.

About 10 years ago I opted out of the gifting game. My beloved nieces and nephews didn't notice. Now I send them money in a card a few weeks before Christmas, so they can buy me something.

You again hit the truth right on... about Shopmas as we now "enjoy" the season.. Your abstaining from gift sending to family and friends, and instead shopping specifically for items needed by the less privileged is the way to go. thanks for your wisdom.

Traditions which sustain some, oppress me. Expectations based on (refinement of) previous experience I question. Christmas and other official holidays seem overshadowed by commercial interests. My sense of being alive in the world, awakened fresh each day, refuses to be overrun by trivial trappings of tinsel and glitter. Rather than the usual compromise, I completely dodged Christmas this year. Nope to parties where I would be obliged to eat, drink and make merry. Refusal to shop for presents, even worthwhile necessities, left me feeling free and at peace with this dark, quiet season. Space for meditation and naturally arising inquiry hearten me. I'm with Craig Reed (comments below) thinking that gifts which surprise at 'off times' are interesting and delightful.

Thank you!.
In Quakerese, my response would be "That friend speaks my mind". In other words, "ditto." December the past two years has been punctuated by a rotten Christmass. One of my newest friends also reports having had the givens of her life fall out from under her Christmas Day of 2012. I would love to opt out. Jesus is a fine example. Some amount of ritual can be very meaningful. Much of the music does my soul good. But expectations around consumerism, food and excess tear me apart. Thank you for the spirit you bring to your interviewing and for being an honest and caring human being. I especially like the choice you've made to clothe the homeless and cold.

My wife and I have felt the same way for a great number of years. We applaud you saying it like it really is. Someone needed to, finally.

Thank you so much for putting it into a beautiful perspective. I have refused to go 'shopping' for years and my family knows what to expect from me as it has been the same for several years. They love it and so do I. I re-gift on occasion and donate many things to a local senior thrift shop.

I so resonate with the tension of ritual and commercialism that you have brought to my attention. I feel it yearly and seek desperately to find a balance between my/our traditions of a newly assembled 21st century family and the essence of the birth of Christ. Ritual is so essential in our modern world. Your clear message of non-doing of this holiday has inspired me to find a path for our family to discuss and decide what we WANT as a family on this important holiday. thanks!

We generally have a party on the Winter Solstice (to celebrate the days getting longer) where we see all our friends. Some bring wine, dishes to share, but most important is that they show up. I go to a couple of Christmas concerts because I like the music. I put up a few decorations because it helps me through the darkest days of the year to have the house look festive.
I agree with you about the gift giving. It's just marketing. I buy gifts for people during the year and sometimes wait till Christmas to give them, but if it makes sense or they really need a gift to cheer them up, I give the gift then. I try to give gifts to those in need during the year. I always put money in the Food Bank collection jar when I go to the farmers market. I hope those small things add up.

I've found Christmas one of the saddest days of my year. It seems that no one but me "gets" it. It's not about US as much as about a Holy Prophet of God come to Teach us a 'new' way of 'Life'. Thank you. You renew my sometimes flagging respect for people in general.

I did nothing this year, except visit with friends. Less hectic, more joy-full. Money went into college funds for grandkids.

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