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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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Thanks, Krista. Well said. My adults children a few years ago started a name drawing instead of everyone giving everyone else a gift. Many of us now give to a charity in the name of the persons name we pick. At our chruch we also have a yearly drive to give new socks and underwear to local charities.

well said. I'm with you 100%. In fact, I feel less alone now in my thoughts and beliefs. I haven't celebrated Christmas for several years yet, each year, struggle to some degree with it. Your piece affirms my chosen path.

Also… thank you Krista, your PEACE affirms us.

You've put into words something I've felt for years. Thanks, Krista!

Thank you, Krista, for your calm and reassuring voice, in the midst of commercial chaos. Peace, Wells+

Krista, I am a Presbyterian minister and I have refused to play the Christmas game for years. It is not easy, as you know. But it is freeing. Kudos for you in being so public: and I pray continued courage as you receive the name calling that will surely come. God bless you.

It's long amused me that shopkeepers of every religion can come together in the holiday season and sing in their own language, What a Friend We Have in Jesus. The credit card companies say, amen.


I listen to your show regularly and find your ideas thoughtful and compelling. Thank you for this gift.

While I happily will give of my time - volunteering to help someone with a house project or simply spending time together - I disdain material gifts except under two circumstances: 1) the gift satisfies a need, not a want; or 2) it is given in such a way that it's a surprise - not connected to a commercial holiday, birthday or other event when a gift is obligatory. It feels more sincere, more real when I do it because I care, not because I "have to."

Would you mind posting a link to the charity you uncovered for homeless teenagers? I know other such charities are a just a Google search away, but it never hurts complement a "call to action" with a method to take such action right then and there.

Trent Gilliss's picture

Craig, I'm checking this out with Krista and will get back to you shortly! Thanks for the good question.

Susan Leem's picture

Hi Craig, Krista gave me the info on that charity she mentioned above. It's called YouthLink and it's based in Minneapolis, MN. Find the organization here:

this passage is simply lovely (and a lovely way to experience and celebrate christmas)... "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."

Yes! I thought the same thing. It always amazes me how Krista captures and articulates so profoundly the ideas and beliefs we have been trying to get our minds, and sometimes our hearts, around for years. By reconciling the intellectual pursuit of faith to my own cynical questions and sometimes outright disbelief she has, in no small way, effectively contributed to my own reconciliation with God. Her words are a treasure.

Thank you, Krista, for sharing your thoughtful and thought provoking remarks. I couldn't agree more. You have given voice to what I have felt for a number of years - a fellow alum of YDS.

I appreciate your post and am experiencing some scrooge-like feelings this holiday and with what Wayne Muller calls "The Gospel of Consumption." Your reference to clean underwear, etc. made me recall my son's Eagle Project. He collected like new clothing for the neighborhood children in our community but purchased brand new under garments and socks. He thought of himself and said "I would want new underwear and socks." To me, heaven and earth came together that day.

Thank you for expressing so eloquently what I feel. It is always good to know there is connection, and through that validation, with others on an internal level that is so deep it is not often expressed. Belief systems are tricky; even to oneself.

We go through life never verbalizing our belief system, not sure we really have one. But not believing is a system as well. Most of us that say we are spiritual think of it in the context of our tradition. Breaking away from that tradition is actually establishing a new one. We are connected as evolution connects us. If this season means anything, it means that we are connected by Love, not by Law. No law be it civil or religious can bind us, but that Love that comes from within, that pulls at our hearts, is the true binding force of the Universe, that transends dogm, tribe or ethnicity. Let us connect, through Love.

Well said, I agree, and peace on earth.

Amen! Thank you for expressing what I've been thinking and feeling for so long. Every year I ask that gifts not be bought for me, but rather donations be made on my behalf. I have yet one person do what I have asked! Somehow they've equated gift giving in Christmas to love-giving. I have also asked for time over a gift... Invariably I get the time AND I get the gift! I'm appreciative of the gesture for sure, but in my quest for simplicity and truth I find that the rush for gift buying, the guess work, the budgeting... All create a distracting buzz from what the experience can really be. It takes a superhuman effort to slow our minds down long enough to really ponder about the meaning of a God incarnate -in our individual lives. So yes! Thank you for expressing your idea of a revolution... It's been long coming for me! Merry Christmas!

In a way I have recently view our modern celebration of Christmas, as one of the greatest distractions from Christ and Christianity that exits. And from the communication of close friends, "This phenomenon has taken over Hanukkah as well."
An attempt by my family to host friends and family for a few days and overnight is coupled by the adults discussing how to restrict the gifts to "one per child" and "none for adults" in an attempt to temper the gift-frenzied-focus.
I appreciate the re-focusing in this article. As a family we'll discuss something similar if not the same.
Thank you.

Uncomfortable essay, difficult to force myself to read through to the end. I applaud your courage. You keep us real. You keep us thinking and uncomfortable. That's why I'm a fan.

After a week or so of saying to my kids, "Don't get too excited, they aren't that great," as they giggle and jump while staring at the gift bags under my 32-inch tree, I can relate to Krista's sentiments.
But who am I kidding? I can say that I am eschewing the excess and commercialism to focus on the true spirit of Christmas, but really, if I could I would be at the mall with everybody else.
I used to have a beautiful, tall tree with matching "Victorian" decorations (I guess I still have it. It is in storage, it just doesn't fit in the cramped duplex). We had piles of presents that weren't socks and underwear. But since experiencing hard times, we can't celebrate the way we used to. I used to spend the weeks leading up to the holidays in rehearsal for the choir Christmas cantata. But the church just doesn't seem like such a welcoming place anymore.
So I say good for you, Krista, for helping others at Christmas. And to those of you who celebrate to excess: good for you, too. Enjoy the blessings of your life, and don't forget who gave them to you.

Thank you.

I applaud your honesty and using your voice to put forth something that has bothered me since I gave birth to my son ten years ago. Do I follow the hype and raise him to believe that Christmas is only about presents and gift-giving? Or do I raise him to follow our Christian beliefs? What we have done since birth was to celebrate Christmas as the birth of Christ and we have dinner with family and friends and give thanks for all that Christ has done for us. My son didn't see his first Christmas tree until he was 3, we have never put one up in our home. In terms of presents and my child feeling left out when going back to school and everyone is talking about what they got, he has no jealousy because he gets his gifts all year around, with his birthday being the biggest gift-getting day of the year. I have no regrets of raising him this way, and he has never expressed any feelings of being left out. He actually values the time as a chance to see family and friends who, because of scheduling and distance, we don't get to spend much time with.

This resonated with me so much. Thanks for putting words on this magical little secret --- I think many people must feel this way but don't talk about it. I know I try, every Christmas, to focus on less crazed gift buying and more meaningful connection or donating to people I don't know.

I look forward to Sunday mornings at 7:00 AM before going to church to "On Being" and I always come away refreshed. This piece of writing is much needed and greatly appreciated. To it, I say, Amen!

Me too!

Oh, Krista, please, try not to take yourself and your intellect quite so seriously. Everything in our current American society is overdone and narcissistic. But there are still people who celebrate the true meaning of Christmas quietly in their hearts, without feeling the need to tell others about it or question anyone else's motives or actions.

He says, questioning Krista's motives and actions.

Amen to that. While I agree with the sentiment about obligatory gift giving, there's a certain "I'm a better person than you" moral superiority to this essay and others like it. And it seems to miss the fundamental idea that Christmas is about sharing the day and gratitude for the coming of a new year with those you love. Paradoxically, in making Christmas all about the gifts that she's not going to give, Krista is herself diminishing the true spirit of Christmas by focusing on gifts rather than the larger ritual.

I must confess to being disappointed in hearing it called the Christmas Game. I buy gifts, decorate our tree and sing carols because it is in my spirit to do so. I won't put down your rejection of these traditions but please don't be so discourteous as to put down my form of celebration. I grew up with these traditions. Just because society may have hijacked them, it doesn't mean I have lost my way. I am not playing the Christmas game. I am celebrating Christmas.

First of all, Laura, I love your line: "I buy gifts, decorate our tree and sing carols because it is in my spirit to do so." I actually enjoy seeing people be excited about Christmas, even if they are missing the central point: it is the feast of the Nativity of the Saviour of the world. I like remember that whatever expressions I see are built upon the underlying remembrance the birth of Jesus Christ. I enjoy seeing children be excited about things like lights & decorations, sweets, singing, Santa Claus, and families coming together once again.

Secondly, Krista, I love your show and I hope that you are able and willing to bring us many more episodes to come. I remember coming to the place that you are expressing back in the middle 90s, when I lived in Evanston. I was so sick of all the hype that one year, my wife and I decided to stay home and celebrate with another couple and not do the family tour. I remember that overloaded feeling was kind of like having too many toxins in my body; I couldn't stand the site of one more Christmas motif. Eventually, over the years my disgust subsided.

My church celebrates Christmas (the feast of Nativity) on January 7th according to the Julian calendar. So I've been able to experience the joy of Christmas traditions with many of my friends and family ordered around December 25th, and in a few short days I will celebrate the feast of Nativity of the Saviour of the world at a vigil and a liturgy with others in the Twin Cities. I hope your year ahead is a blessed one.

Father Maximos
St. John the Wonderworker Orthodox Church
Des Moines, Iowa

Trent Gilliss's picture

Good morning, Father Maximos. Where will you be celebrating in Minneapolis/St. Paul?

The services will be celebrated at St. Mary's Orthodox Cathedral (OCA - Orthodox Church in America),
1701 5th Street Northeast, Minneapolis, MN

This liturgy of Nativity of our Lord is celebrated by Resurrection Skete (ROCOR - Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia)
of Fridley, MN at the OCA cathedral. Archimandrite John and his monks work hard to make this a beautiful service.

Here is the schedule:

Sunday, January 6:
6:00 p.m., Vigil of Nativity, St Mary’s Cathedral, Minneapolis

Monday, January 7:
9:30 a.m., Divine Liturgy of Nativity, St Mary’s Cathedral, Minneapolis

Everyone is welcome, there will be much beautiful singing.

The Hawaiian Iveron myrrh-streaming Icon of the Theotokos will be available for veneration at
at the Nativity vigil on Sunday night and the Nativity Liturgy on Monday morning. (This is a miraculous
icon through which many people have received healing.)

Any further questions about the services can be directed to the Resurrection Skete (763)574-1001.

Fr. Maximos

I did not get any sense of, "I'm a better person than you". The fundamental idea of sharing and gratitude is a smoke screen to capitalism. Focusing on the ritual of Christmas oh wait I mean Mirth?

John--well said!

Hear, hear. Some great spiritual and emotional value is added to the Christmas holiday when trees are trimmed, lights lit, and gifts are exchanged between people who love each other. What gifts, and how extravagant they are (individually & cumulatively), influence the benefit yielded - are we taking the time to select, purchase, make or donate on behalf of someone a meaningful present for those we care deeply about?; or are we tearing the doors open of some retailer on Black Friday (and increasingly, and disgracefully, Thanksgiving night) to stuff a cart full of items that are a but a thoughtless "bargain"? As an example,the mere act of bringing a small gift to an aging and shut-in relative, or a teen who sees the world as cold & uncaring, or a single-parent who doesn't have the time or means to get out as much, can be so uplifting of the person - the giver and recipient, both - and validating of our Christian faith's mandate "Love one another." So please - leave the ashes and sackcloth for Lent; put on the festive trappings of Christmas, but keep the Christ-child's spirit at the core of it.

No kidding. I agree

Very well said indeed! I whole-heartedly agree and wish I had the strength to do likewise.

Thank you Krista for this insightful article. A giving of ones self far outweighs any material gift that can be purchased. I have enjoyed listening to your radio interviews over the years and look forward to the year ahead. - Joe

Thank you and Amen.

Thank you and Amen!

beautiful. thank you. sense of winter solstice, Christmas, and life paths of celebration is renewed.... celebrating interdependence seems right...

Sad that "Scrooge" has been twisted to mean someone who doesn't participate in the economic gorging that is called Christmas. When you choose to buy a toy that won't last until New Year's instead of helping someone, you are much more the miser than Scrooge ever was.

Thank you for verbalizing this. I agree with you and have been tending in this direction for years, to the point of being labelled somewhat of a Scrooge, not so much by the actually Christian ones, more likely by the ones who simply want the traditions to stay the same.

Krista...Krista, Krista, Krista, thank you for so beautifully articulating that which I've been feeling and struggling with for so many years, and just this year managed to do something about. If you were within reasonable proximity I'd give you a big ole warm hug of gratitude, but in lieu of, please accept by cyber embrace instead. While I don't now and probably never had the same sense of acceptance or appreciation for the God concept that you possess, I do, nevertheless, consider myself a spiritual being, and the uber frenetic, hyper-material place that this holiday season has gotten to is just, for me anyway, such a very sad statement about our culture. I needed to find a way to extricate myself from this madness and so, this year, I told my ex, in a rather strained and difficult conversation, that I was not willing to be a part of the boatload purchase of gifts for our thirty-two year old daughter and twenty-two year old son. I love your idea/suggestion of finding a worthwhile charity to which we, my children and I, can contribute to those far less fortunate than we are and for whom the receipt of ANYTHING would be valued in ways that we fortunately and most likely will never fully understand. Thank you for On Being and for being the thoughtful voice of reason and consideration that you are, now and throughout the year.

Now to take it further & actually live in a way that one delays gratification or simply does not meet all of one's personal wants & our children's want in an effort to be mindful of & in solidarity with the many in our world for whom this is a reality. To live in a 'sacrificial simplicity' in order to have more to share with those around us & abroad that have less; to consume less & by so fight the raping of the earth & abuse of so many peoples lives who work to produce the stuff that our over consumption leads to ; to choose to follow Christ & to choose poverty verses wealth. Now that is the challenge that haunts me & calls me daily. I too often pat myself on the back for small efforts towards this or let myself off the hook because of others' habits. May 2013 be a year of stronger resolve & greater richness in my character in this effort.

My Episcopal church has been a huge giver over the years and even more now. Diaper Ministry is one of our new causes because food stamps will not pay for. Day care will not accept children if they don't have supplies and for working poor -horribly expensive. Studies show babies who wear wet diapers longer, cry more often and therefore are more likely to be mishandled.

I just realized a month ago that diapers are not covered by food stamps. I had not thought much about this item as my only son is now 43 years old.
I think the Episcopal Chirch is very progressive when it comes to gays also, but I am getting off,the subject. I chose to help a veteran by getting
Clothing items from his wish list. Also we support three girls in two foreign countries including one in Texas, whose parents primarily speak Spanish.
The girl in Honduras lives with her grandmother and little sister; her mother left the family years ago. The money we give each month means
A tremendous amount and goes much further. This is Child Fund International. There are so many desperate needs for children and their guardians
Or parents all over the world and here in the USA. Why not give to people who are desperate instead of giving a gift that is not needed.

It makes Christmas or Hannukah so much more meaningful.

After many years of feeling torn by the gift-giving mania, this is the first year that I haven't given in to the guilt or possible misunderstandings of would-be recipients. I too appreciate the gift of time and relationship so much more than a material gift. I applaud your views Krista. As the quote goes, The most important things in life are not things.