We are in the middle of the third week of Advent. Advent is a liturgical season that lasts four weeks and prepares for the season of Christmas, which starts on Christmas Eve.
Christmas is probably the most popular Church day of the year next to Easter. However, for many, the celebration of Christmas is based more on secular values than religious ones.
While driving to the bank the other day, I heard on the radio people being asked to donate toys for children from poor families. The announcer said, “Just imagine if these children were not able to have Christmas …” I thought “Wow,” is someone closing the churches? Is someone making it a crime to acknowledge Jesus’ birth and to celebrate it? What has happened?
The announcer equated Christmas with gift-giving, which many of us often do. It is generous and noble for us to make sure that every child has something special for Christmas, especially children from poor families. But I feel uneasy about making Christmas solely about gifts rather than celebrating it for the religious holiday that it is.
If we understand the true Saint Nick, we realize that he was the Bishop of Myra (modern day Turkey) in the fourth century. He was celibate (sorry, no Mrs. Claus), most likely used a donkey for transportation (not a domesticated caribou with nose issues) and was extremely generous with his own fortune.
The story goes that he found out that three girls were to be sold into slavery because their father did not have the dowry. St. Nick threw a bag of money for the dowry through the window for each young woman when she came of age. His generosity allowed them to live an honorable and dignified life. This probably is the story from which we get the idea of making St. Nicholas the giver of gifts.
What we have today is an unholy merger of one of the most sacred days on the Christian calendar with consumerism. We celebrate the great day of consumption, or better said, we celebrate Christ’s birth with trees, lots of spending and stories about fat men in red, powered by flying caribou. How can the story of Jesus’ birth and the message of salvation for all compete with that? We are in danger of breaking the first commandment, by committing the sin of idolatry. We worship mammon rather than God.
First, we get a tree to decorate. A tree is grown in order to be used as a decoration for a few weeks. As Christians, we are tasked with stewardship of the environment, so to grow a tree just to toss it seems wasteful especially with the rapid rate of deforestation and desertification of our planet.
It would be better for us to plant a tree rather than to kill one, or just to buy an artificial one and reuse it for a number of years. When a huge, 100-year-old evergreen is cut down for either our nation’s capitol, or for outside St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, it saddens me that we cannot find a better way to acknowledge the season.
One aspect of the whole gift-giving practice is to show off our wealth and to keep up with the Joneses. To mindlessly consume, and do so in an ostentatious way, reveals our ignorance or apathy for the two billion people on the planet who live on less than $2 per day, or the homeless families in our own communities.
It just seems incongruous that we show our wealth on the day the Holy Family had to give birth and spend the night in a cave in Bethlehem.
Many of us associate money with love. If we love someone, we need to prove it by spending lots of dough on that person. If parents feel guilty for in some way neglecting their children, it is easy to fall into default mode of making it up by purchasing whatever their children want.
I remember playing that card (not that I was neglected) as a child and our family customs back it up with the visit to see Santa and then maybe a letter to the North Pole. We unwittingly train our children not to worship God, nor to care about the less fortunate, but to focus on their desires to consume goods and to associate money with love.
Parents lament that their children are let down after the gifts have been distributed because they did not get all that they wanted. I wonder how it could be any different, when we train someone to focus on their own limitless desires for goods.
It would be nice to have a no-gift Christmas. Instead, we could look at our charitable giving and see if we need to pick it up a notch. The Bible says we are supposed to give 10 percent of our income to charitable causes and to those in need. The average practicing Catholic gives about 1.5 percent and the average Christian about 2.9 percent of their income to their church.
One would assume they would give additionally to other charities, which is expected. However, many of us fall well short of the required 10 percent. The whole idea of stewardship is not that we give what is left over or just a token, but we give an amount that requires personal sacrifice for the good of another.
Giving is more about the giver than the receiver. We either see everything that we have is ours (and our family’s) and that we have the right to consume it, or we are given many things by God and are called to be good stewards and share especially with those who are most in need.
There is nothing wrong with the custom of gift giving done in moderation with consideration for the poor; however, it has become what many equate with the celebration of Christmas. The holiday emphasizes overspending and consumption rather than devotion to God. I would even disagree with those who say Christmas is not about gifts, but primarily about family.
Christmas is about Christian community acknowledging the birth of our Savior. If Christ is not in the center, then we should just call it something else, like the Pre-New Year, or Post Winter Solstice celebration that involves lots of stress, sappy music, spending, eating, and enduring troubling family members and in-laws.
Rev. Dinsdale is the priest at St. Marguerite Catholic Church in Tooele.