Christmas and Simplicity

Robert and I had our monthly calendar/planning conversation on Tuesday... ok, we only manage to do it every three months or so, but hey, gotta start somewhere! During these conversations we sit with a couple of glasses of wine, reflect on the previous month (or three), and decide what our priorities will be for the next month (or three). We dipped briefly into Advent and Christmas, and I realized that it's not too soon to set some intentions for that busy time. Especially with kids, and especially as a pastor, you blink and it's over. We're planning to do the Advent Conspiracy as a study at church, and in its wisdom, the session decided to start the study a week before Advent actually begins. 'Cause if you're going to talk about spending less and giving more gifts of service and time, it's too late to start that discussion on November 28. The wheels are in motion by then.

I struggle with Christmas every year, and have written a lot about that in various places. Our house is not overloaded with toys, and we don't buy them at random times during the year. So Christmas is a time when we replenish our supplies, along with birthdays, which are all within a couple months of Christmas.

But I'm not completely comfortable with that.

According to the Advent Conspiracy folks, Americans spend $450 billion on Christmas each year. By contrast, it would take $10 billion to ensure that everyone in the world has access to clean drinking water (which is the AC movement's mission of choice). Those figures could be wildly exaggerated on either end and it would still be a sobering statistic.

We did The Hundred Dollar Holiday for several years, until time became more scarce than money. But we still try to be intentional and thoughtful about the gifts we give, and we do alternative gifts, donations to charity, etc. We don't give just for the sake of giving, though we have some family members who are notoriously hard to buy for. My personal theology is that it all works out. Some years, we might find the perfect object that would bring joy, other years not; and in those cases, an alternative gift would be given.

That's what I believe... but I'm not there in practice.

I've been enjoying Rowdy Kittens, a blog about about "social change through simple living." A recent post talked about how the author keeps Christmas. She is not religious, but she does observe the holiday as a sort of feast day/celebration with family.

A couple of things struck me. The first is a discussion in the comments about how to handle loved ones who do give a lot of gifts, when you don't. One person said he gave away the gifts he received and eventually people got the message that he didn't want to receive gifts. This got me thinking about the spirit in which we receive gifts. What does it mean to receive something graciously, even if it's something you don't want or need? I have no doubt that our loved ones will get a message if we consistently give their gifts away, but what message is it? That we didn't want gifts, or that tangible expressions of the giver's love and affection were not welcome? (Standard disclaimer that I do not know the people involved. I am only musing here.)

The other thing that struck me is the author's recommendation to contribute to a child's college fund or charity in lieu of gifts because "with children, they likely won’t remember a single toy you give them." I have to say, that is just not true in my experience. Kids remember gifts. Maybe not every single one, but sure, big or unusual ones, definitely.

Here is one of the inconvenient truths of the simplicity movement.

There is magic in the new bike under the tree with the pink streamers and strawberry pattern on the seat. There is magic in that first brand-new stereo. There is even magic in the first 15 Sweet Valley High books! These are all things that I received as a kid, remember vividly, and was wildly happy with. And I don't consider myself particularly materialistic. Receiving gifts is not one of my primary love languages (though I do enjoy them).

I'm not saying you can't experience the spirit of Christmas in other ways---sure you can, and that can be a fun challenge---but people often remember what they're given. I even write down the gifts we receive each year, along with things we did, what we had for Christmas dinner, etc.---and those lists are capable of transporting me to a particular time and place.

That's because we are embodied beings, beings who collect stuff. Yes, most of us have too much stuff. Yes, our acquisitiveness is destroying the planet and can destroy us spiritually. Yes, I'm tired of plasticrap toys from China. But I'm with Michael Lindvall, who wrote recently in the Christian Century that the problem isn't that we're too materialistic, but that we're not materialistic enough. Our stuff is cheap and disposable, when it should be precious and infused with meaning. “God,” Robert Farrar Capon once quipped, “is the biggest materialist there is. He invented stuff. . . . He likes it even better than we do.”


We acquire things, but then quickly tire of the things that seemed so important when first obtained. We replace rather than repair because we have such fickle and passing romances with our things. The real soul danger is not exactly in liking things too much, nor in owning them, nor in caring for them well. In fact, there can be great virtue in such a caring relationship with physical things.

The soul danger lies in the insatiable longing to acquire new things one after another, more and more things, as if the getting of them somehow proves our worth in comparison with others, as if the having of them can fill the emptiness. It’s this insatiable drive to acquire stuff rather than the stuff itself that’s the problem.


So what do we do about Christmas?