November 29, 2011

The Christmas Conundrum

Lifestyle & Pop Culture Parenting
When I was in sixth grade, I received two Christmas presents I distinctly remember:

1.) The most coveted, desired beautiful “Forenza” tag on a pair of black leggings with a corresponding purple and black plaid shirt. (The outfit could’ve been anything, as long as it was from The Limited. Outback Red, anyone? Omg. If I could’ve conjured riches back then, I would’ve spent every red cent on OBR.)

2.) A fun, quirky red “football jersey type” sweatshirt.

I loved them both. Loved, loved, loved. I was certain these gifts were my ticket out of Dorkville. The feathered, product-less boy haircut and Bargain Selection glasses would become moot in light of my new, stylish garb. The popular kids would wonder what they ever didn’t see in me. The cute boys I pined over would fight over inviting me to Sadie Hawkins, and they would say things like, “Why haven’t we noticed her before? We’re like Saul after the scales fell from his eyes.” Or at least something very, very similar to that.

Until one very unfortunate eavesdropping session.

Supposed to be in bed but creeping in the hall listening to my parents’ conversation which simply seemed like a naughty, awesome thing to do, I heard my mom say this:

“Her red sweatshirt? I found it at Walmart for $3.00.”


And just like that, the sweatshirt was ruined. In front of my eyes, it lost all its charm and it simply became something a Walmart girl would wear because she couldn’t afford Esprit and her mother refused to buy her Guess jeans. All of a sudden, it communicated: I’m poor. (I was in sixth grade, people. It was a very dramatic time.)

Here’s why I tell you about my persecutions: That is the only thing I remember from Christmas 1985. Not Jesus. Not reverence. Not generosity. Not gratitude. Just a selfish, materialistic reaction because every single gift of mine wasn’t from an overpriced store with a namebrand I could casually brag about wearing. What a brat.

This sort of bull crap is still happening every year.

What happened to Christmas? What on earth happened to it? When did it transform from something simple and beautiful to what it is now? How insiduously did the enemy work to slowly hijack Jesus’ birth and hand it over on a silver platter to Big Marketing, tricking His own followers into financing the confiscation?

We all know it. We all feel it. Every year we bear this tension. Each December, the world feels off kilter. But in the absence of a better plan or an alternative rhythm or – let’s just say it – courage, we feed the machine yet again, giving Jesus lip service while teaching our kids to ask Santa for whatever they want, because, you know, that’s really what Christmas boils down to.

I just cannot take it anymore, yall. I cannot.

What if a bunch of us pulled out of the system? What if we said something very radical and un-American, like: “Our family is going to celebrate Jesus this year in a manner worthy of a humble Savior who was born to two poor teenagers in a barn and yet still managed to rescue humanity.”

I’m going to throw out some ideas for what I hope is a more meaningful Christmas; you may take some and leave some. Good reader, you may take none. Maybe you’ll tweak an idea to fit your family. You might say, “For the love of Baby Jesus! She’s ruining everything! We’ll try one little thing this year, ok?! And then we’ll quit reading her blog.” Here goes:

1.) Because I’m anxious to make enemies and isolate myself from any goodwill you’ve ever felt toward me, let me just start with a biggie: We’ve pulled out of the Santa charade. Our newest kids are 5 and 8, preparing for their first Christmas in America, and we’re just not doing it, yall. Maybe because we’ve spent the last four years trying to unravel the mess we’ve presented to our other kids all these years, but hear me say it: We are giving Christmas back to Jesus. Not a corner of it; all of it.

There is no fake benefactor this year my kids can petition to get more stuff. Because honestly? For a five-year-old, how can Jesus compete with Santa? Our children don’t have spiritual perspective; when faced with the choice of allegiance, they have a baby in a manger, or they can get a jolly, twinkling, flying character who will bring them presents. This is going to be an easy choice for them. My friend Andrew, who identifies himself as a member of the “non-believer corner” put it this way:

I always thought it was strange how Christians will tell me they have this giant and awesome truth they know is true deep in their soul and want to share with me, but when 12/25 comes around they lie to their own progeny because, apparently, that giant, liberating, and awesomely simple truth is somehow just not enough. It may be a good narrative, but it needs a little something to give it some panache.

As importantly, it sets this tone for Christmas: Be good and you’ll get stuff, which becomes so deeply seeded, undoing that position is almost impossible. When we teach our children to understand Christmas through this lens, then tell them at nine-years-old: “Never mind! It’s all fake! Oh, and stop being so selfish because Christmas is about Jesus”…we shouldn’t be surprised when our kids stage a mutiny and ask to move in with Grandma. Young parents, this is so much easier to do right the first time rather than try to undo later. Give your kids the gift of a Christmas obsessed with Jesus – and no other – when they are little, and it will be their truth all their lives. Some practical points:

* When faced with Santa everywhere, everywhere, everywhere, we told our kids the story of the original St. Nicholas from the 3rd century, and his devotion to Jesus and the poor. We explained that Santa is a character based on his life, but one was real and one is pretend. We also told them some children believe Santa is real, and it’s their parents’ job to talk about that with their friends, not theirs. In other words, DON’T BE THAT KID WHO MAKES EVERYONE CRY IN THE MIDDLE OF CLASS. You’re welcome, teachers.

* For the most part, we are not watching TV this month. We’re allowing movies and Netflix, but the less commercials our kids have to digest, the less confusing this month is for them. Um, ditto for all of us. When there are commercials that say, “Hey? You know how to avoid the terrible Disappointed Face when you give your loved one her gift? Buy her a Toyota!”…we have seriously derailed, folks.

* Take a big breath: I got rid of all my Santa paraphernalia this year. No more severed ceramic Santa heads up in here. Try not to flip out. (I am in the “undoing” category I mentioned above. So freaking hard.)

* This is big: I AM NOT JUDGING YOU. If you put carrots on your front lawn for the reindeer and stamp bootprints all over your living room from Santa’s shoes, that is fully your prerogative. You don’t need to hide your Santa wreath when I come over or defend your position to me or anyone. For us, Christmas has gone through four years of reconstruction, each year progressively more simplified. I know God is doing all sorts of different things with different families at different times; everybody be cool.

2.) While you’re stewing over Santa, let’s go ahead and tackle this one: spending. Whatintheworld? We recently watched a video from Christmas 2004 when our kids were six, four, and two. (Sidebar: Those of you with a 6-year-old, thinking he is so big? You will die one hundred thousand deaths in seven years when you look back at videos and realize he was just an infant baby. And then you will cry drippy, sad tears because you’ll realize that when all those old women told you to enjoy early childhood because it will pass so quickly, and you wanted to kick them in the shins, they were right. It is over in a nanosecond and the next thing you know, your “six year old” is texting and getting ready for high school and smells like the inside of a trash can.)

I digress.

When we saw the mountains of presents in front of our P.R.E.S.C.H.O.O.L.E.R.S. and watched them rip through boxes so fast, they had no idea what they even received, I caught Brandon’s eye across the room and mouthed, “We were freaks!” Not to mention all this bounty was brought into a home burgeoning with loot already, so we had to get rid of a bunch of toys just to shoehorn in the new stuff. Kindly note that the recipients of all this commerce couldn’t even wipe their own butts yet.

Insane at best, sacrilegious at worst.

Four years ago, we started this gift-giving policy for each kid: Something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read. That’s it. (This year we are adding something to give, and I’ll talk about that in a minute.) Brandon and I don’t buy for each other, and we draw names with our extended families, so each adult only buys one gift.

Friends and countrymen, we simply need to spend less on ourselves. There are plenty of practical reasons, like debt and financial strain and untold energy and stress. But even if we could afford to spend $500 on every important person in our lives, that sort of egregious consumerism is unbecoming for the Bride of Christ during a season that is supposed to be marked by the worship of Jesus.

We can find alternative rhythms to show each other our love. My mother-in-law is so very, very good at giving meaningful gifts based on making memories together. She takes my kids to plays and museums and day trips. She invites them to her house individually and spends precious time with them. My kids gobble this time with her down. Let’s give the gifts of time and experiences and our creative talents and words this year. They will last long after the electric griddle has been forgotten.

3.) Let’s MAKE DADGUM SURE the products we do buy don’t come to us courtesy of slave labor. Like Ashley Judd said in Call+Response, “I don’t want to wear someone else’s despair. I don’t want to eat someone else’s tragedy.” Our little church has joined the dog fight against human trafficking, and let me tell you something: When I refuse to carefully examine the vendors I buy from because it is inconvenient or overwhelming or I just really want that, I am turning the key that shackles the enslaved hands forced to produce my little goodies. I am as complicit as the abusers who exploit these laborers. And please don’t tell me, “Not buying this one thing produced through a corrupt supply chain isn’t going to make a difference.” All that means is I don’t care. If it was our children forced to work relentlessly in bondage, we would we hope and pray rich consumers across the world would battle that injustice by directing their consumer dollar with purpose, communicating to capitalistic opportunists “NO WE WILL NOT.” We will call unethical business leaders to task with our words, our votes, and our money.

So many fantastic resources to help us become responsible consumers, calling vendors to reform and repentence using the language they truly understand…lack of profits:

* Download the Free2Work app, which allows you to scan barcodes and find out if that product is made responsibly or by slave labor.

* New to this conversation? Learn from our friends at Not For Sale. They are LEGIT.

* Need convincing? Download this Slavery Footprint and see where you land: “How many slaves work for you?” (Holy moly.)

* Know the top products made by slave labor, so you can be extra diligent on who you purchase them from. Careful…some of your faves are on the list (coffee, chocolate, cotton, sugar).

* Learn trusted vendors and stick with them, even if they cost more. We will not finance the slave industry because we are addicted to artificially low prices made possible by not paying the labor force.

4.) On the other hand, we can do so much good with our dollar! I think about the Acts 4 church, redistributing their resources “to anyone who had need.” Such beauty. We can direct our Christmas dollar in two ways for great good:

Buying Products with a Conscience

These products range from beautiful artisan crafts made by former sex slaves or recipients of microloans; they include companies who use profits for international justice or employ vulnerable workers. Fabulously, these options are legion, and you don’t have to look hard to find them. I’ll include a few, then hopefully readers will add to the list of responsible vendors in the comment section:


The second stream we can choose to float down this Christmas is out from underneath the consumer umbrella altogether (mixed metaphors, anyone?), and it is simply sharing our resources with those who need intervention to break the cycles of poverty and despair. This year, we are giving each of our children $100 to spend on the vulnerable. This is part of their Christmas present, because as you and I know, it just feels so awesome to be a part of Jesus’ redemptive story. We will give them some options, and they can distribute their money however they want. Here are some trusted, responsible organizations to partner with, donating in increments as low as $10:

5.) Finally (and all the readers breathed a sigh of relief), instead of just pulling old habits off the shelf and leaving a vacuum of void and guilt, let’s replace American practices with – and I mean this in the most sincerest sense – Christian practices. Let’s fill our homes with Jesus and find ways to worship Him with our little families every day this month. Let’s join the Advent Conspiracy, daring to believe that Christmas can still change the world. May beautiful words fill our houses; lyrics like Come and behold him, born the the King of angels. As much as possible, let’s mute the competing chatter trying so hard to invade our spaces; turning it down, turning it off. Celebrate Advent with your kids with diligence and anticipation. We ordered a fun version of the Advent Calendar, and each night the kids open a new envelope full of Scriptures and family activities. (Tonight we are reading about Jesus, the Light of the World, talking about what being a light in the darkness means, then playing flashlight tag. Yes, I’m sure someone will get hurt.)


Believers, let’s do beautiful things together this month like serve and share and spend time with one another. Let’s invite the loneliest people we know into our homes and show them Jesus. How about we make lovely food together, then share it. Parents, talk about Jesus’ impending birthday like it is the most precious, thrilling, miraculous moment you have ever heard of in your life. Can we be brave enough to say “enough” to any further ruination of Jesus’ day? Can we risk difficult conversations with grandparents and friends and our own children, understanding that Jesus called it the narrow way for a reason, and he wasn’t kidding when he said few would find it? Let’s listen to divergent thinkers and spiritual leaders who are courageously leading us in the ways of Jesus this December, helping us resist consumerism and selfishness and giving voice to our radical thoughts and inner tension.

Despite what your mother might say when you tell her you’re scaling back this year, I am not trying to ruin your Christmas. On the contrary. I’m dying to rediscover what is simple and magnificent about the Savior of the World coming to earth, putting on flesh and saving my life. I so want my kids to marvel that Jesus came, just like God said he would, and he split history in two, forever transforming the concepts of hope and peace and salvation. And I just feel like when I create a season revolving around wish lists, frenzy, and alternate characters of honor, my kids will never understand any of this.

And neither will I.

Together, we have the opportunity to show a watching world something truly hopeful and sincerely beautiful this Christmas. We can live alternative rhythms in front of people, showing them something better than stress and spending and tension and exhaustion. We can raise children who understand exactly why the songwriter wrote: Oh come let us adore Him. We can partner with Jesus and bring good news to the nations yet again, fighting injustices and carrying hope to the ends of the earth through something as simple as sharing our money. Most importantly, we can render to Jesus the reverence he is owed, pushing all substitutions to the side and making our homes holy ground. This is why (from my favorite singular lyric in any hymn ever):

Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Til He appeared and the soul felt it’s worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn…

The weary world rejoices indeed. Thank you, Jesus, Lord at thy birth. Joy to the world.

Readers, how do you give Christmas to Jesus? What alternate rhythms have you established? What vendors do you love to support? And if you find yourself disagreeing, I welcome your comments as well. This is a worthy conversation and I’m just glad we’re talking about it.

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