Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Best Christmas Gift--Not Shopping

My wife and I recently watched the DVD “Christmas With the Cranks,” a comedy based on the John Grisham novel “Skipping Christmas.” It was hilarious and thought provoking, as good comedy should be.

The story is of a family in suburban Chicago whose only daughter has joined the Peace Corps. Since they envision her being away for two years, the husband gets to thinking. He also gets to calculating. He determines that all they spend on Christmas every year could be saved and spent on a cruise instead, with cash to spare.

It takes him some time to convince his wife to go along with it. But then the troubles begin. Office workers are miffed that he won’t play along with the gift-giving rituals at work. Neighbors are incensed that they don’t decorate their home with the Frosty the Snowman on the roof. And the policemen are suspicious when he doesn’t purchase the annual fundraising calendar. Friends are perturbed that they aren’t having their annual Christmas Eve party. Then, chaos ensues when their daughter declares she’s coming home with a new Ecuadoran boyfriend with just hours before Christmas Eve. The couple scrambles to put together a party and welcome their daughter home without letting on they had planned a cruise instead of their family tradition.

Moral of the story? It is nearly impossible to fight social norms and rituals.

So, how did we get this tradition of giving gifts at Christmas? Well, of course the obvious answer is to trace it back to the three wise men described in the Bible. They brought gifts to the newborn Jesus (or some say he was two years old by the time the wise men got to him). But our gift giving has strayed a bit from that original example. For one, while gold is still popular, it’s hard to find frankincense these days, and I’ve never seen myrrh at the mall. Secondly, the wise men bought gifts for Jesus, not for each other.

I think that Christmas gift-giving, like many traditions, started with good intentions and then lost its mooring and meaning.

Today, Christmas is a secular celebration of retail revenues. Stories in the news are about what kind of holiday shopping season retailers expect, how our shopping activity will affect the economy, and what the trendy gifts and gadgets are. There are many vague references to the “true meaning of Christmas” that are never explained, but the implications are about giving to others—not necessarily a bad thing—versus the message of God’s gift of his Son as a savior to mankind. It makes me think that the wisest men and women among us today would stop shopping.

Well, if there is not a star in the east, there is a bright spot on the Internet. It’s called buynothingchristmas.org. It’s a Web site spawned by a movement to, as the name implies, buy nothing at Christmas. If only the Cranks had such support in the movie.

I quote here from the introduction on the Web site:

“This Christmas we'll be swamped with offers, ads and invitations to buy more stuff. But now there's a way to say enough and join a movement dedicated to reviving the original meaning of Christmas giving.
Buy Nothing Christmas is a national initiative started by Canadian Mennonites but open to everyone with a thirst for change and a desire for action.
Buy Nothing Christmas is a stress-reliever, and more people need to hear about it. You can change your world by simply putting up one of the posters (or make your own) in your church, place of worship, home or work. Be sneaky about it if you have to. The point is to get people thinking. It's an idea whose time has come, so get out there and make a difference!”

The poster referenced is an image of Jesus face and the words: “Where did I say you should buy so much stuff to celebrate my birthday?” It’s a free download.

They have other resources as well. There’s a song called “Buy Nothing at All” you can download. There are kits for plays and other Christmas activities. And there are a host of ideas for giving “love” at Christmas, such as cakes and coupons you can make for a free back massage.

May tradition still has you bound. Maybe you can go shopping for sweaters and DVDs and other stuff and still celebrate the Christmas. But I think this Web site and its philosophy are worth checking out. As an item in a youth group study kit says: “Image is everything? Well don’t get pegged as a mindless consumer. Be a rebel this Christmas.”

Of course, on that I would say buying nothing at Christmas is not rebellion. It’s a recognition that we in this modern secular tradition have been rebelling against the “true meaning of Christmas” all along.