As I say in the introduction to this blog, I have always attributed my dislike of Christmas (and consequently the time leading up to Christmas, known variously as Advent or retail hell) to the consumerist culture in which I find myself. I'm not the first person to say that, of course. Almost anything on the internet in December is either how people are being creative with the Elf on the Shelf or why Christmas and too many presents are the worst thing ever. But why?
In my experience, just about every time I have seen an excess of Christmas commercialism, it has come paired with unhealthy relationships. I have too often seen the material stand in for the relational. For a holiday that is based on relationship--Jesus coming into a human family to make all of humanity one family--that seems to me like a fundamental misunderstanding of why one is celebrating at all. The context of Christmas is lacking.
One event I experienced as a young child (young enough to still believe in Santa, in fact) crystallized that correlation for me. I was at a friend's house a few weeks prior to Christmas. I walked into the living room and saw the tree already half-deep in presents. I must have looked shocked, because my friend's mother said to me, "does it look like Santa has already been here?" It did, in fact, look like Santa had already been there. There were more packages under that tree than there ever were for my sister and I combined--and my friend was an only child. I was not envious of the pile of presents, though. I wondered how much fun Christmas could be for my friend, because clearly Christmas morning couldn't be the moment of magic and wonder it was for my sister and I. All the presents were already there. I knew even as a small child (although clearly not in those words) that my friend's parents were providing gifts out of their abundance while mine were providing gifts out of their scarcity--that my parents' gifts were sacrificial. Our Christmas would be joyful and hectic; theirs would be dutiful and decorator-perfect.I knew that my family was in many ways healthier than theirs and for me, that meant that a consumerist Christmas was an unhealthy Christmas.
Which leads me, of course, to Black Friday. I am starting this Advent blog today because today is the day the world really gears up into the swing of Christmas (or, for many people, at 6:00 pm on Thanksgiving day). (Also, the liturgical week starts on Thursday, so it's legit.) Curiously, as I am giving thanks that I am not working retail again this holiday season and waiting for my husband to come home from his Black Friday shift, much of the antipathy I've held against the day in previous years has abated. Although it's hectic and insane and the music is terrible, Black Friday isn't a terrible day to work. People are viewing it as an adventure, often looking at retail employees as safari guides. Black Friday (when it starts on Friday) doesn't even necessarily cut into time with family--most people I know who go shopping today go with family or friends.
The problem comes, it seems to me, when a shopper loses touch of the context of their shopping. When the purchases become just a check off a list rather than an emblem of the relationship one has with the recipient. When the gift is chosen because it's a door buster, or it is what the person wants but you don't even understand what it does, or it's a gift card that will just happen to give you double gas points. When a group of people are standing in line on Black Friday and a mother says to her daughter, "do you know who I am buying this sweater for? I have no idea." (True story.)
Or, even, when someone has such an affinity for counter-cultural Christmas practices that they do all their shopping at fair trade retailers even when they are finding gifts recipients might not even like--just because it adheres to what the purchaser believes. (Not that I've ever done that myself....)
Today's gospel in the daily office is the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus tells his disciples, "go into the village and find the colt. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, 'what are you doing?' you shall say, 'the Lord has need of it.'" There is no context to that statement. In other gospels, there is the promise to return the colt and the fact that it fulfills prophecies about the Messiah. Luke was written to the gentiles who would have had little use for the Jewish messianic prophecy. There this statement sits, then, a bit of of material changing hands with no context or feeling behind it. How much is that like much of the shopping taking place today and over the next month?
I mentioned in the introduction to this blog that I lost a friend over a flippant facebook post. My friend didn't stick around long enough to read the context. Over this Advent, my challenge to myself (and you, if you want to come along), is to look at the context. Look at the context of the gifts I buy (or make). Look at the context of my friends' Christmases. Look at the context of the gospel in my Bible and in my world. Look at the virtual Advent calendar (http://www.anglicancommunion.org/adventword.cfm). Look at the context of Christmas, which starts now.