Can we undo the consumer frenzy of Christmas?

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 08.38.44I am told that there are ‘only’ 83 days, 15 hours, 41 minutes and 46 seconds until Christmas. Although the autumn term has only just started, there is already a sense that Christmas, with its relentless build up to the frenetic worship at the altar of Mammon, is just around the corner.

Christmas is the biggest consumer festival in our calendar, and I am fed up with it. In 2014, a conservative estimate of the festive spending in the UK alone was £26bn: an average of £495 per adult (with a similar sum of around $750 spent in the USA). Christmas-related industries account for almost one-third of annual retail activity in both countries.

So says Ruth Grayson in her Grove Spirituality booklet Reviving Advent, Reclaiming Christmas. Ruth offers an intriguing suggestion: that if we get Advent right, it will address many of the issues we face in celebrating Christmas.

My study has three main aims. First, I suggest that the best antidote both to the dominance of the market and the demands of the church in the pre-Christmas season and at Christmas itself is a re-thinking and revival of our Advent practices. We need to set these firmly in the context of preparation for Christ’s coming, and to separate them as far as possible from the commercialism that pervades the season.

Secondly, whether we regard Advent as anticipation of the birth or of the return of Christ, I maintain that our preparations for the two events should be the same. Throughout the book, I will explore the tension between our religious practices and our consumer habits. Twin themes in the book are gifts and giving on the one hand, and finding new ways of observing Advent on the other. By the end of the study, the two themes will ideally become inextricably linked.

Thirdly, I am attempting to fill an apparent gap in the material available to churches, groups, and individuals on this subject. Unlike Lent, for which many study guides exist, there are relatively few works on Advent. In view of the importance of Christmas in the church calendar, it is remarkable that Advent generates far fewer resources than Lent for study and prayer. Perhaps this itself indicates a lack of time to devote to quiet reflection, in our various groups and churches, during the frenetic festive season.

After exploring the origins of Advent and the stories of the birth of Jesus, she looks at biblical texts on the preparation for the coming of Messiah, and in particular the role of John the Baptist.

John answers their question as to how they should prepare to meet the Messiah thus: ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise’ (v 11). Similarly, specific groups such as soldiers and tax collectors are enjoined to treat people fairly and not to exert undue pressure on anyone (vv 12–14)…

To add to the other ironies of the season, our actual practices tend to be the complete opposite of this advice. Instead of sharing the possessions, food and clothing that we already have, we often acquire more of them in our Christmas preparations. It could be argued that we are acquiring more in order to give away more, but that is not the point. Rather, it is that many of us—whose circumstances are affluent by the standards of most of the world—already have more than enough for our own needs and could find ways of sharing it with those who have less than we do (see Matt 6.19–21). Advent and Christmas could become, literally, a heaven-sent opportunity to put into practice the ideas of jubilee—not just of absolving impoverished peoples of their debts but of actually helping to pay those debts.

After then exploring the issues around our expectation of Jesus’ return, she comes back to the question of how we celebrate in the present, and has some radical suggestions about the church calendar and how we use it:

One way of taking the pressure off Christmas Day within the church might be to redefine the calendar limits of Advent itself. Originally, it lasted longer than four weeks. It might be worth restoring this longer period, as still observed in the Orthodox tradition. It could begin on Christ the King Sunday, one week before the present Advent Sunday… Such a change could be marked symbolically by lighting a central candle on the wreath on Christ the King Sunday, to signify Jesus’ centrality to the whole season. Normally this candle is not lit until Christmas Day. But since it symbolizes Christ’s eternal kingship, lighting it then would be symbolic of the continuing link between the two days.

It may also be possible to reschedule church services and activities so that more of them take place within this period: the so-called ‘Twelve Days of Christmas,’ which end with Epiphany. Instead of cramming extra carol services, nativity plays, and children’s events into the fortnight before Christmas and thus appearing to endorse a very narrow interpretation of the nativity, some of these could well be held afterward. This would, in turn, clear the way for churches to offer a very different pro- gramme during much of December, allowing for quiet retreats, ‘shopping-free’ days, and services encouraging reflection and meditation.

It seems to me that Ruth is setting out some practical ways we could change our practice to address real problems around the Christmas period. To explore them further, you can order the booklet on the Grove website and it is sent post-free.

As we look forward to our preparations for Advent, here is a reminder of some relevant posts from the past:

Should Lent and Advent Swap? which explores many of the same issues as Ruth does in her booklet.

Making Sense of the Second Coming which looks at how to interpret the puzzling passage in Matt 24

Jesus Wasn’t Born at Christmas which looks at the issues round dating the birth

Preaching on Advent 1 offers reflections on the lectionary readings

The Meaning of the Sheep and the Goats tackles the common misunderstanding of Matt 25

How Should we Read Mark 13 addresses the issues in the passage related to Matt 24

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4 thoughts on “Can we undo the consumer frenzy of Christmas?”

  1. Thanks Ian

    Very helpful post

    I particularly appreciate Ruth’s idea of extending Advent and lighting the central candle throughout, which seems more helpful as well perhaps as more Correct?

    Couple of things in response – personally I’d be very happy to ‘do Christmas’ starting on December 24, however in the Northern hemisphere, much of the Rush of Christmas is unavoidable, and people are worn out??? In the South, where I am it is mid-summer. Most of the church are away on holiday!

    But much to ponder, thanks for drawing our attention to the booklet!

  2. Oh, sorry, forgot my main point!!

    I sometimes wonder if the consumer fest of Christmas in its ‘excess’ actually distracts us from just how hooked we are on ‘consumption’ for the rest of the year

    Most of our predecessors in faith, and a multitude of our brethren in poorer countries would want to know exactly why we needed five shirts . . . For example (let alone the number I own) As someone once said, ‘if a believer has two shirts, one belongs to him, and a be to his brother’

  3. Ian, i could not agree more! Some stores here in the USA start putting Christmas goods on display in July. By now in October, they are in full swing. So sadly, the season has become “Merry Excessmas.” We would all do well to heed the words of C.S. Lewis:

    What CHRISTMAS means to me…

    From God in the dock—Essays on Theology and Ethics by C. S. Lewis, published by William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co. © 1970 The Trustees of the Estate of C.S. Lewis, first appearing December, 1957

    Three things go by the name of Christmas. One is a religious festival. This is important and obligatory for Christians; but as it can be of no interest to anyone else, I shall naturally say no more about it here. The second (it has complex historical connections with the first, but we needn’t go into them) is a popular holiday, an occasion for merry-making and hospitality. If it were my business too have a ‘view’ on this, I should say that I much approve of merry-making. But what I approve of much more is everybody minding his own business. I see no reason why I should volunteer views as to how other people should spend their own money in their own leisure among their own friends. It is highly probable that they want my advice on such matters as little as I want theirs. But the third thing called Christmas is unfortunately everyone’s business.
    I mean of course the commercial racket. The interchange of presents was a very small ingredient in the older English festivity. Mr. Pickwick took a cod with him to Dingley Dell; the reformed Scrooge ordered a turkey for his clerk; lovers sent love gifts; toys and fruit were given to children. But the idea that not only all friends but even all acquaintances should give one another presents, or at least send one another cards, is quite modern and has been forced upon us by the shopkeepers. Neither of these circumstances is in itself a reason for condemning it. I condemn it on the following grounds.
    1. It gives on the whole much more pain than pleasure. You have only to stay over Christmas with a family who seriously try to ‘keep’ it (in its third, or commercial, aspect) in order to see that the thing is a nightmare. Long before December 25th everyone is worn out — physically worn out by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and to think out suitable gifts for them. They are in no trim for merry-making; much less (if they should want to) to take part in a religious act. They look far more as if there had been a long illness in the house.
    2. Most of it is involuntary. The modern rule is that anyone can force you to give him a present by sending you a quite unprovoked present of his own. It is almost a blackmail. Who has not heard the wail of despair, and indeed of resentment, when, at the last moment, just as everyone hoped that the nuisance was over for one more year, the unwanted gift from Mrs. Busy (whom we hardly remember) flops unwelcomed through the letter-box, and back to the dreadful shops one of us has to go?
    3. Things are given as presents which no mortal every bought for himself — gaudy and useless gadgets, ‘novelties’ bbecause no one was ever fool enough to make their like before. Have we really no better use for materials and for human skill and time than to spend them on all this rubbish?
    4. The nuisance. for after all, during the racket we still have all our ordinary and necessary shopping to do, and the racket trebles the labour of it.
    We are told that the whole dreary business must go on because it is good for trade. It is in fact merely one annual symptom of that lunatic condition of our country, and indeed of the world, in which everyone lives by persuading everyone else to buy things. I don’t know the way out. But can it really be my duty to buy and receive masses of junk every winter just to help the shopkeepers? If the worst comes to the worst I’d sooner give them money for nothing and write if off as a charity. For nothing? Why, better for nothing than for a nuisance.

  4. Based on your review of Ruth Grayson’s booklet, there are changes to church programmes that would help. But my main difficulty has always been school programmes – a welter of nativity plays, parties and trips that almost guarantee that one child or the other will have a week out sick sometime between mid-November and the year-end.


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