Last year, I wrote about bi-cultural Christmas: that idea that there are two Christmas cultures. The first, seen all around us already, is a cultural event; the second is Christian, and happens only after the waiting time of Advent. Many Christian commentators suggest that, if we are not to be joyless Scrooges, we need to find ways to participate in both. But I struggle with this.
It seems to me that the Christmas celebrated by our wider culture is so deeply rooted in gross consumption, excess and waste that it actually runs counter to what we are waiting for. Advent looks to a saviour who brings good news to the poor, who fills the hungry and warns the rich, and who calls for justice for all; but thoughtless consumption around Christmas directly undermines this. When people purchase goods which are useless, which will soon be obsolescent, which use precious raw materials, which are manufactured under abusive circumstances, and which create permanent waste, they effectively curse the poor and make a joke of justice.
The capitalist narrative claims that extractive and manufacturing work, and a retail economy, help the poor. However, over the last decades, economic growth has almost entirely accrued to the richest. The reality is that most consumption does little more than leave the poor drowning in envy and debt, or wallowing in manufacturing waste. And the other reality is that gross consumption also does not help the rich; instead, it renders many people overweight, overwrought, and overwhelmed by stuff. (Why else have lucrative industries grown up around decluttering, minimalism, and the joy of tidying up?)
And yet, there is still this festival of giving which, at least theoretically, should remind us of God’s good gift of Jesus Christ. How, then, can we do this well? In our tradition, the four weeks of Advent are marked by hope, peace, joy and love: not for the rich, but for everyone. So perhaps we can find ways to honour this in our giving. You can check out ideas at Buy Nothing Christmas, a project as cheerfully dorky as one might expect from Canadian Mennonites (here). The movement challenges the lie that consumption leads to spiritual satisfaction; it opts out of the exploitative systems in which people work in slave-like conditions to make cheap consumer goods; and it stops the environmental degradation caused by gross consumerism. It still advocates celebrating Christmas with gifts; however, it suggests giving gifts of self, such as time together or homemade gifts. Or you can buy a useful gift for the developing world, either at church or direct from TEAR’s website (here).
Our Advent liturgy starts this Sunday, and will focus not on the birth of Jesus, but what his coming could actually mean. We will save the birth narrative and carols for the Christmas service: which we will celebrate early, on 23 December, in acknowledgement of the many people in our congregation who will be travelling on Christmas Eve carrying their fair trade, homemade, secondhand or useful gifts to loved ones in another city.
A reflection emailed to Sanctuary, 28 November 2018 © Alison Sampson, 2018. Image credit: Ryan McGuire, gratisography.com. Used with permission.