holidays


Image from forbes.com.

Image from forbes.com.

Who am I? A pretty good indication of my sense of identity can be inferred from the things that I habitually do. In this season of the year, call it Advent, the Christmas Season, the end-of-the-year-holidays, or the Winter solstice, we are prone to return to whatever habits that shortened days, light displays, Christmas trees, and the like evoke in us (some places in the world don’t have strong associations with this season–I’m referring primarily to North America here). For some, the habits that float to the surface involve religious readings and rituals. Many have well-formed inclinations towards connecting with family and friends. Hearty sorts look forward to outdoor activities possible only under frigid conditions. Then there is shopping.

In his 2007 book Consuming Jesus, theologian Paul Louis Metzger suggests that, in twenty-first century North America, philosopher Rene Descartes famous statement “I think therefore I am” is a less apt description of contemporary attitudes than is the sentiment “I shop at Wal-Mart, therefore I am.” We identify most deeply, in other words, as consumers rather than as thinkers. What we have and use is more important to us than what we imagine and believe.

I’ve written before about the things we own being an important aspect of our identities. At the time I was thinking mostly about possessions in a static sense–the things that we’ve already accumulated and that now sit around our houses. What if, as Metzger seems to be suggesting, what most defines our identities is not what we already own but the process by which we acquire more? Then we would be most truly ourselves at Wal-Mart, or pursuing bargains at Target or Macy’s, or making our selections from the cornucopia that is Amazon.

What would it be like if we gave ourselves over entirely to the trend that Metzger identifies? Rather than seeing ourselves as homo sapiens, we would define ourselves as what Metzger, following Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, calls homo consumens. Correspondingly, we would view our worth in terms of our buying power–those who can purchase more are worth more since they both better support the economy and better exercise the ultimate human act of product selection. In this view of ourselves, our ultimate function would not be to worship God, be stewards of creation, gain knowledge, or exercise reason, but go to the store and buy more stuff, either to keep or to give to family and friends.

I want to be defined by worship, stewardship, curiosity, and reason rather than by consumption. At this time of year, though, I am constantly tempted–via catalogues, billboards, advertising circulars, social media, store displays–to define myself instead as a consumer. May I–may we–be given grace to resist the temptation.

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More stuff! Image from forbes.com.

More stuff! Image from forbes.com.

On Black Friday, as I was on my computer looking at other people’s Amazon wish lists and thinking of what I would like for Christmas, I ran across an article by Suzanne Gerber titled “How Much More Stuff Do We Really Need?” She had written it following a previous Black Friday. Do we need more? She thought not:

“I know I don’t need any more stuff. In fact, I need a whole lot less. Over the past year or so, I’ve undertaken the (ongoing) task of ‘deacquisitioning.’ I’ve given away, thrown out or sold more stuff than most people in developing nations will ever own — possibly more stuff than exists in some of those countries. And there’s still so depressingly much more to go.”

A couple months ago, I wrote a post on hoarding. In it I talked about hoarding as a continuum. The hoarding diagnosis is given only to those whose accumulation of things overtakes their living space. There are many people who aren’t technically hoarders but who are struggling to manage the stuff they have, though. Most of us in the US do have more possessions than we need, and we have trouble getting rid of the excess. So why again this year are so many of us visiting stores or online sites where we can get more? Why, if we are already drowning, are the pumps still set to “more” rather than “less”? Is it, as I wrote years ago, that we define ourselves by possessions and feel diminished when we disperse them?

Of course, most of us are buying gifts for others, not buying things for ourselves. Still, we’re selecting things that we think the other person will want to keep, perhaps things they have listed themselves, so someone will be accumulating more, even if it isn’t the purchaser. My Amazon wish list has 15 items on it right now. I could delete the whole list and not suffer want. When others ask what I want for Christmas, I could say “Nothing.” Yet doing so seems curmudgeonly. Not buying anything to give seems even worse. I like to give; it makes me feel good to do something for others. So I give gifts, even though I know they aren’t needed.

James K.A. Smith believes that we are shaped by the liturgies in which we habitually participate. By “liturgies” he means not only what happens in church services but also what happens in places like sports stadiums, dining halls, and malls–places where people engage in actions that define who they are or give meaning to their lives. Shopping and exchanging gifts help shape our identities as consumers. As we repeat the activity year after year, we build lives around what we own. Our mental horizons don’t give a clear line of sight beyond all the proximate stuff that surrounds us.

That’s a bleak prospect, but I’m still not ready to stop giving and receiving gifts. I’m making my purchases quite modest, though. When my children were young, we gave gifts on December 6, St. Nicholas Day, so we could keep Christmas itself for the liturgy of Christian worship, not the liturgy of gifts and possessions. Now that they are grown I don’t keep so rigorously to that separation. Still, the great majority of the gift’s I’m giving or receiving will have been exchanged by December 15. That will leave plenty of time to focus my attention elsewhere for the rest of Advent and Christmas.

“I won’t buy anything from a store if the clerk says ‘Happy Holidays’,” a friend fumed.  “I celebrate Christmas, and I don’t like this political correctness that gets rid of Christmas.”

My friend has enlisted as a combatant in what Fox News has termed “The War on Christmas.” Does Christmas need defending, though? I, too, celebrate Christmas, but I’m not troubled by being wished “Happy Holidays,” regardless of the motives behind the wish—political correctness, a desire to include others regardless of their worldview, or opposition to viewing Christmas as a holiday in the sense of being a “Holy Day.”  There are many non-Christians in our society; why expect them to place particular emphasis on Christmas? For that matter, why expect that of all believers?  The apostolic church didn’t celebrate Christmas, and many Christians through the centuries chose not to commemorate it.   

My friend’s statement prompted me to reflect on the manner by which we go about giving particular importance to this time of year.  Christmas is by no means the only holiday celebrated, and, even if it was, Americans have given it various meanings both sacred and secular.  So how is our public discourse affected by our awareness that the holiday season means different things to different people?  Are we overly cautious about using the word “Christmas?”  Is there a reluctance to use Christian symbols to represent what we are celebrating at this time of year?  If we don’t use Christian symbols, what sort of symbols do we use?  I thought of these questions as I wrote Christmas cards over the past few weeks.  Rather than purchasing cards, I decided I would use cards that I had on hand, including card sets that charities had sent me in an attempt to evoke a year-end contribution.  I had cards from three large charities—WWF, Amnesty International, and Habitat for Humanity.  The first two of these have no religious connections, while the third has Christian roots but doesn’t present itself as solely doing Christian mission.  What sort of pictures and greetings were portrayed in the cards these groups distributed?

The first thing I noticed was that the word “Christmas” was seldom used; I found it on only two of about a dozen cards, both of which came from Habitat for Humanity.  “The holiday season,” or just “the season” was the preferred reference.  There weren’t any explicitly Christian symbols on the cards—no members of the Holy family, no manger scenes, no wise men, no Bethlehem, no shepherds,  no angels.   There were a few Christmas trees and wreaths; though these are associated with Christmas, they don’t have explicitly Christian connotations.  The closest thing to a Christian symbol was a dove; doves were pictured on three of the cards.  The word “peace” accompanied each.  This might connect in some way to the angels’ announcement of “peace on earth,” though it seems more likely that their proclamation has been secularized. 

This wasn't one of the cards I received--but it might have been. From http://barnaclebill.hubpages.com

It wasn’t just religious themes that were absent in the pictures that fronted the cards. There were no presents and  no Santas.  There also weren’t any family gatherings or other allusions to families.  In fact, for the most part humans were  shown at a distance and weren’t interacting with each other.  Thus, not only were there were no pictures of Christ’s birth, there were also none alluding to two other activities often associated with Christmas—the giving of presents and the gathering of families.  So what sort of pictures were on the cards?  Pictures of winter themes took central place.   The humans that were shown were mostly engaged in winter activities—building a snowman, skating, or riding in a sleigh.  The majority of cards showed snow falling, covering the ground, or both.  Snowmen abounded.   Besides the few humans, most of the other creatures portrayed were birds commonly associated with winter.  My count of animals was as follows: seven chickadees, three cardinals, three other birds, and one horse.

Opening the cards, I found the printed messages were fairly similar to each other.  Here are some of them:

Warmest greetings of the season.

Wishing you a holiday season filled with beautiful moments.

May the spirit of the season bring peace to last throughout the year.

May your heart be touched by the joys of the season.

Wishing you a world of peace and joy this holiday season.

May the beauty of the season bring you peace.  May the spirit of the season bring you hope.

May this season bring joy to your home that will last all year.

May your heart and home be filled with the joyful spirit of the holidays.

I mentioned earlier that “the holiday season,” often simplified to “the season,” was the most common designation for what was being celebrated.  What’s remarkable is that “the season” wasn’t conceptualized solely as a few weeks on the calendar or as a series of special days.  “The season” was seen as an agent in its own right—an agent that can bring peace and joy.  The season has its own spirit, and it is that spirit that exercises agentic functions.  Thus, we have “the spirit of the season” bringing “peace to last throughout the year.”   Though the copy writers seem to be trying to avoid explicit reference to a deity, they may be inadvertently demonstrating that humans naturally tend to evoke some sort of greater power when wishing others well.   We have an inclination towards the spiritual; if we exclude reference to the spirit of God, the spirit of the season fills the void.