I love to look at beautiful things. Materialism isn’t my vice – I don’t want to own all of them – but when the mundane day-to-day drags me down, I need a burst of beauty to regain creativity.
I wandered through Pier One Imports, a favorite stop for creative refueling, just last week. Besides basic browsing, I was looking for a few Christmas gift ideas, information-gathering for nearer the holidays. In years past, I’ve been pleased with their selection, but this year I noticed the complete absence of any sacred-themed ornament or bauble. I looked through the holiday catalogue and again, there were none.
Pew statistics indicate 70 percent of Americans identify as Christians, and still there is no place for the sacred – a nativity scene, an angel, even an unadorned, ornate cross – in our retail stores? Must we go underground, shopping online through specialty sites, to share our faith with loved ones?
The de-Christianization of holiday culture is equally evident in magazines – but for one photo of Sinterklaas, the Dutch St. Nicholas who looks more bishop than Santa, the November/December issue of Midwest Living was similarly devoid of Christmas’ Christian origins. I haven’t done an academic-style survey of other lifestyle periodicals, but I’m guessing it’s not the only one. The secularity that characterizes our common culture has utterly replaced Christianity – even rendered it mockingly passé.
What happens when we reduce the holiness of Christmas to trendy evergreen arrangements, perfectly coiffed Christmas trees, red-and-green cocktails and an excess of shopping opportunities? We miss out on the love, warmth, generosity and goodness of God in our midst – not with our friends and families, perhaps, but certainly within our communities.
Nowhere was this more evident last year than online. In the aftermath of a bitter presidential election, friends, family and strangers alike were volleying insults at one another well into December. The mood seemed to spread like an infection – everywhere I looked, I saw grim-faced shoppers, joyless clerks and articles about holiday stress. And then, abruptly, it was all over on Dec. 26.
By contrast, I received my first issue of The English Home, a British import (my husband, as I’ve written, is English) last month. The Archbishop of Canterbury has described his Anglican country as “post-Christian,” but religious symbols still figure largely in the culture. In an article called “The 12 Joys of Christmas” (not about stress), included among them were the Nativity play and Christmas caroling (with reference to A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, the annual Christmas Eve service). Sure, they included decorating, crafts, baking and wrapping gifts – and I greatly enjoy all of these traditions – but they also had Christmas games played with family and Boxing Day (Dec. 26, a day for gathering and giving to the poor), walks and recreation.
After reading the article and reflecting on how my family can make this a more well-rounded, merrier and more deeply felt Christmas – which begins with a spiritually enriching Advent – I’ve decided to pay extra attention to community events – look for concerts in churches, for example – and opportunities to meet new neighbors and be generous with strangers. Paring down the gift-giving is another way of warding off consumerism, and leaving the decorating until mid-December has served us well in the past couple of years. I find Advent is best kept as a reflective time, and while we’ll be hunting for meaningful Christmas gifts and making holiday plans, we will also relish the quiet space between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the peacefulness of arriving at the manger ready and well-rested, rather than breathless.
A blessed and joy-filled Advent, Christmas and New Year to you and yours.