By Donna Lee Schillinger
I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure… Yet when I surveyed all my hands had done… everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun. Ecclesiastes 2:10-11 (in part).
When I was in the Peace Corps in Ecuador, I took a liking to a six-year-old boy who had run away from home and was staying in an orphanage while officials tried to locate his parents. I wanted to do something special for this boy, so I asked permission to take him home with me for one night. I worked in the social service system, and the powers that were knew me, so they agreed. This happened to correspond to my house-sitting for an American diplomat, so I took the boy to the diplomat’s house, which was a lot nicer than my humble Peace Corps abode, and was fully stocked with toys, as the diplomat’s family included two children.
The little boy was from a poor family, undoubtedly. And although the orphanage had some playground equipment, I doubted this child had played with very many toys in his life. In contrast, the two American children had a lot of toys — an entire room dedicated to toys. For one night, the little runaway would get to live like the privileged American children of that household did every day – quite Prince-and-the-Pauperesque.
When that little boy saw all those toys, his face glowed like a sunrise. Upon my urging, he dug into the toys, fast and furious. He picked up each toy, looked at it, asked me what it was or how it worked, made it do what it was supposed to do, put it down and then moved to another toy. He spent about two hours going through every toy in the room. When he had played with the last toy, he sat down, looked up at me with a sort of spoiled look on his face and said, “Is this all there is? I want more.” Amazing. I wish Guinness had been there; I’m sure that I must have set the world record for spoiling a child in the least amount of time.
He was still the sweet kid I picked up from the orphanage that day, but in short order, he had exhausted modern life. In a matter of hours, he completed a cycle that takes many of us half our lives, while many others never come full circle. He had gone from having nothing to having everything he could ever dream of, only to arrive at the absurdist conclusion: Is this all there is?
Fast forward to here and now and you and me, this Christmas. Something similar to this happens to me each year on Christmas morning. I’ve been anticipating opening gifts for weeks, and then in a colorful frenzy of flying paper and bows, it’s all open and laid bare at my feet. As I survey the loot, my internal smile fades as I ask myself, “Is this all I got?” OK, I’m being really honest here, so please don’t think I’m a brat. Furthermore, I don’t think it’s just me. I’m willing to bet a lot of brutally self-aware people would admit to this letdown too. I think it’s just part of the process – all those gifts put us on an artificial high from which we have to come down. On the outside, we may be descending gracefully, as we store our new socks and sweaters, and show off our new jewelry to our Christmas dinner company. But on the inside, we may be pitching a little fit, thinking, I wanted more!
Just like I didn’t dare say, “Shame on you!” to that sweet little runaway (OK, I admit, I can’t remember his name!), I’m not going to shame you or me either — well, not for that feeling of wanting more after the last gift is opened, anyway. What we should be ashamed of is that we’ve made the birth of our Lord and Savior the annual occasion that sets us up to experience the absurdity of materialism. That we are eager and willing participants of it on any date is to our discredit, but on the birthday of Jesus Christ? How very wrong.
As I see it, there are two possible ways out of this conundrum – and neither is easy to pull off. 1. We could control our experience to ensure that letdown doesn’t happen on Christmas morning, by insisting that someone (boyfriend, parents, rich uncle) gets for us the ultimate gift – that very thing that could not disappoint. For me, this year, it would be a cruise to Antarctica. I can almost guarantee there would be no anticlimax to finding tickets for that under my tree. 2. We can control our experience to ensure that letdown doesn’t happen on Christmas morning by making that day about something other than gift-giving. Sounds radical, but it’s very doable. We actually have a holiday like that – it’s called Thanksgiving. No one expects gifts on Thanksgiving. It’s a wonderfully sacred day for family and appreciating our heritage and our many blessings. No gifts, no letdown, and we generally keep the true purpose of the holiday in focus.
Why couldn’t we do this for Christmas? I know exactly what you’re thinking: Nobody else is doing it; the whole world would be against it; it would be complete and total nonconformity; and furthermore, I like Christmas the way it is! Ironically, those are also the strongest arguments for ditching our current tradition. As followers of Christ, “everybody’s doing it” should never be sufficient rationale for our actions. Jesus said, “Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” Matt. 7:13b-14. And we also know that we are not to conform to the pattern of this world (Roms. 12:2a). We’re in this world, but not of it, which requires us to examine all we do under the tough scrutiny of this standard: Would Jesus approve?
Would Jesus approve of $500 of spending per person on Christmas gifts? If not, what amount do you think He might approve of? Maybe the amount doesn’t matter if the gift is practical and will be put to good use, like a cappuccino machine or Hickory Farms sausage rolls? (Oops, I’m being sarcastic again.) I’m not going to answer this question, just pose it: How do you think Jesus would like for you to spend your money on His birthday?
My birthday is coming up, and as the keeper of the purse in my house, I care very much about how much is spent on that occasion. I want a homemade cake, a clean house (without any effort on my part) and a pedicure – $10 at a local beauty college. I approve of this frivolous use of $10 on my birthday! On the other hand, though I would be endeared at the gesture, if my husband were to bring home an emerald ring (I’ve always wanted an emerald ring), I would wear it on Christmas and then insist he return it and get our money back on December 26. I could not in good conscience enjoy that ring, knowing the power to pay other obligations that it represented. If wearing an emerald ring were a higher priority than publishing my next Christian book or saving for my children’s college education, I could keep it and enjoy it. And this, I’m afraid, is why we can enjoy so many of the expensive trinkets we give and get at Christmas… because having them is higher on the priority list than some other things. Smile Train can fix a cleft palate for $250. For the same cost as my emerald ring, I could make a life-changing gift to two children. But who’s thinking in these terms as we cruise the mall looking for gifts? Nonetheless, I am not exonerated in choosing an emerald ring simply because I didn’t think of giving the money instead for two cleft palate surgeries. I feel certain that “It never occurred to me,” will not work as an excuse when Jesus is separating the sheep and the goats.
Please don’t think me a Grinch. I love holy days as much as the next good Christian and I’m deeply sentimental, which is why I want my holidays to mean more. I’m not against gift-giving, but I am for gifts that mean more than fuzzy socks do (although I love me some fuzzy socks!). What rational argument can be made against gift-giving in a way that is consistent with our espoused values and beliefs? Gifts given and received in His spirit will not create a letdown, and are anything but meaningless.
End note: In preparing this article, I came across an interesting Web page entitled Liberal Reasons Not to Celebrate Christmas. If my reasons for nonconformity with current Christmas practices haven’t resonated with you, maybe some of those will.