Keeping the Joy: A Christmas Practice

An unadorned Christmas tree, its branches having relaxed in the warm living room, stood in the corner.

A string of Christmas lights lay out in a row along the wall. Checking for burned out bulbs, my mom replaced any that no longer glowed with festive light.

The cardboard box, removed from its eleven-month slumber in storage, sat in the middle of the living room, crumpled newspaper strewn about the carpet. My siblings and I unwrapped ornaments and decorations as we took them out of the box.

One of these decorations was a dime store Santa Claus that had been my mother’s since she was three years old. It held a candle that we never lit. One of the ornaments was a bell that had come from my grandparents on my father’s side. The bell, however, was shattered. As we kids took out the usable ornaments, Mom opened the bell’s box carefully, gently peeling back its wrapping to reveal the sparkling shards.

Annually, I wondered to myself: why do we hold on to these? The cracked and peeling Santa candle stand with its never burned candle, the broken bits of an ornament that would never go on a tree—why keep these?

Their value was in what they represented: my parents’ past and childhood and Christmases of yore. Their utility was their ability to convey continuity, history, and tradition.

The story of these objects (a war time holiday, a Christmas tree that fell over) was told ritually as we decorated the Christmas tree. Function, or usefulness, is only one measure of something’s worth.

At what point does a person or a family decide to throw such things away?

I moved recently, and as I began to unpack and sort out my new home, I read—…you know what, I had to go check just now on the title. It’s called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up but I have been referring to it as The Magical Art of Throwing Everything Away mostly because its author, Marie Kondo, advocates not holding on to anything.

Well, not exactly. She insists that you keep only those things which bring you joy. Presumably, when I am done this process, I will be surrounded only by things which bring me joy. Which sounds wonderful! And as a touchstone for whether or not to keep a thing, Does this bring me joy? diminishes the power of all other reasons to keep it: I might reread it again or I might fit into this if I lose ten pounds or But a special person gave this to me or I think I will need this for my doctoral research.

It also means being in touch with what joy feels like.

The December holiday season is a time of nostalgia, a time for holding precious shards of our past gently in hand. It can be a time of mourning what is irreparably damaged, for grieving loss, for handling those broken places of our past or present lightly, carefully. We can ask if now is the time to let go.

There’s a delicious old word which I’ve only ever heard Quakers use: cumber. To cumber is to weigh down, to inhibit, to clutter up. Too many things, and too many things that bring us no joy, are cumbersome. We can become so encumbered, we can’t move.

I think of cumber as all of that clutter that I hang on to that is not useful or beautiful and no longer brings me joy. Getting rid of it is true liberation.

But I hesitate to give away or recycle or send to the landfill so many things that I am not tied to anything—a tradition, a past, a family, a faith. So much of the rootlessness of modern life, it seems to me, comes from being enamoured with the shifting, never ending cycles of the new, the latest, the up-to-date.

History, tradition, and memory inform who we are, give us context and meaning. Yet the past ought not limit us. How many of us have spent this season with endless, joyless tasks (baking cookies, writing cards, buying gifts) because that’s just what we do every year and it can never be different?

Christmas is one of those seasons when this all comes together for me. It can be a time of imagination, of creating new practices while keeping and cherishing past traditions. Of doing things that bring joy—for one’s self, one’s household, and family—and laying down what is no longer useful, beautiful, or joyful.

I have a handful of Christmas items that, while they bring me great joy, don’t seem as historic as the relics of my family’s Christmas ornament box. But come to think of it, they represent my own collection of memories, stories, and traditions. I would hate to lose any of it. I have—even as I release what weighs me down—been creating and curating my own cherished reliquary of hallowed things.

I guess that’s how it happens.




The Christmas That Never Was

Another Christmas is upon us.

What do you hope for at this time of year? What are your longings?

Such questions. Most of us sound like beauty pageant contestants in our answers. “World peace,” we might say.

But underneath our hopes and fears of all the years, what do we want to get out of the holidays? Underneath it all, are there not wishes and desires not only unarticulated but perhaps inarticulate—wants and expectations so deep we may not even be aware that we are wanting or expecting anything?

My experience is that people—myself included—get spooked during the December holidays, especially about Christmas, the way animals get spooked before a storm or natural disaster. Like Ebenezer Scrooge himself, we are unnerved and haunted by ghosts of Christmases past and yet to come.

We try so hard for magic and love and community and familial harmony. We work so hard to reproduce the atmosphere of a “true” Christmas, an “authentic”  holiday—with cookie and cake recipes that have to come out right, greeting cards to all the people that need to get one from us, the perfect gift for every person, family traditions that must be just so, certain relatives and friends that must be present for the holiday.

And then. Inevitably. Disappointment.

The present we got is the wrong size, the wrong kind, the wrong color—or simply does not have the sheen it did in the shopping catalogue of our imagination.

Family members quarrel. Family members are far away.

Recipes don’t work. Greeting cards are late or we forgot somebody.

And after a push toward being jolly and merry and happy at Christmas that begins November 1, it all comes to a crashing halt on December 25. Bereft amid the cookie crumbs, leftovers, torn and discarded gift wrapping, we ask ourselves, What was missing?

It is in that moment, I believe, that we come the closest to realizing our unconscious hopes and desires about Christmas. What had we hoped for that we didn’t get? What were we longing for that went unrealized?

Many of us have a nostalgia for a Christmas that may never have truly existed or happened. Our nostalgia is for something that we have only longed for, been  homesick for, that doesn’t exist.

The perfect Christmas does not exist.

Even the Christmases that we “remember” from years past are reconstructed from our memories made unreliable by our unfulfilled desires and distorted by the lens of nostalgia.

I don’t know about you, but every December 25 that I wake up and am not a child, I am disappointed. That excitement, that magic, that wonder—none of those will ever be mine again because I am no longer a child.

As mature, self-differentiated adults, we handle our disappointments with lightness and grace. The clearer we are about what we can and cannot have, what is possible, practical, probable and impossible, the better our own hearts and spirits will be this season.

Peace in our hearts, our families, our households, our church comes when we act with intelligence and emotional wisdom.

What do you hope for at this time of year? What are your longings?

It’s worth taking the time to truly answer such questions.

JESUS, SANTA & CAESAR: Christian vs. Capitalist Christmas

Religion is popularly thought of in terms of faith—personal faith. One’s beliefs, values and practices may be nurtured in houses of worship, but are largely personally held and seen to be private.

Yet religion is also a cultural phenomenon, a discourse of stories and signs that are represented in art, re-presented and acted out in performance (including worship), and expressed in many other forms of culture.

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously defined religion as

… a system of symbols which establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in [individuals] by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

Myths, legends, and rituals help form personal and community identities, embody communal life, and frame a worldview. They help give life meaning.

It may surprise some to hear consumer capitalism defined as a religion. And stranger still to think of Christmas as a holiday of this religion.

The capitalist festival of Christmas is “religious” in the sense that consumer capitalism creates and maintains a system of symbols that motivates people to shop for consumer goods and creates an all-encompassing atmosphere during “the holidays” of cheer, generosity, and togetherness.

Symbols of this religion—including Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, candy canes, snow men—are ubiquitous. Its symbols (unlike a nativity scene or crèche) are not considered controversial or inappropriate for public display.

Indeed, the culture at large compels participation in this civic religion. Tree-lighting ceremonies are observed at city hall, public spaces are festooned with lights, and the media are full of “holiday” stories—Santa Claus, Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman, and more–and “holiday” music–songs about bells and snow.

Civic, secular and cultural spaces are used for this ever-present festival precisely because it is a “religious” festival promoted by the dominant “religious culture,” that is to say the capitalist economic order. This commercial carnival called Christmas is not Christian, nor is it at all the same festival as the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ.

In European and Euro-American cultures, the winter solstice was a time of feasting and carousing. For these agrarian cultures, it was a slow time of year and the darkness needed to be fended off in some way. Festivals involving drinking ale and mead that had had time to age, feasting on foods that would spoil by midwinter, and assuaging anxieties about the darkness evolved.

Here in New England, Christmas was banned or not celebrated not because the Puritans were anti-Pagan, but rather because it was a time of drinking wassail, carousing, and (most importantly) of working people demanding favors of the well-to-do. Revelers going door to door and asking for treats (“bring us a figgy pudding! we won’t go until we get some!”) and threatening mischief if not satisfied was a common practice.

Stephen Nissenbaum, in his fascinating book The Battle for Christmas, details how this celebration was transformed by the US ruling class into a domestic holiday in which children asked for or received favors from adults. The action went indoors and the holiday was literally domesticated.

Traditions involving Saint Nicholas were expanded in the late nineteenth century with the popularity of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore, a wealthy promoter of the domestication of Christmas. The story that Santa Claus descended the chimney to give good little children toys and presents became a central element in the Christmas mythos.

The contemporary Santa, with his red suit trimmed with white fur, was popularized tremendously by the Coca-Cola Company in the 1930s.

Santa Claus comes to town on Thanksgiving Day, purportedly, in a nationally televised parade of other commercial icons (the Smurfs, Kermit the Frog, Sponge Bob, Scooby Doo) sponsored by a department store.

Santa Claus may be visited this time of year—where else?—in the local shopping mall or department store. Children queue for hours to commune with him—and to ask for things.

Stating the obvious—that commercial culture and forces of consumer capitalism created and sustain a quasi-religious festival—is not to condemn it. It is, rather, to clarify what is and what is not happening in North American culture from US Thanksgiving to Superbowl Sunday.

The birth of Jesus Christ is not being celebrated.

That is another festival practiced by another religion. It, too, is called “Christmas” and that has caused an unfortunate confusion.

From its agrarian beginnings in material culture, through its domestication and reinvention in the late nineteenth century, through its growing prominence in twentieth century capitalism, this Christmas has only incidentally ever been about Jesus. It’s been about money, material goods, and commercial trade all along.

I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Jesus was never really the reason for the season.

The Roman Empire had a festival celebrating the birth of a savior, a man worshipped as a god who brought salvation to the people. Weeks long reveling took place in his honor, celebrating not only the new year, but a new era that began with his birth, an era of peace and prosperity. Civic sponsored parades, philanthropic giving, and lavish feasts celebrated the birth of this prince of peace.

It was Caesar that was being celebrated as savior and lord.

The Christian Church in the third century began to associate the birth of Jesus with this time of year.

From the very beginning–indeed from the very story of Christ’s birth found in the gospel of Luke–followers of Jesus have been subverting political culture by speaking of Jesus in Roman and Jewish political terms (messiah, savior, lord, kingdom, gospel, church [“assembly”]—these are all from the Hebrew and Greco-Roman political and civic lexicon).

By saying that Jesus was the only ruler, they were saying that Caesar had no power over them. The affirmation “Jesus is Lord” is subversive. If Jesus is lord, then the emperor is not.

By pledging allegiance to the kingdom of God, they were stating their opposition to and noncompliance with the kingdom of Caesar.

A different kingdom and indeed a different kind of kingdom altogether was lurking in the shadow of the world’s kingdoms, small and unnoticed and yet, like a mustard seed, growing. A different social order was being lived out in the margins–a society based in forgiveness, jubilee, compassion, nonviolent resistance, sharing and love.

When the church came to power, the festival was baptized as Christian. Christianizing the winter solstice, the church hoped to transform culture. The worship of Jesus was to replace the worship of the emperor. With the shift in power, what had been acts and rhetoric of subversion began to more closely resemble the discourse and apparatus of imperial rule.

In the era of Christendom that followed Constantine, the church was in the position to create culture.  Its feasts and fasts, heroes and heroines, liturgies and ceremonies, became continuous with civic culture, political governance, and—let’s face it—empire.

Now that that era is gone… What? Oh. Yes. Sorry. That era is over. It has ended. So sorry. Bummer, eh? Welcome to post-Christendom.

Now that that era is gone, it seems to me that followers of Jesus have a choice to make.

Jesus or Caesar?

Jesus or Santa?

Will we pattern our days after the current empire with its gods and mythos and festivals? Will we participate in the feasts and holidays of the dominant religion—capitalism—or will we not comply?

Which kingdom has our allegiance?

The Kingdom of God as described in the gospels is in opposition to the kingdom of Caesar. The imperial savior brought peace through domination, military might, and the fear of violence. The peasant savior from the margins of the empire brought peace through cooperation, soul force, and trust.

How is it that US Christians still believe that claiming the corporate-sponsored frenzy is or ought to be a Christian holiday? That Christmas is a different holiday. Let those who find meaning in it celebrate it. And, you know, really. Quit bugging them that they are not celebrating what you celebrate.

What you celebrate is different.

And maybe it’s time to differentiate the Christian Christmas from the capitalist Christmas.

Our Heart’s Content: Anti-Consumerism as Spiritual Discipline

One early December weekend, I conducted an experiment. I had just led a group at the church I was serving at the time in a program called “Unplugging the Christmas Machine.” We had examined the bloated, overfed nature of this holiday, and sought together ways of celebrating December holidays that nurtured our souls. And that didn’t depend on the giving and receiving of things. I had also just marked the occasion of Buy Nothing Day. This is a campaign founded by Vancouver-based Adbusters magazine for a one-day consumer strike on the busiest shopping day in the United States—the day after Thanksgiving. A number of us passed out leaflets on Newbury Street, and sang ribald, anti-consumerist versions of Christmas carols.

In my personal spiritual discipline of Sabbath-keeping, I was considering adding the traditional Jewish injunction against spending money on the Sabbath. And so I was asking, What does it mean to me to spend money? Why do I buy the things I buy?

My experiment was to walk through downtown Boston in the midst of the Christmas frenzy, without a wallet, without any cash, without my credit card. As I was jostled along the crowded streets, moving among throngs of shoppers in the department stores and malls, I developed an odd sense of displacement. It was almost as if I was an alien from another planet, a visitor from another culture. The brilliantly lit world of things, the shiny realm of objects that unfolded around me seemed foreign. What was going on here? The pull of attraction toward this world of things, the tug toward buying them, the desire to be part of this crazy Christmas marketplace fantasy all began to unravel.

My intent was to observe, observe what I saw around me, and observe what I saw within me. For despite my Buy Nothing posturing, I was as susceptible as anybody else to the wiles of compulsive giving and getting. I was as prone as anybody to impulsive purchases and spending beyond my means. Like many other North Americans, I often used shopping as a comfort, a recreation, a sport. Like many North Americans, I often found myself buying things I didn’t need, buying things on credit, and buying things I didn’t need on credit. And so here I was, without a wallet in the busy world of Saturday Christmas shopping, asking, What does it mean to me to spend money? What is the impetus, the impulse behind such behaviors, I wondered, in myself and others. How did it come about that habits of spending and getting came to define us, how did it come to mean so much, come to resemble the frenetic mass hysteria I was observing around me?

A monumental shift took place in our culture in the 1920s. Economic forces precipitated this cultural shift. Business was recreating North American society. Advertising was a relatively new phenomenon, as a whole slew of new goods were being made available in the late nineteenth century.  Use electric light bulbs instead of oil lamps! These ads said. Use the telephone instead of mail! Ads convinced people of the efficiency and utility of their products, for the most part merely announcing a product’s availability, and describing its merits. The shift that took place in the 1920s was that advertising no longer focused on the product, but rather on the customer. Advertising alluded to the customer’s inadequacies, and foretold terrible consequences of lost jobs, lost loves, or loss of friends for those not buying the advertised toothbrush, skin cream, mouthwash, manicure aids or labor saving appliances.

And it was a technique that took off. From 1918 to 1929, the amount spent on magazine advertising alone tripled, and that’s not counting the amount spent on newspaper, billboard, and streetcar ads.

What’s more, retailers in the 1920s introduced something called the “installment plan,” buying their goods on credit. The attitudes surrounding debt changed at this time. Previously, North Americans valued frugality and modesty. Debt had been a sign of irresponsibility and was a source of shame. Well, no longer. What was now needed, people were told, to keep the economy going was spending. Thrifty people, the new wisdom dictated, would ruin the economy. The market was flooded in the 1920s with all sorts of things: cigarette lighters, wristwatches, electric appliances, and most of all, automobiles. Things that weren’t always necessities but were talismans of a Modern style of life. If you couldn’t afford these items (and the pressure from advertising told you that you couldn’t afford not to have them) you could buy them on the installment plan. In the United States, sales of radios jumped from $60 million a year in 1922 to $852 million in 1929. In the year 1900 the automobile industry manufactured 4000 cars; in 1929 production was at 4 800 000. Not surprisingly, ¾ of radios and three out of every five automobiles were bought on credit.

The new economic paradigm saw ever expanding markets, more and more goods and services. And at the heart of this economy, the engine driving it all, a new sort of person: the never satisfied consumer.

Gone were the days of saving, reusing, and the frugal expenditure of personal resources. The new personality demanded by the new economic paradigm was one who despised work—but loves to be entertained; one who shouldn’t bother learning—it’s easy to buy ready-made products and services; one who could be careless and wasteful—you could always buy another one; one who couldn’t stand to have something old or outmoded; one who thought first and foremost of their own satisfaction, delight, and fulfillment—before all else.

One’s sense of one’s self, one’s purpose and meaning were associated with the consumption of goods. One’s sense of purpose and meaning were no longer associated with any transcendent values offered by religion. Consuming was the new religion in this respect. Successful businessmen such as Henry Ford were referred to in the press as the new spiritual leaders. President Calvin Coolidge was quoted as saying that the factory was the new temple and the worker the new devotee who worshipped there. Legendary ad man Bruce Barton was the son of a preacher and sought to fill his ads with uplifting messages. In 1923, Barton noted that the role of advertising was to help corporations find their soul.

At the very least, corporations needed to have personalities. And so we have the old fashioned Quaker and his oats. We have Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima, like members of our family. Trusted. Related to us. As factory production became more and more universal, it became important to distinguish your product from the manufactured sameness of everybody else’s. And so branding become more important, establishing positive associations with your brand name. Meaning and value needed to be wedded to your brand name. And what’s more a hunger for meaning and value instilled in the people you would then sell it to.

Which leads into the next great economic shift in our culture, one that took place in the 1980s when the production of things gave way to the production of images of things. Corporations unloaded their manufacturing to contractors. Due to liberalized trade laws, these contractors were mostly overseas, where more lax environmental and labor laws kept costs even lower. Many North American corporations are now no longer in the business of manufacturing, but of marketing. When Philip Morris, the tobacco company, purchased Kraft in 1988, they paid six times what the company was worth on paper. The name Kraft was worth something, and this buyout is seen as a watershed. This was the first time a premium dollar value was associated with a brand name.

Branding and advertising have become more and more important, as companies vie for our loyalty. Advertising, including corporate sponsorships, is now ubiquitous as companies try their best to associate their brand name with the things that we value.

More than ever before, the heart of this way of life is the never satisfied consumer. Never satisfied, always needing something. Never satisfied, always lacking. Never satisfied, always buying. The need for personal meaning and personal power (being “cool”) supplied through acquiring consumer goods.

And so I walk through downtown Boston in the early winter, jostled along the crowded streets, moving among throngs of shoppers in the department stores and malls. The brilliantly lit world of things, the shiny realm of objects that unfolds around me, begins to seem grotesque, exaggerated, funny. I have bought things in these stores, things I needed even. I have come to these places time and again, to participate in a world of fantasy. All around me is the tug of things and the images of things and the meanings of the images and of the things themselves. Happiness. Joy. Satisfaction. Love. Togetherness. Desirability. Worthiness. Are these the things that we are all shopping for?

For those of us who, like myself, see the dangers of the ever-expanding market, we need to come back to its heart, the never-satisfied consumer, and to the heart of the never satisfied consumer. What are the sources of your dissatisfaction? What are the sources of your happiness? This is essential work in developing an economy of sustainability. This is the essential work of resisting the manipulations of advertising. This is essentially spiritual work.

An American reporter once asked Gandhi to summarize his life philosophy in three words. Gandhi replied: “Renounce and enjoy!”

Renounce and enjoy. I think we have all heard the “renounce” message. I personally like many of the things I own. I’m not quite ready to give everything up. But there are limits, and limit setting can actually be a very liberating thing. I personally have adopted something from the book The Circle of Simplicity by Cecile Andrews. It is a shopping list of sorts, only it’s a list of questions or what a Quaker might call queries: Do I really need this? Can I buy it used? Can I rent or borrow it? Why do I want to own this? There are other things to consider: Can it be easily repaired or recycled? How were the people who made it treated? Is it over-packaged? But the essential query is, “Why do I want to own this?”

I have learned about setting limits, and sometimes renouncing things, from my practice of Sabbath keeping, of keeping a time set apart for not working, for not thinking or worrying about work. After my walk through the December malls of Boston, I added a time set apart for not spending any money.  I have found from that experience and from my keeping a Sabbath, I have come to the question, “Why do I want to own this?” with much more honesty, curiosity, and integrity. Why do I want to own this? What do I think this thing will give me? Can I give that to myself some other way?

Renounce and enjoy. Enjoying your things becomes a lot easier when you have considered them carefully. You own things because there is some need or want for it that you have identified. This frees you to enjoy your things. One of the feelings that the never satisfied consumer thrives on is deprivation. If you feel like you are being deprived, how long is any new behavior going to last? Limiting your acquisitions, your purchases, your things, to what you really want or need to own by necessity means looking within. It is an act of discernment. You will find yourself surrounded by what you truly need and want. And that is what Gandhi meant by enjoy. Renounce what you don’t truly need or really want and enjoy what you do have.

“Give me neither poverty nor riches,” says the Book of Proverbs, “but only enough.”  Deciding to want what we have is a move toward having enough. Deciding to enjoy what we have is a move toward having enough.  Sometimes, of course, some of us may not have enough. We may not have enough money to pay the rent, enough food to feed our families, enough self-esteem to act in our own best interest. These are real, legitimate needs. But the dissatisfied heart cries out impulsively and we need to learn to discern between what we need and what we want. When the dissatisfied heart cries out for more, we need to know when we have enough. That we are enough.

The voice inside that says, “I’m not thin enough. I’m not smart enough. I’m not hip enough. I’m not young enough. I’m not good enough” is not the voice of your best interest. When your wisest and truest self speaks, the voice says, You are enough.

How much larger this is than habits of getting and spending! In some ways, it comes down to our basic orientation toward the universe. Do I believe this life is abundant, that there is enough for me and others, that we are blessed with plenty?  Or do I believe that there isn’t enough, and act out of that sense of scarcity?

Renounce and enjoy. If limit setting doesn’t free you to enjoy the abundance of life, but rather makes you feel deprived, there’s no point. Feelings of deprivation only agitate the dissatisfied, hungry heart. Feeling deprived is not enjoyable. There is no point to living a more simple life if it brings you no joy. The good news is, that more and more people like you are discovering that having a house cluttered with unused and unnecessary things is not enjoyable.

Renounce what you don’t truly need or really want and enjoy what you do have.

Renounce the voice that says you are not enough and enjoy the abundance of a gift-giving universe.