Taking a stand against the commercialism of Christmas
By Debra Fieguth
Today, November/December 2004
Christmas in Manhattan! What could be more exciting or romantic?
Busy sidewalks dressed in holiday style, people passing, children
laughing, smile after smile. . . .
At least that's the "Silver Bells" version of Christmas
in the city. But when Jane Snyder and her New York-born husband
Karl Kessler found themselves actually shopping in Manhattan one
December 24th, the reality jangled louder than the bells. "People
looked grim, angry, harried and rushed," Snyder remembers.
"I think it was probably the worst Christmas shopping experience
I ever had."
Christmas Eve in the commercial Mecca did not make Snyder long
for more material things-she wanted a scaled-down Christmas instead.
Now the mother of two young children in Waterloo, Ont., Snyder keeps
gift-giving simple and encourages extended family not to buy presents
for her kids. "It's very confusing for children" to be
loaded down with gifts, she says. Instead of buying each other presents,
she and her husband make a donation to a charity or put a special
book on hold at the library.
Snyder is part of a small but growing movement of Christians who
are trying to refocus Christmas away from overspending on needless
gifts and back onto Christ. Aiden S. Enns and some fellow Mennonites
began the Buy Nothing Christmas movement three years ago when he
was a student in Vancouver. Expanding on the concept of Buy Nothing
Day started by Adbusters magazine, the group launched a web site
and started collecting stories and comments. The number of e-mail
newsletter subscribers grew from fewer than 100 the first year to
1,500 last year. "Every year it gets bigger and better and
more exciting," says Enns, now a freelance journalist in Winnipeg,
where the movement has become ecumenical.
Part of the key is to avoid being strident or angry. "I'm
trying to find fun, positive alternatives," says Enns. "I
try not to take myself too seriously." This year's campaign,
which Enns and others have been working on since last February,
includes a whimsical new musical called A Christmas Karl.
So far the response has been mostly positive (although a couple
of callers to a radio talk show last year called Enns a Scrooge
and Grinch). The idea appeals to Christians who want to put Christ
back into Christmas, and it appeals to non-Christians tired of consumerism.
"When I look at Jesus, I hear him preaching a radical message,"
says Enns. "I look at my church and I see a celebration of
wealth and power and ownership and even ostentation."
Statistics appear to back him up-to the tune of $30 billion. Statistics
Canada reports that's how much Canadians typically spend in retail
stores in December. A 2003 survey by Leger Marketing indicated that
individual Canadians (not households, but people within households)
planned to spend an average of $575 on the 10 Christmas presents
they planned to purchase that year. Ipsos-Reid, in another Canadian
poll on Christmas spending, ups that amount to more than $700 per
person and offers the not surprising statistic that 67 percent of
Canadians won't even like some of the gifts they receive-usually
from in-laws. Thirty-three percent of Canadians stow unwanted gifts
away in a closet each year.
Whether they end up in a closet or not will probably never be known,
but Enns and his friends do still give gifts. "It's not about
not giving gifts," explains Enns, who gives homemade presents
to 17 nieces and nephews. "Gifts are a very important element
of humanity and society." That's especially true in the Christian
story, he points out: "God gave us Jesus. The spirit of giving
is profound. At the same time we can't turn into the consumer monster."
Instead, Enns, his wife Karen Schlichting, and a few of their friends
turned their two-and-a-half storey house into a Santa's workshop
last year, teaching crafts at different stations from the basement
to the attic. This year an expanded Buy Nothing Christmas CraftShare
Fair took place in the basement of Winnipeg's Anglican cathedral,
with 15 to 20 crafters teaching their skills to several hundred
visitors-and broadening their idea of what Christmas is really about.
"For me, the central message in Christmas is that we are loved
by God," explains Lynda Trono, a United Church minister who
works in communication, education and justice for the Manitoba and
Northwest Ontario conference. "We need to find a way to express
that love with one another to the world, and presents might not
be the best way."
Christians have good reason to become part of a de-commercializing
movement, she says, "because we have a depth of understanding
of Christmas that can enable us to sit back and reflect on what
Christmas is really about. The cultural message of Christmas is
very shallow and damaging to the environment." The alternative
"is to give to the people you love not the cultural understanding
of Christmas [but] the Church's understanding of God's realm breaking
into a hurting world as being different from the commercial frenzy
Christmas has become."
Trono heard about Buy Nothing Christmas last year, just in time
to participate in an anti-shopping Christmas carol sing at a Winnipeg
mall. "I had been trying to do a simple Christmas for a long
time," she says. "The radical message of Buy Nothing really
captured me." This year she's chairing the craft fair committee
and has been busy putting together resources for a church service.
The service includes the script for a skit: Mary is just sitting
there talking to Jesus, and Martha (who resembles Martha Stewart
in her ambition to overdo things) is becoming annoyed: "She
has a whole scroll of things that have to be done," says Trono,
"and how can Jesus have His birthday at the same time as Christmas!?"
It sounds ridiculous, and maybe it is, but sometimes it takes turning
a story on its head to make Christians turn away from the made-in-Manhattan
consumerism-and turn towards a meaningful celebration with Christ
at the centre and gifts in the background.
Debra Fieguth is a freelance writer in Kingston, Ont.
Giving More by Giving Less
Coming from a family of seven children, Elsie Wiebe-Klinger learned
early not to spend a fortune on Christmas presents. "Who can
afford to buy something for every person? It just seems out of reach."
Instead, she and her siblings might all pitch in money to help somebody
who really needs it. That kind of giving is much more meaningful
than lavishing presents on people who already have too much. "It's
a good way to live out our faith," she says.
Wiebe-Klinger, who coordinates peace education for Mennonite Central
Committee in B.C., helped launch the Buy Nothing Christmas movement
three years ago with a poster campaign, an information kit, a web
site and an exchange of stories and ideas.
It takes only a bit of creative thinking to come up with alternatives
to excessive consumerism. Some ideas:
* Students at Trinity Western University set up a free store, bringing
things they didn't need and trading with each other.
* One family does a "make or bake" among siblings, exchanging
names and producing one homemade gift each.
* Some families now include sponsoring a child overseas or providing
a goat or chickens for a micro-enterprise as a means of teaching
their children to reach out to others. Or they help out at a soup
kitchen or deliver Christmas hampers together.
* Time is often a bigger gift than money. Creating coupons that
offer free babysitting or housecleaning, a neck massage or a special
treat can mean more than a stocking stuffer.
* Offer to teach someone a skill you have.
* Write a poem, tell a story, draw a picture or take a photograph
and present it in a creative way.
* Give fairly traded coffee, tea or chocolate, get beautiful items
at garage sales or buy gifts from shops that support artisans in
* Make your own cards from recycled paper.
* Avoid commercial wrapping paper, ribbons, bows and tape, which
are not recyclable, and opt for gift bags, tea towels or nice boxes,
which are eco-friendly. -Debra Fieguth
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