buy nothing christmas '03
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Buy Nothing Christmas Bible study guide for high school youth
by Erin Morash

Session 2

Turning it upside-down

Matthew 2:1-18; Amos 8:4-6

Reflection: feast and fast

This is a seriously disturbing story. The ruler of a country is so paranoid that he feels threatened by the birth of a baby-a baby who might shake up the 'powers that be' in his adulthood. So the ruler has his soldiers sent out to kill every child born in a specific area who happens to be in the right age range. Problem solved. It says something about what power does to the human soul. It also helps to clarify why early church leaders decided to pick December to celebrate Christmas.

Late December is the time of the winter solstice. In the northern half of the globe, the shortest day of the year is on or around December 21. In the middle of a cold dark winter, people of the ancient world needed to celebrate the fact that after December 21 the days started getting longer, with light and warmth on their way. The images of light being reborn into a world that was struggling with the darkness of winter was too much for the early church to resist. It fit perfectly into those images of Jesus as 'the light of the world.'

In most of the Roman world, the solstice party was called Saturnalia. It celebrated the return of the sun, the end of winter and also remembered a 'golden age' when there was no death, misery, or slavery. In memory of this 'golden age,' slaves and masters traded places for one day. Peasants could mock their rulers and a peasant might be crowned 'king for a day.' Feasting and drinking were all part of the party.

The role reversal theme fit in beautifully with the teachings of Christ and the Christian ideals of all being equal before God, of the poor being blessed and the powerful (like Herod) being humbled. In about the fourth century, the Christ-Mass or celebration of the birth of Jesus was permanently attached to the traditional date for the Saturnalia feast, December 25.

The traditional partying and role reversal celebrations stuck with Christmas for centuries. In the Middle Ages, peasants were holding feasts and trading places with their Lords and Ladies for a day. The peasants got to shake up the status-quo for one day and challenge their rulers with the part of the Christian message that declared, 'Blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit the earth.' King Herod in Matthew's story would not have been impressed.

Strangely enough, as time and society 'progressed,' this idea of Christmas as a celebration that challenged power and social roles became distasteful and threatening. The Puritans in England disliked the rowdy nature of the festival and the way that it encouraged lowly commoners to ignore the barriers of privilege, power, and law, even if only for a day.

In the nineteenth century, there was a strong movement to turn the 'rowdy, public, subversive celebration into a family affair with a focus on gift giving and, of course gift buying.' That this movement was encouraged by the middle class merchants comes as no surprise.

So Christmas changed from being a celebration of the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil, a reversal of social order, and a rowdy party that made fun of those who think they will always be in charge, and it became a private family ritual where people give gifts to those they like. Now, in addition to our tendency to over-eat and over-drink, we over-spend. And we've forgotten the whole reversal of power ideal.
In fact, the message of Christmas has seemingly become 'eat, indulge, buy 'til you die, go deep into debt, and give your spare change to the soup kitchen if you remember.' The tough message of 'good news to the poor, freedom to the enslaved' has faded away. Santa Claus with his big red bag has become the Savior at Christmas and we are saved, approved of, and welcomed as long as we spend and give, spend and give . . .

A celebration that seems to be all about buying love and buying God's approval-now that's a party King Herod would have enjoyed!

Thinking about it

1. What is the best Christmas celebration that you can remember? What made it special?
2. Do you know a story about Christmas that represents a reversal of power? Share it with your group.

Changing tracks

December fast

This is an Advent calendar that has a bite to it. On each day of December leading up to Christmas, count the appropriate privilege/blessing and pay the fine. Send the money to a group that fights poverty.

1. 10 ¢ for every hot water tap in your house
2. 75 ¢ for every vehicle your family owns
3. 5 ¢ for every pair of jeans you own
4. 25 ¢ if your family subscribes to the newspaper
5. 5 ¢ for every bed in your house
6. 3 ¢ for every /beauty makeup item you own
7. 3 ¢ for every pair of footwear
8. 3 ¢ for every light switch in your house
9. 20 ¢ for every tub/shower
10. 10 ¢ for every flush toilet
11. 2 ¢ for every bar/dispenser of soap
12. 15 ¢ if you have dishes to eat off of
13. 15 ¢ if you have cooking pots in your cupboards
14. 5 ¢ for every window in your house
15. 10 ¢ for every outside door
16. 20 ¢ for every television in your house
17. 5 ¢ for every magazine subscription
18. 25 ¢ if your family has more than 25 CD's (music or video)
19. 5 ¢ for every meal you had meat with this past week
20. 10 ¢ for every non-water beverage you drank yesterday
21. 25 ¢ if you have a snow blower or a gas/electric lawn mower
22. 3 ¢ for every item of hair care stuff
23. 15 ¢ for every bedroom in your house
24. 5 ¢ for every blanket in your house
25. 15 ¢ for every gift you received this Christmas

Skip to:
Session 1: Challenging conformity
Session 2: Turning it upside-down
Session 3: People not consumers
Additional activities for youth groups