Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Commercialism and Christmas

How to avoid the commercialism of Christmas? This year some news sources trumpeted, some lamented, the earlier-than-ever Christmas shopping season. Maybe it would rescue our sagging economy! But maybe it would catapult shoppers into a Christ-forgetting frenzy that no amount of “Jesus is the reason for the season” lapel pins could rescue.

Incessant electronic and print ads overwhelm. Gifts Under $50 lists abound in newspapers. Budget- and meaning-conscious families re-examine gift-giving traditions—It’s just too much, they say, so let’s draw names, or ban gifts altogether, or give only home-made gifts. It’s easy to see why people throw up their hands in surrender. Who even wants to enter this ridiculous fray? Just wave the white flag, march away from the malls, and kneel with the shepherds and angels before the crèche outside the nearest church.

I’ve been thinking about this question of what I might change to avoid commercialism and return to the true meaning of Christmas. Although I’m willing to, I don’t want to change our family’s gift-giving traditions, because for the most part, I believe our hearts are in the right place. Whether I spend $100 or $5 per gift for 20 people or 2 people, whether I pay sale or full price, whether I buy or make gifts—it comes down to the heart. It always comes down to each heart. I love choosing just the right gift for people I love; and I am touched to receive thoughtful gifts. Although I admit mixed motives, in the end, it’s not about the stuff; it’s a meaningful exchange. Changing the number of gifts we take to Christmas gatherings might relieve some holiday stress, but that alone does not point the heart toward God.

I am somehow oblivious to the fact that in this season I’m surrounded by evidence of greed and materialism. What the culture wants to do to the snow globe of my heart is shake me dizzy until I’m so covered with their alluring glitter that I want, want, want. But I don’t want, want, want. It’s heart-throbbing, button-busting JOY to give gifts. The scene in my snow globe generally remains tranquil throughout the season, despite Madison Avenue’s best efforts.

Now, about returning to the true meaning of Christmas. For the past 26 years, I have not departed from the true meaning of Christmas, the quiet welcoming of my Savior to this world. In December, lyrics wafting above me in church or in Walmart curl around my heart in warm caress. “He rules the world in truth and grace.” “Dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.” “Joyful and triumphant.” “Come thou long expected Jesus.” “Oh come let us adore him.” These are year-round sentiments, of course, but in the Christmas season I get to hear their poetic expression set to music. Sometimes I catch myself singing in a store. If I glance at the lady fingering wrapping paper rolls in the next bin, she’s smiling and singing, too. I like this.

Resonating with reminders of Jesus Christ’s humble obedience is what keeps my snow globe tranquil amid all the glitter, I suppose. What our gimme-gimme culture does with Christmas is jingle-bell us into believing anything but Christ satisfies the deepest longings of our souls. Every year my dependence on God deepens, I’m less inclined to believe this hollow promise. But people close to me still buy the lie; and this is painful to watch, especially while they are blind to their own deception. I am probably blind to some earthly attachments as well.

Having said all this, I must ask questions. What if our family celebrated only Christ on Christmas? What is the logic behind giving each other gifts? Do gifts remind us of the gifts the magi brought? Of the gift a Savior is to us? It seems the most meaningful gift we could give in this season would be to God. What would that look like? Attending a Christmas church service together? Spending some time mid-festivities for a devotional about the incredible gift Jesus is to us? Though I'd miss gift exchanges if we modified our tradition, the relative purity of focus would be a greater joy. On the other hand, joyful giving honors God. Extravagant giving honors God; God is extravagant with us. Generosity is a virtue. Treasuring the people God has put in our lives pleases Him.  Gift-giving is a love language. The other love languages, according to Dr. Gary Chapman, are words of affirmation, touch, acts of service, and time. Besides handing someone a physical bow-bedecked package, how else might we celebrate a loved one to honor Christ? What might we give to a stranger to honor Christ?

Can we reconcile commercialism with the true meaning of Christmas? It’s worth pondering. I think we can, but it all comes back to the heart. What’s in our hearts if our family does not exchange gifts? What’s in our hearts when our family does exchange Christmas gifts? In the end, is it clear what we’re celebrating?

I leave you with a picture of people—in the world but not of it—gloriously singing in a mall, right next to Santa Claus. Stick with the video to the end. :-)

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Time-Travel Home

In Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury has captured childhood’s wonders like so many lightning bugs in a mason jar. A reader turning the book’s pages removes rusty lid to release twinkling magical miracles to flit and glow in the gloaming.

Summer of 1928, Douglas Spaulding was twelve. Numbered bottles of dandelion wine he and ten-year-old brother Tom make with their grandfather represent significant moments of that summer. A bottle with a June date reminds Douglas of the happy first day of summer; a later-dated bottle reminds him of the sad day his best friend moved away. Looking at Grandfather’s shelf of date-labeled yellowish bottles, Douglas thinks: “There’s the day I found I was alive, … , and why isn’t it brighter than the others? There’s the day John Huff fell of the edge of the world; why isn’t it darker than the others?”

Dandelion Wine delights on several levels: (1) The running tumbling wondering daring imagining sheer ALIVENESS of children refreshes my jaded outlook like a glass of ice-cold lemonade (or maybe dandelion wine, though I’ve never tasted that) on perspiring brow. (2) Thanks to Bradbury’s vivid language, I swirl the sweet-sour stuff from tip of tongue to curve of throat. It’s squeezed from freshest lemons, sweetened with purest cane. And I’m sipping in slightest breeze of creaking porch swing.

While telling readers simple, everyday events of small-town folks in 1928, Bradbury also shows the human condition—innocence and evil, youth and old age, life and death, curious imagination and complacent habit. Underlying all is each person’s aloneness, each person’s singular perspectives, attitudes, actions, and interactions. The summer of 1928 happens to be a time of both discovery and loss for Douglas, and his 12-year-old mind tries to figure its meaning. Though surrounded and influenced by family and neighbors, Douglas faces alone what that summer holds for him. As do we all.

I love not only the universality of Dandelion Wine’s story, but also Bradbury’s lively language. As his Douglas Spaulding gulps every moment of summer, he transports me back to childhood. Listen to Douglas’s vivid thoughts when his father asks him to explain why he needs a new pair of tennis shoes: “Somehow the people who made tennis shoes knew what boys needed and wanted. They put marshmallows and coiled springs in the soles and they wove the rest out of grasses bleached and fired in the wilderness. Somewhere deep in the soft loam of the shoes the thin hard sinews of the buck deer were hidden. The people that made the shoes must have watched a lot of winds blow the trees and a lot of rivers going down to the lakes. Whatever it was, it was in the shoes, and it was summer. Douglas tried to get all this in words.” Bradbury’s exuberant, excited-to-be-alive writing style makes me want to shake off decades of inhibitions, leave them in a gray heap on the sidewalk, and cartwheel off into green grass.

I just have to mention one other episode that enchants me. The neighborhood children were fascinated with machines. They imagined a happiness machine, wanted a fortune-telling machine, and sat spellbound by a time machine. How clever that they recognized one of their most elderly neighbors as a “time machine” who could take them back in time because he had been present at historical events. He regaled the children with personal stories of a 1910 variety show, an 1875 bison stampede, and 1865 Antietam, Bull Run, and Shiloh battles.

Part A Child’s Garden of Verses, part Norman Rockwell painting, Dandelion Wine itself is an enchanting elixir Bradbury concocts from a weed flower.