It’s over. The parties, the feasts, the gifts, the returns, the re-gifting, the feverish spending of gift card money. The leftovers are finally gone. The cakes and pies and candies and all of the other things that we accumulate but do not eat have been thrown away. Trees are back in their boxes or they are sitting by the street waiting to be mulched. Stockings are stored in dark cabinets and Nativity scenes have been carefully wrapped and put away for next year. The Christmas season, as wonderful as it was, is (mercifully?) finished.
Given that our festive excess has ended, that the bacchanalia of year-end excitement is done, perhaps it is time for an evaluation. Without doubt, anyone who is reading this column has been exhorted, certainly during the Advent Season, and perhaps even during Christmas itself, to heroically shun or, at the very least, to mildly reduce holiday materialism and excess. And like most good Catholics, we listen to the homilies and read the articles about returning to the kernel of Christmas that centers around the coming of Jesus, and we make all sorts of resolutions to keep our spending and our eating and our general excess in check, but when it is all over, we mostly find our resolutions have been as ineffectual as those made in haste on New Year’s Day and casually forgotten by Epiphany.
The simple fact is that we are a frequently, but briefly, resolved people.
Since I have been in seminary, I have been convinced intellectually that giving gifts on Christmas Day is a bad idea. It takes away from the celebration of the birth of Christ, and it contributes to the societal misconception under which we all too often operate that Christmas is a day instead of a season.
Each year, I resolve to give gifts on Epiphany instead of Christmas. This is much harder than it sounds, and each year I mostly fail. I end up giving Epiphany gifts to people only because I don’t see them before Epiphany. And I’m a priest! If I do things that are a little odd, people smile lovingly and comment that it is so sweet that Father is trying to inculcate a refreshing Christianity into Christmas.
Still, I find each year that the culture is so anti-Christmas that it is nearly impossible to celebrate the Birth of Christ in any way other than via excess commerce.
I offer an example: This was my first Christmas as a priest and my first Christmas at home in Atlanta in five years. I was at my home parish, surrounded by wonderful families whom I have known for a decade. I planned to visit with my brother and his family on the 26th and to my great delight, they were planning to come to the Rectory for a nice lunch that I would prepare and then we could enjoy one another’s company for a time.
I woke early on the 26th to head to the supermarket. The shelves had been ransacked as if the weatherman had predicted intermittent snow flurries. As I approached the check-out line, I noticed the restocking operation in full swing. But, I was horrified: all the Christmas decorations were coming down, and the stock boy was putting out the Easter candy! That’s right: Easter. It was the second day of Christmas!
My sister-in-law works for a business that decorates commercial properties for Christmas. They are feverishly busy on Thanksgiving weekend putting up generic, non-offensive Christmas decorations such as snowmen, garland and lights. Christmas evening and the day after they frequently spend taking down said decorations, because Christmas ends on Christmas Day.
Two days after Christmas, I walked into my bank and there wasn’t a single decoration. The only remnant of Christmas was a bit of leftover candy in a dish, which I assume will be replaced quickly with now-abundant Easter eggs.
So the question is: How was your Christmas? Here’s a simple survey: during the Octave of Christmas, how many times did you go to the mall, to Wal-Mart, to electronics stores or to online shops, using gift cards, exchanging presents, spending Christmas cash and generally engaging in commerce? And how many times did you attend Mass during the eight-day solemn octave of the Nativity of our Lord?
How much time did you set aside for real prayer?
Here’s the simple measurement: if you went to the mall more than you spent quality time with God during the Octave, then your Christmas was to materialistic. Staving off greed is not a defense that ends Christmas morning. Keeping Christ in Christmas is more than attending a 4 p.m. vigil Mass on Christmas Eve.
Here’s another measurement: how much did you give to charity this year? How much did you spend on Christmas gifts? Our gifts to the poor and needy as a general rule should exceed our gifts to the well-off and satisfied. As much as that new iPod or video game means to your child, there are people out there with far greater need.
People right in your parish.
So all those homilies before Christmas, all those attempts to keep Christ in Christmas – it turns out those messages were for us as much as they were for the stores stocking chocolate eggs on St. Stephen’s Day. Sure, I might rail at the secularism of others, but what sort of witness am I myself giving? What sort of example have I been? Who are the ones who need to keep Christ in Christmas?
You and I.
If your Christmas was too materialistic this year, if you are railing at the credit card bills that are beginning to come in, if you are questioning the wisdom of the way you approach the holiday, now is the time to make resolutions. Materialism is not something we can eliminate in the height of temptation. That’s a little like telling an alcoholic not to worry about his addiction until he finds himself bellied up to the bar.
To eliminate (or even reduce) materialism in our lives requires sacrifice and planning all year, and it requires increasing our devotion and our prayer life all year.
Christmas is given to us as a season of joy, but it is primarily a season of religious joy. We have to remember: the Magi brought gifts to Jesus, not to one another. Our gift giving is supposed to help us remember and imitate the giving of gifts to Jesus: to see the face of Jesus in our family and friends and neighbors and to give to them inasmuch as they are a representation of Christ in the world. This sort of giving requires serious planning, serious thought, and serious prayer. This sort of giving results in us growing closer to the Lord, who came in poverty to save all men of good will.
So if it wasn’t what it should be, now is the time to change. Reduce materialism in your life in January, and you will find it easier to do in February. Increase your prayer and attentiveness at Mass now, and it will be easier when your schedule is more complicated. Keeping Christ in Christmas is hard work, and our culture is working against us. To win the battle, we have to engage in the fight against materialism and secularism each day. The Lord will give us the grace. We can do it with his help, and his help is never lacking to those who ask!