A few weeks ago, I walked into the mail room at our church office and found a stack of "I Say Merry Christmas" bumper stickers with a sign next to them that read, "please take one." For years, I have heard television and radio news personalities sound the alarm on the "The War on Christmas." According to their warnings, "Merry Christmas" as we know it is disappearing only to be replaced by its evil half-brother, "Happy Holidays."
This week, I stumbled across the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family's I Stand for Christmas campaign. The project allows customers to rate retailers on how "Christmas-friendly" they are. The implication is that we (consumers) would only patronize those who celebrate appropriately. The I Stand for Christmas web site says, "For millennia, CHRIST has been the reason for the season."
Is that still true even among Christians? If we are honest with ourselves, is Jesus Christ really the reason we gather?
Most of us spend a paltry amount of time reflecting on Jesus compared to the massive amount of time we spend shopping at the mall, attending parties, wrapping and opening gifts, and eating huge meals. We might spend an hour at church on Christmas Eve holding a candle and singing "Silent Night" but we likely spent four hours at the mall the day before. Sure, we may gather around grandpa for a stiff five minutes and listen to him read a chapter from the Gospel of Luke, but we hardly listen. We are licking our chops at the mountains of presents behind him. In reality, Christmas for Americans--and yes, even the Christian ones--is shaped more by Currier and Ives than Joseph and Mary.
I often wonder what Jesus would think if he returned to earth at Christmas and surveyed the way all of his followers were celebrating his birth. What would the one who "has no place to lay his head" think about our gaudy decorations and lavish presents totaling over $400 billion in America alone? Would Jesus be pleased to find us remembering his lowly birth with materialism and gluttony?
I stumbled across a documentary recently that addresses these questions. "What Would Jesus Buy?" features the satirical countrywide tour of Reverend Billy and The Church of Life after Shopping. The film is directed by Morgan Spurlock (of "Supersize Me") and is littered with shocking statistics. It's a convincing presentation of what Christmas has become. It makes you wonder if Christians should actually be asking retailers to remove the word "Christmas" from their advertisements, to stop defiling our holy holiday.
So many Christians want to fight against the "War on Christmas" with bumper stickers and boycotts, but I wonder if these Christians have been fighting the wrong enemy. I wonder if we are the enemy. All of us. Yes, even Christmas-loving Christians. Shouldn't we all be less concerned with what the retailers are saying to us when we enter their stores and more concerned with why we're spending so much time there in the first place?
The answer almost seems too simple. If the problem is that we spend too much money at Christmas, then the solution is to spend less. If the problem is that we amass too much crap, then the solution is to buy less crap. If the problem is that we no longer center this holiday on family and faith, then the solution is to rekindle those traditions.
To this end, pastors Rick Mckinley and Chris Seay have launched Advent Conspiracy. They believe that Christians should be celebrating Jesus' life by living like Jesus did. (I know. Novel idea, right?) That means giving, but not materially. Giving relationally. Jesus gave "presence," not "presents." Advent Conspiracy challenges followers of Jesus' teachings to give fewer gifts and give more time to others we love. Then we take some of that money we didn't spend and we give it to the poor, hurting, hungry, lonely, sick, and thirsty. Advent Conspiracy asks us to trade consumerism for compassion, meaning and memories.
"Christians get all bent out of shape over the fact that someone didn't say 'Merry Christmas' when I walked into the store," McKinley says. "But why are we expecting the store to tell our story? That's just ridiculous." As Slate Magazine has characterized Advent Conspiracy, "Rather than a war on Christmas, they're fighting a war for Christmas. Because even the holiday's biggest supporters agree that it could be a lot merrier."