A group of Canadian Christians has some creative ideas for celebrating an "alternative" Christmas
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 ten 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.
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
Debra Fieguth is a freelance writer in Kingston, Ont.
Originally published in Faith Today, November/December 2004.