overcoming commercialism at christmas

I miss cold weather.  However, to be clear, I only miss the cold enough that I’d like to experience it for two weeks and be done.  I miss the cold like I miss American commercials on TV — I don’t want to just sit and watch commercials.  But, at the same time, there’s something comfortable and reassuring about American commercials.  I grew up with them.  They were always there.  If my television programming is going to be interrupted by something (and it’s not a pizza delivery guy), I want it to be an American commercial.  American commercials are of high quality and are oftentimes humorous.  Also, there are generally enough of them that we don’t have to watch the same one twice in every commercial break.*

So I feel about cold weather kind of like American commercials.  I like the idea of the cold when comparing it to our temperature here (hot).  Every day.  All the time.  Hot.  So I like the idea of cold, but I don’t want to trade long-term, 80 degrees for 30.  Rather, I want to put on a long-sleeve shirt and a fleece for a couple of weeks (not the same shirt for the whole two weeks) and then pack them away in a closet for the remainder of the year.  I want to vacation in cold weather.  That’s what I want.  But I want my two weeks to start today.

I’ve been thinking about Christmas a lot lately — wait, that’s not true.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I’ve not been thinking a lot lately about Christmas.  I like Christmas, I want to think about Christmas, but it’s not very “Christmasy” here in Tanzania.  The cold weather is just one of many Christmas experiences we’re missing.**

[Now for a very poor attempt at a transition containing a play on words.]

There is a lot I miss about Christmas, like the cold.  But I do not in any way miss American commercial…ism.  At Christmas, we Americans spend lots of money buying ourselves gifts — by trading wish lists and exchanging gift cards.  I don’t miss that at all.

In fact, I wanted to write a post which combats commercialism, materialism, and the spending of excessive*** amounts of money.  But I’m going to be realistic instead.  Americans are going to continue spending money on Christmas, no matter what I write.  I am not, through my little blog, going to change the world or even the jewelry department at Macy’s.  Materialism rules the majority of hearts at Christmas, and reciprocity rules most others — so I’m not going to write that blog post.

I am, however, going to write the following one.


In light of the reality that Americans are not going to stop spending altogether, I’d like to suggest a few things we can do to keep us mindful of what’s important in life — and to encourage us to think of others in need and to help them:

  • Could we agree to match the money spent on gift purchases in giving to charities or to the homeless? Or if we’re not willing to go dollar-for-dollar, could we offer even a percentage of the total?
  • We could set limits on gift-spending within a group that buys for one another.  And then stick to those limits.  There’s always someone who spends more and says, “Well, I know we set a limit, but I saw this and I just HAD to get it for you…”****
  • If your group already sets spending limits, why not make them $5-10 lower this year, and use the money saved to help a family in need?
  • My wife, my brother and sister, and I promote togetherness rather than buying by agreeing to do something as a group.  The movie we go to (or putt-putt, etc) is then in lieu of exchanging gifts.
  • How about we commit to give away any of our current belongings that are replaced by new gifts this year?  If you receive a new jacket, you give away an old jacket.  If you receive an Ipod, your old one is given to somewhat less fortunate.  [We don’t SELL the items, but we give them away.]  This way we can at least keep tabs on how many of a thing we have — so that we don’t amass wealth and possessions.

Anyway, these are just some ideas.  Do you have others?

* Pakistani television (which we get here) has a total of about four commercials.  I’m not kidding.  In every commercial break, we see the same four commercials, and we see at least two of them twice in every commercial break.  Pakistani commercials are almost as bad as Canadian commercials.
** We also have a general lack of decorations, music, parties, Santa Claus lap-sitting, people ringing bells to ask for money, and arguments about “Merry Christmas” versus “Happy Holidays.”
*** I know, I know, who gets to determine what is indeed excessive, and what is not?
**** That person is Carson McNeal.  He even told us when we were setting the limit for our team gift exchange ($6.25) that we should set it low, and then when he went over, it wouldn’t be excessive.  Now there’s a guy who knows how to make some rules…


Filed under holidays, practical advice

22 responses to “overcoming commercialism at christmas

  1. Where I grew up in the Kenyan desert, learning the Christmas narrative seemed to totally make sense. It featured sheep, donkeys, and camels just like I saw outside every day. Our Christmas pageant had actual shepherds playing the shepherds, and we had all the right animals except camels– they wouldn’t fit inside the church. On clear moonless nights, I could imagine what the interruption of a great star would look like– experienced that, in fact, when Halley’s Comet came round.

    And then my folks would put together this green plastic pointy thing they called a “tree” (it didn’t look anything like the tree in our village), and teach my sisters and me to sing songs about snow (which I understood to be a sort of ice cream that falls from the sky) and holly (a prickly tree which isn’t acacia) and other bizarre, otherworldly things that had absolutely nothing to with the Nativity of Christ.

    I’ve learned to appreciate American-style winter-season festivity (though celebrating ice and snow in Florida still bugs me as a cultural imposition from the North), and I REALLY love eggnog, but Christmas feels much more like Christmas when I’m here in Africa.

  2. As I sit in Florida shivering from out 27* weather
    …..I was just telling my husband that I love the cold for a day or two….but, that is all, and that I am a true Floridian forever.

    That said, if you have friends and family ”on board” with your thoughts of commercialism and Christmas, it works.
    Otherwise you are stuck in an Americanized, homogenized, commercialized,
    tradition of give and take, *more take*that sucks the joy out of your ‘reason for the season”.

    I am trying to promote giving with meaning. Trying to set an example for my family and friends, whether they are with me or not.
    like: http://www.theadventureproject.org

    blessings to you in shorts!

  3. Anne Lessing

    I don’t comment often–I’m a lurker. 😀 But I felt compelled to comment here. Your list gave me the idea to donate some of whatever money I get to charity (the rest goes to the college fund)–and if I get a duplicate of a gift, I will give it away. Like books and such. I have a lot of books laying around that I could donate!

    Thanks for the reminder to give more than one takes. 🙂

    P.S. I hate the commercialism too! Yeah, it’s not enough to make me swear off of getting free stuff or anything, but it’s annoying to have the holiday shoved in your face everywhere you go. I swear, Christmas music is the most annoying thing I will ever hear. -_-‘

    P.P.S. The Pakistani commercials footnote made me LOL!

    • you’re welcome, anne, to lurk all you like. but thanks for the comment as well. i’m glad you’re going to be donating to a charity this christmas season.

      don’t tell my wife, but i agree with you completely about how annoying christmas music is. i can’t stand it. i’d rather have my toenails pulled out one at a time than listen to the musical sounds of christmas…

  4. Thanks for sparing us the useless rant against commercialism! 🙂 But I am even more grateful for your efforts to suggest some changes. I once heard a speaker talk about the fact that you cannot turn a luxury cruise ship on a dime, but you can alter its course radically by a series of two-degree turns. The challenge is getting enough of those changes back to back so there is significant cumulative change.

    Discipleship is a series of changes. It is a process of hearing from God in this one thing and being obedient. As that process of obedience picks up steam over time we realize we’ve undergone significant transformation and even that realization motivates us to hearing more, obeying more and being more amazed at what the Holy Spirit is accomplishing.

    We would love to send you some of our cold. Actually we are under a weather advisory because snow, sleet, and freezing rain are very likely as a front with moisture is supposed to come in on top of our already cold conditions. The one thing about weather, though, is we don’t get to program it.

    Merry Christmas!

    • the turning of a cruise ship is a great analogy; i’ll remember that one. thanks for it. have you written a blog post on that idea? a series of small changes being discipleship…?

  5. *You mean you don’t like the Pakistani dandruff police? I’m totally getting my own license to wear black.

  6. I will admit that while all the talk of this sort (and this theme has been repeated by all kinds of writers both online and not lately) makes me uncomfortable because I don’t want to change what I do, it has also made me change a little too. Which, I suppose, is the point.

    I absolutely LOVE buying gifts for people. If I were a wealthy woman (which I feel that I am very blessed, but I mean major wealth) I could seriously go overboard. Especially with legos and books and Barbie dolls. I love thinking it over, making a list, and then making the purchase that I think will make someone smile. And I like receiving gifts – mostly from Jason because I like to see what he came up with for me. I don’t really care about gifts from anyone else – I am grateful but not expectant.

    I did suggest this year that we dial it down a notch on each other (me and J), and I have held myself in check as well. I have gotten rid of some of the spending I’ve done in the past that I feel is a waste, and I’m deciding how Jason and I can help more, not just during this season, but all year in 2011.

    So despite the fact that I am not crazy about all these ideas where people throw out gift buying for loved ones and instead do for the less fortunate (how awful does that sound), I want to find a way to enjoy doing both (because the heart needs to be in it, otherwise it doesn’t mean anything) with more moderation on the gift buying for loved ones part.

    And if that needs to be changed in me further, my hope is that I will remain open and allow for it…even if I don’t want to right now. 😉

    • moderation in all things. good ideas, janie. if i may ask, what are some of the ways you’re giving more this year?

      • Well, what I was thinking of doing was to give a “Christmas present” of sorts in additional funds to the ministries and things we already support. One favorite of ours is the inner city ministry. There are also several opportunities to help those in Huntsville who won’t have much of a Christmas and we can pick some kids and get them clothes and/or a Christmas present. Another favorite of mine is the program at Barnes and Noble where you buy books for kids who can’t afford them. They make a short list and you get to pick a list (or as many lists as you want) and buy the books on it. This one, for many reasons, is extra dear to my heart, since books are one of the things I like receiving the most.

        It won’t change the world or help the poor in countries all over it, but in my own community, I want to take the little ways I’ve tried to spend less this year on Christmas for us and spend more on Christmas, and just general help, for others. There seems to be an abundance of things available this time of year, so it is very easy to find food drives, Angel programs, etc. to help one’s own community. I like that, but it would be better, I think if those things were made available all year. Which is something I also plan to focus on as 2011 shows up. I know I could do better in giving and in serving my community, and so I’m planning how I want to approach that as well (because it is with my time more than my money that I am the most stingy).

        That’s a start, anyway. Not much, but a start.

        • janie, i think giving an additional gift to charities and groups we already support is a great idea. a christmas present to them.

          also, the book program sounds like a good one. at the same time, though, it makes me miss the (apparently) good ol’ days of public libraries having awesome kids programs and the like. i’m sure i owned lots of books when i was little, but i remember going to the library every week to check out 4 or 5 to read that week. i loved it. and over the summer we got to watch movies there on fridays if we’d read a book (or some number) that week. nothing against barnes and noble, but it’s sad that they’re having to take over (probably) where public libraries have slacked. or course i’m guessing at all of that. i’ve not been to a public library in years.

          • I’m not sure it is the libraries that have slacked…but maybe the parents. But there is something nice about owning a book, and I’d rather buy books for kids than toys. I guess I think they last longer or something.

          • maybe it is parents.

            but christie and i are with you. we’ve asked people not to buy toys for baylor. but they’re welcome to buy as many books for her as they like. not because they last longer, though. we just think they’re better.

  7. I like giving gifts. I believe that God gave the greatest gift of all, and for us to downplay the importance of giving gifts to the extent that we eliminate it is to imply that we don’t understand the gift that he gave.

    Long way around, I get frustrated with Christians (or non-Christians, even…) who piously attack commericalism as though their way of observing Christmas is somehow more holy that that of people who choose to spend lots of money giving gifts to other people. (That’s not a slam on Brett – just a general frustration, please don’t feel attacked…)

    I also get frustrated when I use too many parentheses and periods in a comment… (who cares, though, really…)

    Giving gifts is not a good thing. It causes us to think about people that otherwise we might not take time to think of. As a ceremony, it really should be more liturgical and almost holy when we give gifts.

    I personally think, as Christians, instead of trying to un-commericalize Christmas or make sure that WalMart doesn’t take Christ out, we should do more things to reflect the connection between Christmas gift giving and receiving and the Greatest Gift that was given. When you give a gift, make a connection with the person you are giving it to. When you receive a gift, be reminded of the gift. Give gifts to people you don’t know. Give gifts to people you don’t like. Use Christmas as a time to share the Gospel, not as a time to correct the cultural course drift. Our job is not to repair the evil in society, our job is to make disciples of all peoples.

    Yeah, I got a lot of work to do to even live up to my own standards, so don’t worry, I’ve got no moral high ground to claim here.

    • Oops.

      I wrote “Giving gifts is not a good thing. ”

      I MEANT to write “Giving gifts IS a good thing. ”


    • i do not feel attacked, bernard. and thanks for your honesty.

      i’m not against gift-giving. i just like it better when we give gifts freely — instead of our current system of trading presents. or even worse, trading money in the form of gift cards, etc.

      when a gift is expected, i fear we’ve gone wrong somewhere.

  8. Jason Miller

    What about the equilibrium of gift as opposed to sacrifice?

    Americans much prefer gifts. Gifts can be recompensed. You can in some way restore the equilibrium, not drown in someone’s lavishness, their unbounded sacrifice.

    I feel as if we receive both gift and sacrifice about as poorly as any social group in the world. Maybe not, but that’s how I feel.

    • i think that’s much of what bothers me. it doesn’t seem like gift-giving when we’re simply trading a set amount of money for the same. or when it doesn’t cost us anything.

      what’s that short story about the lady who cut her hair and got a brush, etc. something about the magi’s gift or something?

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