Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Christmas Presents in the Spirit of Christ(mas)

Well, it's that time of year again: Christmas.

It's the one holiday - particularly in America - that makes my head hurt.


Well, without going into all the particulars about the origin's of Christmas (
see Wikipedia.org for a rather quick overview), which is enough to make one's head hurt, let's just stick with Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior and Son of God.

Jesus was sent by God to save the world from its sins. One of the
really big sins - based on all the stories and allegories in the New Testament - was/is materialism. The wanting/lusting/accumulation of wealth and goods on Earth - particularly when so many people go without.

So what has happened to Christmas in American Culture? Well, we
SHOP!! We buy so much that Marketers call the Friday after Thanksgiving "Black Friday" - meaning that's the day most retailers actually go into the black (i.e., start making money).

This year, during Thanksgiving dinner with friends, I was astounded that Katie (18-year-old daughter of Julie and Terry) had to be up at 4AM to go work at Circuit City. They were opening at 5AM or 6AM on Friday. I saw ads for JC Penny's that they were opening at 4AM or 5AM on Friday. Why are they opening so early? Well, to beat the (now) annual ritual of throngs of people, literally, beating the shit out of each other to get into Wal-Mart stores at their 6am Friday openings - for fear all the really good deals will be gone. (Since moving to Florida, I've become much more sensitive to this ritual, as the really amazing violent film footage - shown nationally - is invariably from a store in Florida.)

Of course, the insanity of a large portion of the populace might seem like a religious ritual taken a tad too far - except that I don't get the sense that all of those fanatical customers beating their fellow consumers to get into their neighborhood Wal-Mart are doing it because "That's what Jesus would do." No, they're doing it because: (1) they think they can - and should - buy the affections of their loved ones with material gifts, (2) they hope to get even better gifts in return (unless they're passive-aggressive, in which the entire point is to humiliate fellow gift-givers by "out gifting" them), (3) they can't actually afford to be buying all these gifts, but feel they have to, and therefore need to minimize the expense, and/or (4) they see the entire holiday season as a sport in terms of time, effort and expense, with the goal being to outdo everyone else - or at least the average gift-giver.

Sadly, marketing and business have a lot to do with the evolution of Christmas from a celebration of friends, family and (if you're Christian) the arrival of Jesus, to one of the most materialistic and insanely competitive times of the year. As Max Weber pointed out in
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930):
Since asceticism undertook to remodel the world and to work out its ideals in the world, material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history. Today the spirit of religious asceticism…has escaped from the cage. But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer…

For of the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.
Well, if Max Weber only knew how much worse it would get.

So, the point is this: If the goal is to celebrate the birth, life and teachings of Jesus Christ, rather than heaping presents on others - wouldn't it make a bit more sense to take care of those less fortunate? Instead of buying, buying, buying (often on credit) and hoping to get, get, get - how about taking the opportunity to share the act of giving to those less fortunate with our friends and family?

To this end, rather than the insanity of trying to figure out what everyone would like this year - and usually getting it
right enough to seem nice, but wrong enough to disappoint - I've decided to donate $500 to the following causes in the Spirit of Christmas:
Make It Right New Orleans
This is group that Brad Pitt has been leading to build affordable and sustainable housing in the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans. The premise is for people to donate money to build 150 affordable houses (at $150,000 each) that will be given to the families who lost a house in Hurricane Katrina.

Gift: $200 Ceiling Fan for a house being donated to a family in New Orleans (as everyone knows, I love ceiling fans).

One Laptop per Child
Given the importance of education in changing the world, I can't imagine a more wonderful and worthwhile mission than that of
One Laptop per Child: "....to empower the children of developing countries to learn by providing one connected laptop to every school-age child. In order to accomplish our goal, we need people who believe in what we’re doing and want to help make education for the world’s children a priority, not a privilege."

Gift: $200 to buy one laptop for a child.
(OLPC is also running a "promotion" that, for $400, you can buy two laptops - one is shipped to you and the other is donated to a child via the program.)

Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.

As the foundation supporting
Wikipedia.org - the internet's free community-edited encyclopedia - Wikimedia's mission is to: "....empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content under a free content license or in the public domain, and to disseminate it effectively and globally." I confess, I LOVE Wikipedia.org. It might not always be right, but it is a quick way to find stuff when I'm in a hurry and need to get a "quick hint" about something I've forgotten or generally clueless about. Plus, it's available in a number of languages and it makes that laptop I just donated much more useful!!

Gift: $100
I don't know if that's actually what Jesus would do. But as a Unitarian Universalist - it's what I think he would want us to do.

So that's it for now.

Give everyone you love a big hug this holiday season (and more often, if you're up for it) and have a happy and wonderful holiday season!!