Christmas and Simplicity

Robert and I had our monthly calendar/planning conversation on Tuesday… ok, we only manage to do it every three months or so, but hey, gotta start somewhere! During these conversations we sit with a couple of glasses of wine, reflect on the previous month (or three), and decide what our priorities will be for the next month (or three). We dipped briefly into Advent and Christmas, and I realized that it’s not too soon to set some intentions for that busy time. Especially with kids, and especially as a pastor, you blink and it’s over.

We’re planning to do the Advent Conspiracy as a study at church, and in its wisdom, the session decided to start the study a week before Advent actually begins. ‘Cause if you’re going to talk about spending less and giving more gifts of service and time, it’s too late to start that discussion on November 28. The wheels are in motion by then.

I struggle with Christmas every year, and have written a lot about that in various places. Our house is not overloaded with toys, and we don’t buy them at random times during the year. So Christmas is a time when we replenish our supplies, along with birthdays, which are all within a couple months of Christmas.

But I’m not completely comfortable with that.

According to the Advent Conspiracy folks, Americans spend $450 billion on Christmas each year. By contrast, it would take $10 billion to ensure that everyone in the world has access to clean drinking water (which is the AC movement’s mission of choice). Those figures could be wildly exaggerated on either end and it would still be a sobering statistic.

We did The Hundred Dollar Holiday for several years, until time became more scarce than money. But we still try to be intentional and thoughtful about the gifts we give, and we do alternative gifts, donations to charity, etc. We don’t give just for the sake of giving, though we have some family members who are notoriously hard to buy for. My personal theology is that it all works out. Some years, we might find the perfect object that would bring joy, other years not; and in those cases, an alternative gift would be given.

That’s what I believe… but I’m not there in practice.

I’ve been enjoying Rowdy Kittens, a blog about about “social change through simple living.” A recent post talked about how the author keeps Christmas. She is not religious, but she does observe the holiday as a sort of feast day/celebration with family.

A couple of things struck me. The first is a discussion in the comments about how to handle loved ones who do give a lot of gifts, when you don’t. One person said he gave away the gifts he received and eventually people got the message that he didn’t want to receive gifts. This got me thinking about the spirit in which we receive gifts. What does it mean to receive something graciously, even if it’s something you don’t want or need? I have no doubt that our loved ones will get a message if we consistently give their gifts away, but what message is it? That we didn’t want gifts, or that tangible expressions of the giver’s love and affection were not welcome? (Standard disclaimer that I do not know the people involved. I am only musing here.)

The other thing that struck me is the author’s recommendation to contribute to a child’s college fund or charity in lieu of gifts because “with children, they likely won’t remember a single toy you give them.” I have to say, that is just not true in my experience. Kids remember gifts. Maybe not every single one, but sure, big or unusual ones, definitely.

Here is one of the inconvenient truths of the simplicity movement.

There is magic in the new bike under the tree with the pink streamers and strawberry pattern on the seat. There is magic in that first brand-new stereo. There is even magic in the first 15 Sweet Valley High books! These are all things that I received as a kid, remember vividly, and was wildly happy with. And I don’t consider myself particularly materialistic. Receiving gifts is not one of my primary love languages (though I do enjoy them).

I’m not saying you can’t experience the spirit of Christmas in other ways—sure you can, and that can be a fun challenge—but people often remember what they’re given. I even write down the gifts we receive each year, along with things we did, what we had for Christmas dinner, etc.—and those lists are capable of transporting me to a particular time and place.

That’s because we are embodied beings, beings who collect stuff. Yes, most of us have too much stuff. Yes, our acquisitiveness is destroying the planet and can destroy us spiritually. Yes, I’m tired of plasticrap toys from China. But I’m with Michael Lindvall, who wrote recently in the Christian Century that the problem isn’t that we’re too materialistic, but that we’re not materialistic enough. Our stuff is cheap and disposable, when it should be precious and infused with meaning. “God,” Robert Farrar Capon once quipped, “is the biggest materialist there is. He invented stuff. . . . He likes it even better than we do.”


We acquire things, but then quickly tire of the things that seemed so important when first obtained. We replace rather than repair because we have such fickle and passing romances with our things. The real soul danger is not exactly in liking things too much, nor in owning them, nor in caring for them well. In fact, there can be great virtue in such a caring relationship with physical things.

The soul danger lies in the insatiable longing to acquire new things one after another, more and more things, as if the getting of them somehow proves our worth in comparison with others, as if the having of them can fill the emptiness. It’s this insatiable drive to acquire stuff rather than the stuff itself that’s the problem.


So what do we do about Christmas?


11 thoughts on “Christmas and Simplicity

  1. Mary Ann: That is exactly the point William Cavanaugh makes in his wonderful little book Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire.
    We live in a culture in which everything is disposable, and we have no connection to our stuff: who made it, where it comes from, where it goes after we throw it away. He urges us to be more materialistic: not have a connection with our stuff– including where it came from, and what becomes of it when we are done.

    • MaryAnn says:

      Jeff, I know you and Ashley at Pilgrims have done great stuff on this—she and I have talked about it and she’s helped me flesh out my thoughts further. Kudos to you!!!

  2. keithsnyder says:

    “Our stuff is cheap and disposable, when it should be precious and infused with meaning”

    My boys got real bicycles at age four. $200 each. Parents and grandparents went in on them together. It was the first time I ever understood the depth of pride that a four-year-old can feel for a new yellow bike.

    Since then, we’ve done hundreds of miles together. Their training wheels came off this summer (age 5) and we ride to school most mornings. Boy #1 does tricks on his. Boy #2 understands his drive train, from pedals all the way to back wheel, and likes to clean and maintain it. They know how to warn their riding companions about approaching hazards, stay in their lane, wear proper gear, and get back on after they take a tumble.

    We ride to the local greenmarket on Saturdays and get fresh vegetables and bread, which we wouldn’t bother with if we didn’t have the bikes, and sometimes it’s nice just to say “Let’s go for a ride.”

    I doubt much of that would have happened if we’d gone with the cheap bikes you get at the toy store. They fall apart, they’re heavy, and there’s plastic junk and cheap bolts to break and snag. The ones we got also use pretty standard bike parts, so things like a new seat post when somebody’s legs outgrow the stock one aren’t a problem. I just had hand brake levers fitted, as well, though I need to go back to the bike shop and figure out a way to make them less stiff for little hands.

    Quality lets you live more simply because you’re not constantly fighting with making it work–or giving up and losing out on whatever it was you wanted to do. I’ve seen kids on 24-inch carbon fiber Colnegos that must have cost at least a few grand, which I think is kind of ridiculous, but the return on two $200 bikes–which I can probably resell for $100 each when they’re too small–has been incalculable.

  3. Shala says:

    This is a real puzzle for us, especially as the two sides of our family treat presents so very differently. One side does family presents, as in each family on that side (grandparents and the sibling-led families) gives the other families one collective present. It might be a donation in their honor to Heifer International, or it might be a family night out with AMC gift cards or a gift card to a favorite restaurant, or it might be a game that the family can play together on family game night. But the gifts on that side are from family to family, not person to person. Exceptions are made for the young children, who each get one gift from each family in the group. And sometimes we do a Yankee swap, if there are a ridiculous number of aunt/uncle, grandparents, and sibling-led families in town.

    The other side does person to person gifts and usually multiples per person (gifts=love on that side without question). Made gifts are acceptable only if they are accompanied by a bought gift, otherwise they think you are being cheap rather than loving (this as you might imagine is hard for me, as I love to knit blankets and really need people to give them to, but don’t much care to spend hours making something only to have to buy something for them anyway).

    So far B’s been overloaded with gifts every single year from this side of the family. In the past I have dealt with it by taking advantage of B’s lousy short term memory and hiding the gifts in my office and doling them out as surprises during the year. That won’t work anymore, so this year we are capping that side of the family at 5 gifts/family unit for B (they already know not to buy me much), and asking them to contribute the money to a college fund or a children’s charity like Toys for Tots if they feel the need to give her more than that. We’ll see how it works.

    What to do about toys during the year is another issue for us. B has many more toys than any one needs and very generous people in her life who love to give her even more. She’s also of an age where she likes to pick more out for herself. We haven’t figured out what to do about the generous people yet, but when it’s us in the store with B, we tell her that if she sees something she wants, if she really really wants it (defined as she still wants it next week), she can have it, but first she has to give 5 toys of its type away (eg., you want that stuffed dinosaur, fine, but you’ll have to give 5 stuffed animals away to children who don’t have any first). So far she’s given away 14 stuffed animals to children in Haiti and gotten 2 new ones for herself.

    I have mixed feelings about this. At first I thought it was a wonderful idea, until B got REALLY into it and now walks into stores and suggests giving away lots and lots of things so that she can get whatever shiny new object has caught her attention. Clearly this is an idea that needs refining.

    Thoughts are welcome.

    • Shala says:

      I’ve been thinking about this some more, and I’ve figured out what’s bothering me about this. B has learned generosity–she sees me giving away my clothes, her baby stuff, kitchen things, etc. to people who need them all the time, whether friends or through charities. So to some extent, she is simply modeling my behavior in identifying things she no longer needs to give to others. (The reward at the end is suboptimal, but gotta start learning to be generous somewhere.) But the lesson of contentment with what you already have is totally being lost. To be fair, it’s one I struggle with myself, but I recognize that it’s vital. Would love thoughts on how to teach contentment.

  4. Shala says:

    there’s also the lesson of giving things you don’t need anymore to people who need them as a good in and of itself that doesn’t need to be immediately rewarded. We’ve started on disconnecting those two ideas this weekend, as I’ve been reflecting on this more. But I still feel like we’re wading in a morass of wants and material stuff. On the bright side, even though there isn’t a bright shiny dragon waiting for her on the other side of this stuffed animal/toy donation, b makes to make it anyway. (Whew! I haven’t broken my child completely yet. 🙂

    • MaryAnn says:

      Girlfriend… you need a blog!

      These comments are just right on. Contentment—have not considered that specifically. Very perceptive.

      Of to think some thinks…

      • Shala says:

        What? I can’t just write blog post length comments on yours? Phooey.

        Seriously, I’ve thought on and off about writing a blog. I’ve even got a title for it and a general theme, but I only have 3.5 hours a day to write and freelance & novel writing to do in that time, so have to make some choices.

  5. Shala says:

    editing notes: The two ideas being disconnected are the ideas of giving away stuff to people who need them, and getting new stuff for herself. B isn’t being rewarded any more with new material things for being generous.

    Also “b makes to make it anyway” really should be “B wants to make it anyway.”

    Wish I could blame that on an iphone.

  6. sko3 says:

    All I can say is that I get this. S gets too many gifts–from colleagues and from my parent’s friends, especially. There are no kids her age in those social circles so she’s the beneficiary of too much.

    One thing that I’m hopeful about this year is that she’s in a Jewish school. The hoopla around Christmas that she experienced last year, just won’t exist. So I’ll get to define how we celebrate a lot more. (Yes, there will be Hannukah at school, but a) she knows she isn’t Jewish and b) it’s really a minor holiday.) I was appalled last year at how her pre-school began the Santa hype the Monday after Thanksgiving and it got to a very feverish pitch.

    That’s not really a helpful comment for anyone else, I guess–just some navel gazing.

    She’s so sweet about things now—asking me to send things to the kids in Ethiopia, and easily passing outgrown clothing down to others—I just wish I knew how to maintain that sweet unattached nature.

  7. […] in terms of how much debt people take on as a result of Christmas, but it’s sizable. However, as I’ve written before, this is not an easy issue. Receiving gifts is pleasurable. Giving gifts is too. And some […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s