Beyond Black Thursday–If Not Shopping, Then What?

We’ve been kvetching about this on Facebook all morning. Yes, it’s come to this:

Black Thursday? Stores to open even earlier on Thanksgiving.

Big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart, Toys R Us and Sears are opening their doors at 8 p.m. Thursday — just as Thanksgiving dinner tables are being cleared in many homes. Target will follow suit at 9 p.m., enticing shoppers out of their homes during the final football game of the day.

Target employees have started a petition to “save Thanksgiving,” and Wal-Mart workers say they are gearing up for protests on Black Friday.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Anthony Hardwick, a former Target employee who led protest efforts last year. “We’re getting rid of Thanksgiving dinner, and for what? For a $300 flat-screen TV?”

[But] “Stores are tapping into something that is very real — there is demand for this,” said Adam ­Hanft, a brand strategist for ­Hanft Projects in New York. “The reality is, people start to get cabin fever after awhile. They’re fighting about politics. They want to get out and do something.”

Oh my heavens!

Apparently there are people who have no idea how to extricate themselves from an argument with Aunt Edna about the Kenyan usurper in the White House, or cut short Nephew Chip’s jeremiads against the drug war, other than to go shopping.

What a failure of imagination!

What an opportunity for Blue Room readers, who are so very creative!

What could a family do together on Thanksgiving weekend besides buy stuff?

Share in comments. Here are five humble suggestions to get you started:

  1. Go for a walk.
  2. Do the National Day of Listening. Do not ask about Obama or the drug war.
  3. Find a place that serves meals to the homeless. Go there. Do that.
  4. Bake cookies for a fire house or police precinct.
  5. Rake a neighbor’s leaves. Heck, rake your own leaves.

Take it away in comments, loveys!

Should I Send My Wedding Dress to Kenya?

Nicholas Kristof recently made this plea for wedding and bridesmaid dresses, which are used by a woman in Nairobi to make new children’s clothing. If you can get them to New York, there’s an organization there that will pay for the shipping to Kenya. (Something tells me this woman is going to be inundated with more satin and tulle than she’ll be able to use in a lifetime.)

The minute I read Kristof’s piece I knew that I wanted to send my wedding dress there. When I got married seventeen years ago, a lot of people were heirlooming their dresses. I didn’t have strong opinions about keeping my dress but ultimately went that route. I took it to the cleaners, where they did whatever voodoo they do, and now it’s sitting in a nice box up in James’s closet. It’s a pretty dress, in a “22 year old bride in the mid-’90s” kind of way.


That is, there’s a lot of fabric to work with, and some nice details.

Robert asked, “Are you sure you want to part with it? Is there a possibility that one of our daughters will want to wear it?” Leaning that way, and I doubt it—although he reminds me that Caroline is very tuned in to tradition and family artifacts and hates to part with stuff. So who knows?

Many folks place great value on things simply because they have sentimental value. My threshold is different. I like having a keepsake for major events and people in my life, but I don’t necessarily need every keepsake. If the dress were the only tangible connection to our wedding day I would want to keep it. But we have wedding gifts and photographs and gold bands on our left ring fingers and flower shops where we can get lilies whenever we want, and that’s a gracious plenty for me.

Still, the discussion we’re having about the fate of the dress has me thinking about the value of stuff. I follow a few simplicity and anti-clutter blogs that provide tips for paring down stuff. I think many of these blogs go too far—for example, this article, by a man whose mother died. He was getting ready to move her stuff to a storage facility when he found several boxes of his elementary school work under her bed. The fact that theses boxes were sealed, unexamined by his mother all these years, led to an epiphany:

I could hold on to her memories without her stuff, just as she had always remembered me and my childhood and all of our memories without ever accesses [sic] those sealed boxes under her bed. She didn’t need papers from twenty-five years ago to remember me, just as I didn’t need a storage locker filled with her stuff to remember her.

…Memories are within us, not within our things.

And this is where he loses me.

Memories are within us… AND within our things. It’s why I keep artifacts on my desk when I write: I treasure those reminders of juicy times in my life. And it’s why some of the kid artwork is going into a Rubbermaid tub rather than being scanned into Evernote: it is a precious thing to feel the paper that my kids held on their laps, to trace the brushstrokes.

It goes the other way too. We are fumigating our church right now, and folks are taking home all the dishes, pots and pans to be washed thoroughly since the church doesn’t have a dishwasher. Some of these kitchen items have psychic energy that is, in my opinion, not all that positive. (Old stained trays? 200 coffee cups in a church that now worships 50?)

Our stuff isn’t neutral.

I said recently that I’m done with the word “spiritual.” My main objection is that it implies a separation from the physical world. (Thank you Platonic dualism.) The realm of the spiritual is what’s in our brains and in our (figurative) hearts, and it is given higher status. The body is just the Rubbermaid tub.

Of course we can become obsessed with stuff, hoarding and clutching, or constantly upgrading and discarding. But I agree with Michael Lindvall (subscription required, sorry) when he wrote that the problem isn’t that we value our stuff too much. Our problem is that we don’t value it enough. It’s all disposable anymore, cheap and devoid of meaning. After all, memories are in our minds, right?

But my goodness, God loved stuff. God made stuff, and called it good and very good. And Christians go so far as to make the outrageous claim that God became flesh and lived among our stuff. He ate stuff and drank stuff and blessed stuff and told stories about stuff and even mixed stuff with his own spit and made mud on one bizarre occasion.

So if I value stuff so much, why am I thinking about sending my wedding dress to Kenya rather than keeping it? Not because the dress isn’t meaningful to me, but because it is meaningful. The day I wore it was a day of great beauty and hope and joy. It has the potential to bring beauty and hope and joy to people I don’t even know. Doesn’t that seem like a good way of honoring the love that was expressed on October 22, 1994? To let it have a new life, rather than sitting in my closet for another couple of decades on the off chance that my daughters will want to wear it?

One of the things I think about when making a decision is, where is the good story? And yes, Caroline or Margaret walking down the aisle wearing the dress I once wore is a good story. But it’s a story that I ultimately control and own. There’s something to be said for letting the story go, so it can take on a life of its own.

I’m still thinking. What do you say?

Photo: Jane Ngoiri of Nairobi.

Reverb #6: Make

Prompt: Make. What was the last thing you made? What materials did you use? Is there something you want to make, but you need to clear some time for it?

We’re making a lot of our Christmas gifts this year, and buying less stuff. So I have made a lot of different things in the past week or so, but I can’t say what any of them are because gift recipients read this blog. But here are a few materials we have used:

  • butter
  • acrylic paint
  • sharpie
  • wrapping paper
  • nutmeg
  • laptop

Slight digression: We’ve been studying the Advent Conspiracy at church, and yesterday the topic was “give more,” which emphasizes “relational gifts” rather than the easy and impersonal sweater or gift card. Back when Robert and I were newly married, we did the Hundred-Dollar Holiday for several years. I’ve loved Bill McKibben’s stuff for years and wish we were related; I suppose we are if you go back far enough.

We didn’t stick to $100 strictly, but we bought very little other than supplies for whatever we were making. We did it because we resonated with the concept of simplicity and spending less, particularly at Christmas. We also did it because we had more time than money back then. Now the exact opposite is true—it’s time that’s scarce, and the time we have is measured in little fragments between piano lessons and dinner, or kid bedtime and adult bedtime. So it feels more sacrificial, in a way, to make things. The Advent Conspiracy folks are really big on making gifts ultra-personal: thinking about each specific person, what he or she means to you, and what would make the person feel loved. We’re not really doing that, but I like the place we’re standing nonetheless.

Back to reverb: one thing I want to finish is a shawl/poncho that I started a year ago and have worked on in fits and starts. It’s been a bit of a disaster, as much of my knitting turns out to be. It’s a little short in the torso—the pattern in the book had a mistake in it, and the correction makes everything a bit more compressed (it’s a lace pattern). I have no idea what I’m going to do about that so I’ve been in this sort of perfectionistic denial about the whole thing. I really need to just finish it already and figure out what to do.

I’m thinking fringe. Fringe makes everything better.

Follow-Up: But What I *Really* Wanted to Say…

Yesterday’s post about gifts wasn’t really at the crux of it, but it’s the stuff I needed to think about in order to get to the crux.

Two things:

1. Most everyone loves giving the right gift to someone. The whole process is very satisfying—the inspiration of the idea, choosing the gift, anticipating the person’s reaction, watching him or her receive it. I have had these experiences and they are wonderful. And only the most curmudgeonly person would say that we should forgo that experience to remain somehow pure in this overconsumptive, acquisitive world we live in.

But what do you do when you don’t have the right gift? That’s really the heart of the matter. Do you just buy whatever? Do you get a gift card? Do you write a beautiful letter? Do you make a thoughtful donation in the person’s honor? That place—when inspiration doesn’t come—is when the calculations start to figure in—dollar amounts and expectations and appearances. And that to me is the place of discernment, the interesting spiritual place of self-awareness.

2. Evidence suggests that experiences make us happier than stuff does. Spending money on the trip of a lifetime brings more satisfaction than an extravagant purchase, because our estimation of the value of the experience goes up over time while our assessment of the worth of the object goes down.

There are many reasons for this, but I have to think that gifts we receive have a similar effect over time as do purchases we make ourselves. Would you agree? And if so, how does that impact what kind of gifts we give? I certainly want to give people things that will have the most impact.

Advent Conspiracy, Week One

Yesterday our church began a four-week study of the book and DVD Advent Conspiracy: Can Christmas Still Change the World? It was a good discussion with a lot of back and forth. The ideas in the study aren’t new—the DVD is your basic “put Christ back in Christmas” message, this time with hipper graphics and more goatees.

It’s a good study, and a powerful message—one we need to hear again and again. It is so easy to get sucked in. I don’t have the numbers on hand 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 people’s jobs depend on us buying stuff. (One person heard an “it’s evil to be wealthy” message in the study, which I did not hear, but studies on this topic often sacrifice nuance to make their point.)

Side note: I had to chuckle—the topic was “worship fully” and the DVD talked about the shepherds, who were the underclass of the society, and yet they were the first to receive the message. And they went immediately to Bethlehem to check out the story and worship the child. Several dear folks wanted to know what happened to the sheep these shepherds left behind. That wasn’t very responsible of those shepherds!

Someone suggested that perhaps one of the shepherds stayed behind so the others could go to “worship Christ the newborn king,” and if that’s true, that person was definitely a Presbyterian.


For me this Christmas stuff is all about intentionality. (It always is.) This morning I am making our gift list. Once again I am thinking about the Five Love Languages and how this holiday is set up for a default love language—giving and receiving gifts—and not for the others. To what extent can one buck that?

We received an Uncommon Goods catalog yesterday, and the kids and I oohed and aahed over each page. There are some lovely things in there. But that catalog represents everything I struggle with during this season. Lots of beautiful, intriguing, but not-needful things. Don’t get me wrong, not every gift needs to have a utilitarian purpose. But that catalog fits well into the niche of Yet More Stuff for the Person Who Already Has Everything. (See also: Signals and Wireless) I am reminded of a friend who has an aversion to getting stuff she has to dust…

I am also thinking about the people who will give us gifts unexpectedly. Can I receive them without feeling guilt at not reciprocating? Can I assume that they have given to us because they genuinely want to? Or if they haven’t—if they are giving out of obligation or expectations of something in return—then can I just let that be their issue and not mine?

And am I about 10 minutes away from overthinking this? (Don’t answer that—what would blogging be without overthinking?)

Image: Season’s Greetings “Postcarden” from UncommonGoods.

Checking Out Some Christmas Anecdata

Many of us lament the premature arrival of Christmas decorations in stores. You can buy Christmas trees and lights from CostCo just days after Labor Day. Things start to heat up even more by mid-November, and by the Friday after Thanksgiving, it is ON.

I don’t have anything concrete to back this up, but it seems even worse this year. Christmas is popping up everywhere, to the point that Thanksgiving won’t be the beginning of the Christmas season, but instead a holiday within it.

This is to be expected on some level. If the economy is still pokey, then stores are going to want to hasten the arrival of the shopping season. It is to their advantage to create a sense of urgency, and to make the season as long as possible. And don’t misunderstand me—I think it’s problematic to get sucked into that.

But what I’m especially interested in is the arrival of Christmas in individual homes. I have a number of friends who have already begun the Christmas season. Their tree is up. They’re listening to Christmas music. Shopping is well underway (though perhaps that’s nothing new—some of us just like to get it done early).

I say this not to judge. I’m just curious about it, and wonder if others have noticed this. It’s purely anecdotal stuff. But if I’m right, it makes sense. The country seems depressed to me. Someone said to me today, “Obama has not done a good job as Cheerleader in Chief.” And this is someone who is very supportive of the President generally. You can argue that that’s not his primary job—maybe it’s our job as members of a community. Maybe it’s my job, and the job of other spiritual leaders.

But we are in need of some cheer.

And maybe the longing for Christmas is wrapped up in all of this.

It won’t surprise you to hear that I’m not an Advent purist. I get the point of Advent, and agree that spiritual preparation helps us not get carried away in a wave of kitschy detritus and overconsumption. There’s something nice about not jumping the gun. There’s something lovely in letting the moment ripen.

On the other hand, I think when we the Theologically Correct insist on purity (no Christmas music until X, no tree until Y), when we hold Christmas back with a whip and a chair, because it’s good for us, darnit!… then we are missing something. I agree with Tom Are of Village Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, who said a few years back, “I just don’t think any more that the church gets to tell the culture what time it is. That just doesn’t connect with people.”

If what I’m noticing is a larger trend, it would seem that we need a little Christmas… right this very minute.

And if that’s the case… then is a slavish adherence to Advent prophetic, or just out of step with what is deeply needed?

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?