It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

What are you, kidding me with this?

All right, I don’t want to sound like a grump or anything, but when I was growing up, the holidays made a lot more sense. And we knew when they were supposed to begin.

Christmas decor and Halloween candy in a storeHalloween wasn’t that big a deal, Thanksgiving had more to do with family than football … and the Christmas season started in DECEMBER. You might have known some of those early birds that went to the stores on Thanksgiving weekend. But you certainly wouldn’t have been accosted with the strange sight I saw at the drug store today: discounted Halloween candy next to Christmas decorations. Where’s the decency? In my day, we all understood that pumpkin-shaped Snickers had nothing to do with plastic Santa and vice versa.

Not that this is exactly a recent trend — Gen Xers and Millennials may not know any other way to end a year other than hearing “Jingle Bell Rock” on the radio while you’re still raking autumn leaves. And it also isn’t all that hard to figure out why it started happening or why it has been gaining strength. Consider this chart of how American buying behavior ramps up over the course of the year. We start out on the low end in January, spend a little more freely over the summer, and then …

Graph showing rise in consumer spending over time

 

And if you’re like me, you might be wondering if the 2009 recession made any difference. Surely we all dialed things back when there was so much uncertainty and the unemployment numbers were so high. But here’s another chart to fill in that part of the picture: Here’s what American sales looked like from 2002 to 2012:

Graph showing rise in retail sales over time

 

 

 

Recession? What recession? Apparently, we didn’t let a little thing like the near collapse of the global economy stand in the way of commerce for long. A couple years of idling our engines, and then we were back to the malls or clicking on the Buy It Now links.

And retailers couldn’t be happier. Since we apparently want to shop till we drop, and since we can be persuaded to start our Christmas shopping in October, is it any wonder that the big box stores (and little box stores, for that matter) have decided that plastic Santa deserves to be dusted off earlier every year? Heck, they’d probably put him out there on Valentine’s Day if they thought it would work.

I don’t blame retailers or advertisers or manufacturers. But I do have a problem with all this as a Christian — it puts me more and more out of sync with the world, during one season when we might otherwise have something in common.

 

Holly-days, holidays and holy days

I know Christians who are just fine with the forward-creeping Christmas kick-off. Personally, if I hear anything about Kris Kringle before Advent starts, I go a little nuts. But I have Orthodox friends who feel happy when they hear and see those secular nudges toward December 25. In their eyes, no matter what the reason, there is an increase in tempo that goes along with their anticipation of the blessed Feast of Nativity. Certainly these silly old songs and hard-sell commercials don’t aim to spread the message of the Gospel, but even inadvertantly, the whole world begins to look toward something important and exciting and festive that happens on that day. Or so they tell me.

I wish I could see it that way. It would make things easier if I could find a happy place with this trend, since it’s obviously here to stay. But the person who can keep the Advent fast more joyously because she’s hearing “Holly Jolly Christmas” is a better person than I am (or maybe a weirder one). And let us not forget that the same fervor that has merchants decking the halls before Advent starts makes them yank up the holly with gusto on December 26. The Church may celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas, but merchandisers believe that five minutes after Christmas morning, it’s time to start thinking about what you’ll wear for the New Year’s party.

 

Three ways to fight plastic Santa

So what’s to be done? As so often happens when encountering these bad tendencies in our increasingly secular culture, you have to pick your battles. But you also have to stand your ground, when the world intrudes on something that comes too close to sacred ground.

Here’s what I’ve decided for this year. Someone else’s list may differ; I think there are families that are way ahead of me on having an Advent game plan:

Cover of the book The Winter Pascha1. Do some Advent reading. If I’m going to be assaulted with “seasonal” messaging that is far from Orthodox, I should balance it by having some inspirational readings.

If you don’t have a book in mind for this, consider Fr. Thomas Hopko’s collection of daily reflections on the season called The Winter Pascha. You can buy it HERE.

2. Strategize about gift-giving. If I’m going to hear this constant drumbeat about giving and getting, maybe I can channel that into something more normal. I know who I’m buying for, and I know the kind of things that they like. But maybe I don’t even need to buy (sorry, Shops ‘R Us) — maybe they’d rather have something I made? If I am going to buy, can I buy early enough to pick up bargains and save money on shipping?
If you Google ‘homemade Christmas presents,’ you’ll have plenty to choose from. HERE’s a list of 14 good ones, and HERE are some that looked cute and clever.

3. Think about Christmas charity. This is a very good idea that is sometimes a difficult sell, even for Christians. But do my friends and family really need more stuff? Do they need to worry about getting me more stuff? Yes, a donation to a good cause doesn’t usually result in a large box to put under the tree, but that’s where you may need to get innovative. Is there a way to present that gift that makes it fun, besides warming the heart? Could you include a hand-done card or make it the end of a Christmas treasure hunt?

There is no shortage of charitable organizations that need your help, but along with the standards, don’t forget about the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC). I also like giving gift donations to Kiva, which extends microloans throughout the world for $25 per gift. There’s an Orthodox lending group HERE.

I try to get a little smarter about all this every year. I’ve observed that the alternative to that is to just get caught up in the fast-flowing current of the world’s idea of Christmas. If that brought me closer to the indescribable miracle of the Incarnation, that would be one thing. But that rushing river only seems intent on delivering me to shopping malls and commerce sites. And if those are the only places I connect with at this time of year, what an unspeakable tragedy it would be.

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Grace Brooks is a freelance graphic artist and cartoonist. She…
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