Breathing life back into the Christmas story

We’ve all heard the story of the birth of Jesus so many times by now that it’s hard for anyone but a Sunday school teacher to pay attention to the details.

The baby Jesus. Asleep in a manger in Bethlehem. Sought out by Wise Men following a star and of course, by certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay. Born of Virgin Mary who had to flee in the night with Joseph from King Herod’s soldiers.

But in the age of climate change and peak oil, is the Nativity any more than an image for a Hallmark card?

Many of us don’t believe in the Christmas story anymore — if we ever did. So the holidays become about buying stuff for the kids, both because we care and because they nag.

If you care about the future, Christmas can embody the commercialism and excess that’s piling up debt, depleting natural resources and creating pollution and waste, hurtling society towards economic collapse and sending the Earth straight to climate change hell.

Surely most Christmas gifts will soon wind up in a landfill. Meantime, making, shipping and marketing the Playmobil Security Checkpoint toy or the Pole Dance Doll has used up dwindling oil while adding to greenhouse gas emissions.

Fox News “War on Christmas” jerkwads who claim to be defending the Reason for the Season don’t help. If anything, religious hypocrites turn off even more thoughtful people and help suck the last bit of life out of a holiday that Westerners have celebrated for at least 1500 years.

Blaming the bathwater on the baby

It’s easy to be cynical. But smart people shouldn’t be so quick to let the marketers and culture warriors monopolize Christmas.

After all, it’s the world’s biggest holiday, celebrated by one in three people alive today. And if you look at the Christmas story with a fresh eye, its message is so radical that, if the Powers That Be recognized its meaning, they’d start encouraging consumers to celebrate Boss’s Day instead.

I’ve never seen the radical message of Christmas expressed better than by Buy Nothing Christmas. A group of Canadian Mennonites started the effort as a “stress reliever” to help consumers “swamped with offers, ads and invitations to buy more stuff” to find a more meaningful Christmas.

Consider the three edgy points found in the group’s innocently titled Bible Study Guide for Youth on Christmas. In casual prose targeted at teenagers, author Erin Morash uses the story of Christmas itself to show where consumer society has gone wrong and suggest how people who think for themselves can make things right. In a world of climate change and peak oil, these are messages that adults need to hear.

1. Challenging conformity

Consider the Virgin Mary, a low-income single mom living in an occupied country. She accepts the challenge from the angel to give birth to Jesus because she knows it will shake things up by reversing the hierarchy of rich and poor.

So looking at Christmas, we celebrate Mary’s courage and her willingness to be part of change, by buying hundreds (or thousands) of dollars worth of gifts. Most of those gifts will, likely, have been made in factories that employ . . . guess what? Teenage girls in, say, Mexico, Burma or Vietnam, who work fifty to sixty hour weeks for $25 to $50 US. When they finish work at the end of the day, they likely go home to sleep in their family’s dirt floored shack, with no running water or electricity. If they’ve moved to the city to work, they might live in an overcrowded dormitory with hundreds of other girls and they’re charged for their bed in the dormitory.

2. Turning it upside down

Then, consider King Herod, a paranoid dictator who fears a single baby so much that he sends out assassins to kill every infant in a certain village. This happens at the Roman world’s season of Saturnalia, a solstice celebration where, for one day a year, masters and servants trade places. “Peasants could mock their rulers and a peasant might be crowned ‘king for a day.’ Feasting and drinking were all part of the party,” a Christmas tradition that continued through the Middle Ages.

So Christmas is not just about the injustices of the 1% but it’s also a reminder that the power of the ruling class is vulnerable and that all are equal in the eyes of God.

Strangely enough, as time and society “progressed,” this idea of Christmas as a celebration that challenged power and social roles became distasteful and threatening. The Puritans in England disliked the rowdy nature of the festival and the way that it encouraged lowly commoners to ignore the barriers of privilege, power, and law, even if only for a day.

In the nineteenth century, there was a strong movement to turn the rowdy, public, subversive celebration into a family affair with a focus on gift giving and, of course gift buying. That this movement was encouraged by the middle class merchants comes as no surprise.

3. People not consumers

Finally, consider the authorities. People are all born with names. But governments and marketers alike start assigning us numbers as soon as they can: social security numbers, income levels, spending patterns, credit scores.

Government and big business don’t give people numbers for our own good. They do it so they can manage us better for their own purposes. Alas, in this, the Treasury Department or Zogby Poll isn’t much different from the Roman authorities:

When Mary and Joseph were ordered to get registered for a Roman census, this was not the start of a personal relationship between them and the occupying foreign government. It was so they could be sorted, tracked, and taxed. If they caused any trouble, the government knew who their family members were. It was a way of reducing their humanity, making them cattle not people.

Speaking of cattle . . . What does the title “consumer” suggest to you and how does it compare with “citizen”or “person?” More and more often, we are being referred to by government, by media, and especially by corporations and advertisers, as “consumers.” Somehow the word brings to mind an image of a cow “consuming” something so that it can in turn be used, either to give milk or be eaten.

The guide pages contain references to chapter and verse in the Books of Luke, Mark and Amos and Psalm 139, along with reflections and exercises on each point.

 — Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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