‘Tis the season—but for what, exactly? Last week, I decked my wall—on Facebook, that is—with some yuletide-inspired food for thought about the real meaning of Christmas and, in only a few hours’ time, had racked up nearly 100 responses from people of varying faiths, all vehemently defending their visions of Christmas against mine.
I started the debate when I shared a “feel good” link I found on my feed about anonymous donors paying off Kmart layaway accounts across the country. The original poster wrote that it was exactly this type of act that Jesus Christ himself, the man behind the ‘mas, would want us doing each December’s end. But I couldn’t help but quarrel.
The article details how layaway-paying secret Santas are making Christmas possible for the less fortunate, taking care of the toys that the recipient families wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. A kind gesture? Sure. But is it worthy of the WWJD stamp of heavenly sponsorship? I’m not sold.
Jesus Christ, known by Christians as the “Prince of Peace,” spent his life advocating the rights of the poor and admonishing the idolatry of money and the oppression it produced. On the surface, one might construe a donation helping a poor family to buy Christmas presents as a JC-approved act of holiday cheer, but if you dig deeper—and this was my Facebook argument—wouldn’t it be quite the opposite?
Americans will spend over $100 billion dollars on Christmas presents this year, the majority of that money going to fatten the turkeys of multinational CEOs who generously pay their international labor force as much as a few dollars an hour (and as little as a few cents) to produce our gift-wrapped toys, clothing, and electronics. In fact, the toys that end up in one child’s hands on Christmas morning were likely assembled by another child’s hands, just a few weeks earlier, halfway around the world. Where is that child’s secret Santa?
In the 2001 book, Christmas Unwrapped: Consumerism, Christ, and Culture, biblical scholars, historians, and anthropologists examine how the evolution of the Christmas ritual from Christian to Hellenistic has bedazzled the story of Jesus Christ with the red and green glitter of consumerism. Exposing the economic and class-based roots of Christmas as we know it today—a private, family-centered ritual that uses a “thin veil of Christianity” to celebrate the “ethic of consumption”–Christmas Unwrapped essentially backs me up, arguing that there is nothing moral or Christlike about consumerism.
Stories of poor kids with empty trees on Christmas morning and the heroic donors who save them from their giftless fate only contribute to a culture that exalts presents instead of peace, consumerism instead of community. If we are to honor the Prince of Peace, shouldn’t we be working to dismantle the very system that creates and reinforces war and poverty, instead of seeking out shortcuts to numb the pain of our oppression?
Now, to be honest, of the dozens of commenters on my wall-decking Facebook post, not all were Black Friday backers. One friend, a pastor, came to Christ’s (and Christmas’) defense with an idea I’d like to share with you, whatever your faith may be: “As a Christian, I am called to care for the widows and the orphans. Does paying someone’s layaway bill do that? Probably not. Does building a relationship with a fatherless child and mentoring that child do more for him than buying him a toy? Yes. The question is this, what level of comfort are you willing to sacrifice so that others may be blessed?”
You don’t have to be a Christian (heck, I’m not) to study and appreciate the life and works of tomorrow’s famous birthday boy, who plainly was not a once-a-year type of guy. (And I doubt you’d ever find him in a Kmart, unless he was exorcising the cash registers.) But he was a big fan of peace, love, and community—three things I’d personally like to see more of, on and off Facebook. This Christmas, I encourage you to ask yourself—really ask yourself—what would Jesus do, today and every day? Close your checkbooks and open your heart. Do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. ‘Tis the season.
*For another activist’s take on the true meaning of Christmas, check out Reverend Billy’s documentary, “What Would Jesus Buy?”.
About the Author: Rachael Kay Albers is a freelance writer, English teacher, and theater facilitator working to educate and empower indigenous women in Central America. You can find Rachael blogging about art, action and adventure in Latin America on RKA in LA or about multilingualism on Multilingual Mania.