It's the most wonderful time of the year, chirps the classic Christmas tune. But I find it's the toughest time, as cultural festivities pile on top of family obligations on top of extra religious services. Parties and presents pump up the pressure at Christmas and even undermine the meaning of the season, making this holiday much harder for me to handle than any of the other high holy days of the church year, including Easter.
I'm not alone. "All my kids play musical instruments," says Gay Lee Einstein, a mom in McLean, "and last year, all three of them had musical concerts at Christmas." Her lament--familiar to many parents--is intensified by the fact that she is an associate pastor at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, so her daughters' concerts compete with her professional preparations.
Nor is this a new problem for ministers such as Gay Lee and me. It has its roots in the 4th century, when the church chose Dec. 25 for its celebration of the birth of Christ, laying a Christian celebration over the riotous Roman Saturnalia--a time of uncontrolled feasting and frolicking to laud the approach of spring. Puritan minister Cotton Mather was responding to this inherent tension in the 17th century when he criticized the season's "Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and all Licentious Liberty." Small wonder that Puritans in New England passed laws against celebrating Christmas. "Shall it be said," Mather asked, "that at the birth of our Savior we take the time to do actions that have much more of Hell than of Heaven in them?"
Fun guy--not the one you want to dress up as Santa for the church Christmas party. But Mather was raising a basic question that I find more and more parishioners want answered. It seems today that the gods of consumerism have taken such control of the season--in the guise, incidentally, of the Christian virtue of generosity--that members of my congregation turn increasingly to the church for guidance in finding alternative ways to celebrate. Unlike Mather, I don't have to argue for the banning of public celebrations. (I wouldn't want to, anyway.) Instead, I find myself responding to a popular movement to observe the holiday in a way that stands a chance of bringing us some peace and joy, and that involves a generosity that is more of spirit than of shopping lists.
The feeling I'm getting from my congregation--and am sensing from pastors at other churches, too--is that "less is more." What a concept: a holiday based on expectation instead of gratification.
"Some churches I know of are focusing on a more contemplative mode," Kristine Haig, a coordinator in the National Office of the Presbyterian Church (USA), told me. "They are using this as a season for spiritual formation, a time of mystery and awe and preparation." And they do this, I think, despite the continuing pressure to satisfy also those worshipers who show up only for the more elaborate celebratory services around Christmas and Easter.
At Calvary, we try more and more each year to sing Advent hymns on the four Sundays before Christmas, instead of rushing straight into carols. While "Joy to the World" is bouncing off the walls of malls the day after Thanksgiving, in our sanctuary we are singing "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," which is slower and more haunting. At the same time, we're trying to come up with ways of helping our congregants simplify make their celebrations at home.
My friend Bill Parent, a Roman Catholic priest who has served churches in Bethesda and Waldorf, says he goes even further. "I won't say 'Merry Christmas' until December 24," he tells me--a not-so-subtle reminder that, although Advent lasts throughout most of December, the true Christmas season begins only on that day. He has found that many people, fed up with the commercial aspects of the holiday season, are receptive to reclaiming older traditions, such as focusing on Saint Nicholas--a true saint!--instead of Santa Claus. When Saint Nick showed up at the annual parish photo-op for children in Waldorf, Bill was pleasantly surprised to see how content the little ones were to whisper their Christmas lists to the 4th-century bishop of Myra.
Of course, it's tough to set limits on Santa when you have two grade-school children, as I do. In many instances, it's the desire to be good--or at least generous--parents that lures us into holiday excess. The gods of the mall seduce us with the siren song of generosity, and I have to admit I often think of the old elf as an illustration of Christian grace--he always gives us more than we truly deserve.
At our church, one way we counter this conspiracy of shopping malls and Santa is by offering people the opportunity to exchange "alternative gifts." There is, for example, the Heifer Project International, which provides livestock and training to families in more than 40 countries. Donors are invited to purchase such gifts as a flock of chicks ($20), a trio of rabbits ($60), a pig ($120) or a heifer ($500). We display the project's catalogue, and parishioners have welcomed the possibility of giving cards saying that an animal has been purchased in the recipient's name for a struggling family. It beats another gift basket.
A number of Calvary families now set limits on the amount they spend on gifts for each other at Christmas. Some congregations are even promoting the "Hundred Dollar Holiday," in which families promise to spend no more than a total of $100 on Christmas--an act that forces simpler, more personal and often handmade gifts. Environmentalist Bill McKibben, who wrote a book by that title, has been spearheading this program among Methodists in New York state for about 10 years with some success--although retailers surely wish it would die a quick death. So, too, McKibben's ideas for the simple gift of time--baking a pie, recording a song, whittling a walking stick or visiting a nursing home resident.
Gay Lee uses the same technique at home, encouraging her children to give her coupons--redeemable for "setting the table" or some other household chore. How about coupons for a monthly back rub, baby sitting, house painting or a trip to the zoo? (A joke making the rounds these days asks what would have happened if Three Wise Women had gone looking for Jesus instead of Three Wise Men. Answer: They would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole and brought practical gifts! Stable cleaning beats frankincense and myrrh any day of the week.)
Another initiative we take at Calvary is to "adopt a family" through United Community Ministries, a local interfaith social service agency. This year we'll buy and wrap gifts for a family of immigrants. A couple of years ago, "the kids went with us when we delivered the tree," remembers David Noel, a legal assistant at a Washington law firm and an elder at Calvary. "The kids were surprised that some families didn't have trees."
I can't help but wonder sometimes if such projects don't simply perpetuate the commercialism of Christmas. Is it truly constructive to introduce an immigrant family to gift buying and tree decorating? But I do see tremendous value in exposing our children to life beyond the bubble of affluence, introducing them to a family that worries more about paying the rent than picking up the latest Pokemon merchandise. My own awareness of the raw reality of poverty was awakened about 30 years ago, when my parents and I made a similar Christmas delivery to a shack by a racetrack in Bowie. Christmas can help weaken the walls that isolate us in our own economic niches.
All these activities--Advent expectation, limit-setting, outreach to neighbors, alternative gifts--can prepare us much better for the central, spiritual event of Christmas. But part of my ministry has to be focused on filling the pews, so I try to balance messages of simplicity with uplifting sights and sounds. In terms of inspiration, few churches do better than the First Baptist Church of Alexandria, which has offered "a living Christmas tree" every December for a decade--a pageant that involves 200 singers, musicians and actors, plus 100 other volunteers, and is expected to draw an audience of 5,500 over its six presentations. How do they avoid overwhelming the participants? "Planning begins the previous winter," explains Roger McGee, minister of worship and music, "and the whole church is involved." Planning major productions is manageable when it is spread over most of a year.
So let's not do away with all the reveling, carding and masking that make this season memorable. But I know I'm reflecting the desires of a growing number of people when I also try to turn down the volume, to find some peace and quiet in "Silent Night." My plan is to be more careful with my time in the days to come, focusing more on activities than on acquisitions, so that I'll be able to arrive at Dec. 25 feeling some energy and expectation instead of sheer exhaustion. And I'll come to it with the satisfaction of knowing that I am celebrating the season in a way consistent with my deepest beliefs.
Henry Brinton is pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church in Alexandria.