Whether Christians like it or not Christmas is about more than Jesus. Jesus might have been ‘the reason for the season’ but now the season is about more than him.
There is a lot of buying. Buying presents for family and friends in preparation for the big parcel-ripping day. Buying calorie-laden food and drink for that day too. Buying gifts to thank colleagues, employees, employers, and clients at the year’s end. Buying too a little soul satisfaction by giving to a favourite charity.
Generosity is one of the great things about Christmas. The Santa myth, at its best, encourages people to think beyond their needs and themselves. It invites them to give, to share what they have, to think of others, and to try to help. When a neighbour bakes a batch of muffins and passes them over the gate with a piece of plastic holly attached, the neighbour is also passing over goodwill and helping build a street into a community. This is not to be underestimated. Any religious festival that brings people out of their self-orientated worlds into contact with their neighbours – those they know and those they don’t – is a good and sometimes life-giving thing.
At its worst the Santa myth is despoiled by consumerism, the messages that ‘love’ requires one to buy despite the cost. It’s too easy to just blame shops and advertisers for this. We all have to live with the tension of limiting our purchases to fit with our means and develop the skills to repel the false ‘gods’ of materialism.
There are however a number of people in New Zealand for whom Santa is oppressive. They don’t have the money to satiate Santa. They try to do what they can, often incurring debt. If it’s not bad enough struggling all year to try to meet normal household expenses, Santa comes along to inflict guilt, hardship and a retreat into mind-numbing substances like alcohol. Getting intoxicated at parties can sometimes be a way to escape the pressures of Christmas.
The biggest pressure for many though is not Santa but the happy family myth. There is a good reason some families only come together once or twice a year – it is hard work. There are often unresolved tensions, past grievances, and personal dislikes hidden behind the veneer of the ‘happy’ family. Everyone tries to be on their best behaviour yet sometimes, often with alcohol, the façade falters and that Christmas is forever etched in memory.
Yet for lots of others family is what is precious at Christmas time. It is the coming together of cousins and grandparents, of whanau from overseas, of new-borns and new partners. It is playing cricket in the backyard, eating till you’ll pop, and visiting the cemetery to put flowers on great-granny’s grave.
Food plays a major part in our Christmas communion. We give gifts of food. We dine with workmates as we part for the break. We offer hospitality to others, and are offered hospitality in turn. We feast with our families, and live off the leftovers for the next week. Food connects us with each other. We also try and imagine that at least on this day of the year everyone is tucking in, and feeling blessed.
The whole gift-giving industry has very tenuous Christian links. Yet the generosity shown in welcoming friends and strangers was central to Jesus. Santa is ready prey for those wanting to buy and have others spend. Yet caring for the needs of all especially the least was central to Jesus. Family togetherness is not a reality for many. Yet the health and wellbeing of our social systems has always been important to followers of Jesus. Feasting can be an occasion for calorie overload. Yet it also can be the means by which we open our tables and sometimes our hearts to others.
This Christmas whatever our faith, culture, or background lets try to celebrate the values of generosity, caring, togetherness, and hospitality. These things reflect Christianity but also transcend it, embracing a borderless spirituality.
What do you think?