I know what I'll be doing on Christmas Eve. My wife, my 4-year-old daughter, my dad, my brother, and I will snowshoe out into the woods in late afternoon, ready to choose a hemlock or a balsam fir and saw it down -- I've had my eye on three or four likely candidates all year. We'll bring it home, shake off the snow, decorate it, and then head for church, where the Sunday school class I help teach will gamely perform this year's pageant. (Last year, along with the usual shepherds and wise people, it featured a lost star talking on a cell phone.) And then it's home to hang stockings, stoke the fire, and off to bed. As traditional as it gets, except that there's no sprawling pile of presents under the tree.
Several years ago, a few of us in the northern New York and Vermont conference of the United Methodist Church started a campaign for what we called "Hundred Dollar Holidays." The church leadership voted to urge parishioners not to spend more than $100 per family on presents, to rely instead on simple homemade gifts and on presents of services -- a back rub, stacking a cord of firewood. That first year I made walking sticks for everyone. Last year I made spicy chicken sausage. My mother has embraced the idea by making calendars illustrated with snapshots she's taken.
The $100 figure was a useful anchor against the constant seductions of the advertisers, a way to explain to children why they weren't getting everything on their list. So far, our daughter, Sophie, does fine at Christmas. Her stocking is exciting to her; the tree is exciting; skating on the pond is exciting. It's worth mentioning, however, that we don't have a television, so she may not understand the degree of her impoverishment. This holiday idea may sound modest. It is modest. And yet at the same time it's pretty radical. Christmas, it turns out, is a bulwark of the nation's economy. Many businesses -- bookstores, for instance, where I make my living -- do one-third of their volume in the months just before December 25th. And so it hits a nerve to question whether it all makes sense, whether we should celebrate the birth of a man who said we should give all that we have to the poor by showering each other with motorized tie racks.
It's radical for another reason, too. If you believe that our consumer addiction represents our deepest problem -- the force that keeps us from reaching out to others, from building a fair society, the force that drives so much of our environmental degradation -- then Christmas is the nadir. Sure, advertising works its powerful dark magic year-round. But on Christmas morning, with everyone piling downstairs to mounds of presents, consumption is made literally sacred. Here, under a tree with roots going far back into prehistory, here next to a crèche with a figure of the infant child of God, we press stuff on each other, stuff that becomes powerfully connected in our heads to love, to family, and even to salvation. The 12 days of Christmas -- and in many homes the eight nights of Hanukkah -- are a cram course in consumption, a kind of brainwashing.