‘Tis the Season

24 12 2010

Watching the back and forth around Thorn Coyle’s blog post on Christmas has been mostly disappointing.  I know, it is the internet and people on the internet (myself included sometimes) tend to respond rather than read and consider.  Still.

Why the urge to respond away her uncomfortable concerns, rather than to just sit and consider?  Consideration of her post does not equate to acquiescence to it.  Especially when the post itself is itself written from a place of consideration and not demand.

Agreement on a topic like Christmas celebration, bound up as it is with so many interpersonal situations to negotiate, isn’t likely to happen.  There is nothing wrong with not agreeing.  But why not tease out some of the real things going on in her post, consider more deeply rather than recoiling?

I notice a lot of discomfort around her suggestion for religious people of all stripes to withdraw from the gift giving frenzy.  Several people call her a scrooge, some even argue that her attitude threatens the precious jobs of those involved in the retail market.

The notion that we somehow ‘owe’ it to the retail workers is, well, deeply questionable.  As Thorn observes, part of her concern with that economy is global, for the members of the retail market we don’t see.  To produce goods cheaply enough that we in the First World can buy them en masse for our Christmas season, many, many people have to work and live well beneath our quality of life. Do we buy, buy, buy and just not worry about those whose faces we don’t see?

Even if we do just care more about the retail workers we see, there are still more things to think about.  Do we follow that up by making retail work easier?  That isn’t just a matter of supporting them politically with measures to maintain a livable minimum wage (especially since we are expecting them to buy gifts for all those people around them, too).

That also entails being good customers, respectful of those we encounter while shopping.  It entails not making a mess of the stores we frequent, not being grumpy, or short, or demanding.  It entails raising our children to hold the same values.

Do we consider how we can spend our Christmas money in ways that will most benefit those retail workers closest to us?  Do we consider whether we purchase from local business (where money spent will most likely make its way back to other retail workers in the community)?  In other words, do we think about actual retail workers or just some abstract retail worker we never really address as a person.

Beneath and alongside all of this, there is still a more persistent question, which is much harder to deal with.  Is there a way of just living differently that allows us to transform more deeply the basic ways we have for supporting each other as people, not just as workers?  I surely don’t have a ready answer to that, but thinking about ways that might be possible seems worthwhile.  Sometimes, those changes aren’t nearly as drastic as we fearfully or excitedly imagine them to be.

Worth noting, too, is that it wasn’t the case that Thorn just gave her sister, as a few people suggested, “what she thought her sister should want” instead of “what she actually wanted.”  She was financially unable to give her sister what she wanted.  Should she find someway to compromise her financial well-being to give her sister what she actually wants?

More than we would like to admit, that is what many people feel compelled to do at Christmas time.  When that holiday is ostensibly religious, there is something deeply flawed going on.  Religion of any stripe should not be about what some other individual wants, especially not over and against what we need.  It should be about the spiritual world in which both the giver and recipient are embedded.

Even those religious systems that mostly center around the ancestors and focus upon the family and home, are not well-served by this.  A religious focus on the family should focus on the family, not on the individual wants of its members.  It should affirm individuals as members of the family, not as individuals in a system that reduces them to their economic value as purchasers and producers.

Think about traditional modes of gift giving.  They focus first and foremost on affirming the social position of the recipient, not on affirming their whims.  You give less to the person, then, and more to the network.  Those gifts, too, are often going to be redistributed to others in their life, based on similar principles.  In these traditional situations, gifts are like dyes in the social blood, they light up the complex networks that keep family alive.

For those whose religious commitments extend beyond the family, this sort of consumerism is downright toxic.  Where is the sacrifice made to the divine?  Where is the time spent in prayer rather than moving through shopping malls?  Why buy expensive trinkets for the sake of mere pleasure when money and time could be spent toward communal celebrations, be they for family or other spiritual communities?

I know, I am multiplying questions rather than giving answers.  I think that is for the best, though, because there isn’t any one set of answers to these questions.  There are many answers, for the many of us and the many situations in which we find ourselves.

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25 12 2010



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