Christmas And Consumer Culture In Our Present Gilded Age

the people at UP TV asked a bunch of poor kids what they wanted for Christmas. The answers were basically the things most kids, poor or rich, probably want: xBox, Barbie Dream House, computer. Then they were asked what they thought their parents wanted for Christmas. Guesses included a ring, a television, a watch. Thus far this is boring and we are even bored writing it. But then the bastards at UPTV trotted out each kid’s dream gift. And their dream gift for their parents. You know where this is going, don’t you? And then they were told they could only pick one. . . .

What in the love of all that is Christmas Spirit Holy is this shit?? Oh, to feel the “pride” of being poor enough that you have to choose between you getting a gift or your parent getting a gift. Oh, to feel the joy of “sacrifice” in a Christmas season where you’re from a family poor enough that many of these kids don’t actually have Christmas trees to put their nonexistent gifts under. Oh, to get to be a puppet of some marketing shill at a tenth-rate television network that wanted to prove some heartwarming point about the nobility of the poor. It’s a Christmas miracle!

The kids likely did learn one valuable Christmas lesson from all this, which is that if you are poor in America you are beholden to craven assholes and wannabe do-gooders like these people and we wouldn’t blame you one bit if you want to just burn it all down. – Snipy – “Here Is Your Heartwarming Christmas Tale Of Awful People Manipulating Poor Children”, Wonkette, December 22, 2015

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Despite our media presentations to the contrary, millions of children will never experience a Christmas like this.

Despite our media presentations to the contrary, millions of children will never experience a Christmas like this.

The year or two after my Dad retired as a teacher, he did substitute teaching at a neighboring school district. At Christmas time, 1988, he was working at an elementary school. The lesson plan he worked with over the couple days was simple enough: the kids had to write a few paragraphs about what they wanted for Christmas. How A Christmas Story of the teacher!

At the end of the day, driving Dad back home, he looked very serious. I asked him if something was wrong. He told me about the assignment and one of the little themes he had to read and grade. One child, now grown and probably a parent, had written that he or she (I can’t remember) wanted a Christmas tree and lights and Mom and Dad not to fight and something in his or her stocking. This was the year, I think, of one of those mad-rush children’s plushes, Tickle-Me Elmo or some such nonsense. Most of the kids has said that’s what they wanted. Dad was visibly upset telling me about this. It was clear he wanted to do something for this young child but knew he couldn’t. It’s haunted me to this day.

The marvelously crass and profane Wonkette tells us the tale of one attempt to address poverty at Christmas. As you can read above, there’s nothing like forcing children who live in poverty to choose between a present for themselves and a present for their parents. I’m thinking even Ebeneezer Scrooge would call out, “Here here! Stop this!” were he around.

We in the Christian churches spend quite a bit of time each year reminding people that Christmas isn’t about presents. And then we all go about our merry way buying gifts, attending parties, and carrying on on social media about food and how big our trees are and the lights on the houses in the neighborhood, as if not a word was spoken. And please understand I am most definitely implicating myself in all this. Our many lessons about Christmas in our consumer culture bear all the hallmarks of noblesse oblige, telling others how to order their lives at the holidays while going about our merry way as if we have said nothing.

Oh, but our Angel Trees! Our Toys For Tot drives! Winter coats and hats and gloves and on and on that we collect, we distribute, then laud ourselves with news stories in local and denominational papers! Look at us being Christians at Christmas!

Why in the world would anyone listen to a church captured by our consumer culture? What lesson about this event do we have to offer a world that is long past caring about self-sacrifice, especially when we in our churches – which always have a “Hanging Of The Greens” service in which we celebrate our pretty our sanctuaries are decorated; filled with middle-class folks in happy moods at this happy time of year – have no idea about the millions who walk unseen and unheard, treated as recipients of our largess rather than human beings trapped in cycles of poverty made worse by our ignorance of our role in it all.

What happened on UP TV is no different from those toy drives, angel trees, hat and coat drives, and all the other Christmas season “mission projects” that only serve to insulate most of us from the reality of socioeconomic hardship at Christmas. We do our part without it ever hurting our bank accounts or credit ratings; what more should we do?

Perhaps – and I’m just thinking out loud here – perhaps we should stop preaching about “light” and baby Jesus all cute and cuddly. Maybe, just maybe, we should remember that the Incarnation is the event of the Day: God made human and living among us. As the Fourth Gospel says very clearly, he came to his own and his own did not receive him. Imagine. God gave us a gift and we didn’t receive it because we were too busy baking cookies for the office party or shopping for that perfect bottle of wine for the boss or waiting in line at some store for some present that will spend the bulk of its material life stashed in a closet, wind up on a Thrift Store shelf, then rot in a landfill.

Were we in the churches really serious about Christmas, perhaps like Ebeneezer Scrooge at the end of the story we would keep Christmas all year. We would live with the faith of the Incarnation, receive the gift on offer in the Incarnation of the Son of God, and offer it to others all year long in all sorts of ways. We would do more than whine about consumerism but actively subvert it through our local and national church investment portfolios. We would do more than carry on about poverty but, along with seeking to alleviate its worst effects, also work to end it through systemic change. We might also spend time listening to the stories of poor children who only want a tree and some lights at Christmas, rather than tell them what they can and can’t do with the only chance they may have in their young lives to choose a present.

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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.

Howdy! Thanks for reading. Really. Be nice and remember - I'm like Roz from Monster's Inc. I'm always watching.

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