Monday, December 12, 2005

Pope says materialism pollutes Christmas spirit

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict warned on Sunday against rampant materialism which he said was polluting the spirit of Christmas...

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No kidding!

This is one reason why I love this pope. He's not afraid to just tell it like it is. For such a long time I actually dreaded the holidays, and in some ways I still do. They've always left me feeling tired and drained. Stress levels seem to go through the roof this time of year. Why is that? I was talking with an older gentleman the other day on this very topic. He was a self described scrooge. "Bah humbug!" he muttered in a half-joking, half-serious way. I stopped and thought about it for a few seconds and said: "You know I agree with you to a certain degree, but I don't hate Christmas. I just hate what they've done to it." When I say "they" I mean retailers. The older gentleman's eyes lit up like he knew exactly what I was talking about, and he snapped his fingers. "That's it!" he said. "You've nailed it."

The commercialization of Christmas has always been a problem, but in the early 20th century it rose to new levels unprecedented in history. The once beautiful holiday of evergreen and candlelight has been transformed into the commercial extravaganza of inflatable Santa Claus and plastic reindeer. The once pleasant custom of exchanging small gifts has morphed into the spoiling of young children with budget-busting toy binges. A holiday season that used to last a whole month, has now been truncated to just 25 days. While the true meaning of Christmas (the birth of Christ) has been relegated to secondary status, trumped by the fabled tale of a jolly old elf and his eight flying reindeer. Er, excuse me, I mean nine flying reindeer. We can't forget Rudolph and his glowing red nose. Christmas at my parents' house has become the epitome of this. Practically the whole month of December is spent trying to get everything ready for this one special night -- Christmas Eve. As guests arrive, the presents under the tree pile up one by one, until there is barely enough room to walk around it. The whole evening is spent in anticipation as the nieces, nephews and grandchildren stuff dinner down their throats as fast as they can so they can hurry up and get back to the tree. The adults spend the second half of their dinner subjected to the whining of their children coming from the living room -- "Awh! Come on everybody. Can't you eat any faster?" Then, once everyone is done with dinner, and all are seated around the tree, a site unlike any other is witnessed. The children are unleashed! Like ravenous animals they leap toward the tree, each turning over boxes, and pushing the other out of the way, until they find a package marked for them. Then the shrill sound of paper ripping fills the room. Amidst all this ruckus an adult voice can occasionally be heard crying: "Wait! Who was that from?" Soon the living room is filled ankle deep in torn paper, and the kids go crazy with their new toys. Sometimes a "thank you" can be heard, sometime not. The ritual will be repeated one more time the next day in their own homes, and then it will be over. The radio stations will stop playing Christmas music. Retail stores will take down their Christmas displays. The decorations on the streets are removed, and the beautiful lights that filled our neighborhoods go off. Christmas is over, and we can all finally breath a sigh of relief.

Somehow, in the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season, we seem to forget the whole point. We hear the occasional mantra of "keep Christ in Christmas," but it's kind of hard to do that when you're having to navigate traffic while trying to get to the next shopping center. What is gift giving good for when the whole reason for giving is a fat elf in a red suit? We can fool ourselves and say there's more to it than that, but when you really stop and think about it, that isn't the message our kids are getting. To them; it's all about the toys, and the man of the hour is Santa Claus, not Jesus Christ. Retailers get the picture all too well. It's the most profitable time of the year. Their Christmas decorations aren't designed to make the neighborhood beautiful. They're designed to get you into their stores. Those who have the most elaborate Christmas displays can look forward to the most business, and that's what they're really after. To the children it's all about toys, but to the retailers, it's all about money. That's the spirit of Christmas folks. It's also the reason why so many retailers have tried to take the word "Christmas" out of Christmas. It's too sectarian, so they think, and they believe they can get even more business with the generic greeting of "Happy Holidays!" It seems the only people still fooled are the parents, who close their eyes, and keep telling themselves there's a deeper meaning. How many people really think about it though. I once randomly stopped a lady in a department store and asked her. (Don't ask me why I do these things, I'm just funny that way.) With a package of lights in hand, and plastic reindeer under her arm, she was yelling at her kids to hurry up. "We have to get these things up before it's too late!" Her strong accent gave her away. This was all somewhat new to her. I asked; "Hey, do you know what Christmas is all about?" She nodded her head quite firmly and replied; "Oh yes, I know all about it. My kids heard about it at school, and I asked my neighbors. We need to get these lights up quickly so Santa Clause will come to our house." Then she lowered her voice and whispered: "But I know he's not real. It's just to get the kids to be good. Then we'll reward them with their gifts. It's a great holiday. For three weeks my kids have behaved like little angels." "Funny you should say that," I responded, "because it was 2,000 years ago real angels announced the birth of Christ on Christmas Day." Suddenly she looked confused. She repeated back to me; "birth of Christ?" I could tell she wanted to ask me about it, but was quickly distracted by her kids waiting to check out at the cash register. She apologized for leaving so quickly and then scurried off. I wonder if she ever figured out what I was talking about.

C.S. Lewis wrote a short article about the commercialization of Christmas in England during the early 1950s. Europe was much more secularized than America, and so the story goes that he was riding in a bus when the two women seated in front of him were commenting on all of the beautiful Christmas decorations on the city streets. As they rounded a corner, they came upon a church, and there in front was a large nativity scene. Upon seeing it, the one lady turned to the other and said: "Oh gawd! Do they have to bring religion into everything!"

I shared some of these stories with the old man, the self-described scrooge, I was talking to the other day. I told him what I've done to remedy this situation in my own home, which is a work in progress. For the last five years or so I've resolved to do everything I can to celebrate Christmas like they did one-hundred years ago. The inflatable Santa and plastic reindeer are gone. What has replaced them is a glowing nativity scene, and I hope to replace it someday with a nice wooden one and small spotlights. The Christmas lights have come off the house, and have been placed in small evergreens planted in our front yard. The interior of my house is always dimly lit with candlelight, and decorated with evergreens. The Christmas tree is always lit with tiny white lights, creating a soft glow in the corner of the living room. The Advent wreath enjoys a prominent location. Each Sunday leading up to Christmas is marked with the lighting of a new candle, which we continue to light every night, until the next Sunday. The Christmas music played in our home is almost always classical. The sound of boys' choirs and instrumentals fill our house. In the days leading up to Christmas, and after, sacred scripture is read after dinner. Texts are selected based on their relevance to the season. When Christmas comes, we continue to celebrate it all the way through to January 1st. Because of the way commercialism has ruined Christmas, most Americans don't even know that Christmas is supposed to be a week long holiday, from Christmas Eve to New Years Day, not just one day (December 25th). So we stretch it out. The Christmas decorations stay up, and eight white candles are placed among the pieces of a beautiful nativity scene. Starting on Christmas Eve, one candle is lit for every night of the Christmas Octave until New Year's Eve. During that eight day period, we have guests over for dinner, attend mass regularly, and listen to Christmas music in the car and at home. We've tried to keep the gift giving down to a minimum. Each child gets one toy from each parent and relative, and most importantly, we tell them about the REAL Santa Clause -- who was the medieval St. Nicholas. We don't deprive our children of pictures with Santa or the Christmas specials that come on television. But at the same time, we let them know that the Santa Clause they see on television and in department stores is just for fun. There are no flying reindeer or toy-making elves, and Santa doesn't leave presents under our tree. Jesus is the reason for our season, and we make sure our kids know that. For us, Christmas is a truly CHRISTIAN holiday, and we try to make sure it stays that way. Each year I try to make it a little more authentic, and a little less plastic. Of course, this is all still a work in progress, and each year, I start to love Christmas just a little more.