Rethinking Consumerism at Christmas

Joanne is a shop owner. Her small store is filled with hand-crafted decorations and gifts that bring beauty and lift the spirit. People love entering her shop, and for the last eight weeks of the year, there is a palpable buzz in her store as festive shoppers mine for holiday treasures, with Christmas carols playing in the background. This is a crucial time for Joanne’s business and livelihood — almost 50 percent of her annual income is generated in November and December. On the first Sunday of Advent, Joanne attended church and heard her pastor preach about the toxic consumer culture of Christmas. He said:

The hustle and bustle and shopping of Christmas is killing us. We are wasting money on things we don’t need. We are tired and exhausted. We have no joy, and we hate having to buy lists of worthless gifts for others. We fill our schedules with holiday parties that have nothing to do with Christ, and all the while we forget the reason for the season. We may enjoy this time of year, but God is not pleased — it bears no resemblance to the first Christmas and brings us no remembrance of his Son. It’s time we all made a big change. Stop worshipping stuff. Start worshipping Christ.

Joanne listened closely. She felt conflicted, and a little bit ashamed.

On the one hand, she agreed with her pastor — the consumer emphasis at Christmas seemed to crowd out Christ. On the other hand, this busy time of year enabled her to pay her workers, survive through the slow season of January through March, and pay the bills for her household. She wouldn’t make it as a shop owner if it weren’t for the heightened foot traffic and purchases during the Christmas season. She felt confused. She wanted to be faithful to Jesus. She also needed what her business provided during this season. And though she might not admit it to her pastor, she actually enjoyed running the shop and seeing how the products she sold brought joy to others.

What should she do?

Remember the people in your pews

Most churches have dozens of Joanne’s. Everyday workers whose livelihood is either dependent on a strong holiday shopping season, or who personally benefit from the work that comes in December.

  • A small business caterer might experience a 40 percent bump in pay attending to numerous holiday celebrations.
  • Musicians book extra gigs as people seek out music for Christmas parties.
  • People pick up extra shifts and extra hours as businesses ramp up their workforce. For a minimum wage worker, the increased opportunity might be vital to catch up on overdue bills.

How does the thoughtful pastor shepherd people who experience these conflicting realities? Does worshipping the Christ of Christmas necessarily conflict with the proliferation of shopping and festivities during the holiday season?

Four themes can guide the way we think about shepherding our congregations during the busy Christmas seasons.

The biblical side of big celebrations

First, we must answer the question of whether spending and celebrations are antithetical to a vibrant faith in God, and whether Christmas in particular is worthy of celebration. Admittedly, there is little biblical guidance on how (or whether) we should celebrate Christmas. But celebration regularly shows up on the pages of the Bible, from God rejoicing in his creation (Gen 1-2), to the various feasts he commanded for his people Israel (Lev 23), to sending angels to announce his birth (Luke 2), to the consummation of all things, in which God is planning not a church service, but a giant wedding banquet (Rev 19).

One particular biblical example of celebration is noteworthy: In Deuteronomy 14:22-29, the Israelites were commanded to bring a tenth of their grains and fruits (harvest) to the temple each year, turn it in for money, and to spend the money on a big celebration incorporating their favorite foods and drinks. “Spend the money for whatever you desire — oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household” (Deut 14:26).

This celebration also included sharing with the Levites and the poor every third year. On the surface, then, God is not opposed to his people throwing large celebrations for the purpose of rejoicing and celebrating all that he has provided. Consider what a party might look like that included 10 percent of your income. Would you scoff at the indecency?

God’s people were commanded to celebrate in this way, as a joyful sacrifice of thanksgiving, recognizing he had provided it all, and to share with the needy. If we condemn spending during the season of Christ’s birth, we are not necessarily being biblical. Congregation members who have shops or businesses that serve these ends should not be shamed. If eating and drinking can be done to the glory and in the image of God, so can spending and celebrating.

Be kind

There is no doubt that the Christmas shopping season is often filled with hustle and bustle. Disgust with long shopping lines, bad traffic, and pressure in gift-buying can lead people to act badly. Workers in stores and restaurants often bear the brunt of our bad behavior. How might the church spark the imagination of people to show grace, kindness, and generosity to workers? A warm smile, a kind word, and an outsized tip are tangible expressions of Christ-like love.

Spend with wisdom

While spending may not spell complicity with a consumeristic culture, pastors can encourage their congregations toward thoughtful buying choices. Every purchase we make is a vote. We not only buy products at a price, we also support businesses. How might people consider who they want to support in their buying? A small business caterer? A local shop owner? A small group of musicians? An honorable company who is offering quality products at a fair price, driving value for customers, employees, community, and their supply chain? Pastors can remind their congregation to be intentional about spending. Of course, all this is to be done in the context of a pre-planned budget, avoiding debt.

Infuse traditions with spiritual meaning

Amidst the busyness of the season that sometimes feels thrust upon us, we are also called to steward our time and our affections. Pastors can encourage their people to have intentional conversations with their families and loved ones. What does the holiday schedule look like? Have they planned adequate time to rest and reflect on the Christ of Christmas? What experiences or practices warm our hearts to Christ’s love and the awe and wonder of the incarnation? Fortunately, there are fantastic tools for restful reflection during the advent season.

The Christmas season is filled with opportunities to worship king Jesus. It need not come at the expense of those who experience an economic bump as people, Christians or not, commemorate the year with celebrations, gift-giving, and festivity. Our task, as the people of God, is to choose to enact these rituals with spiritual meaning, growing in our affection for God and others.

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