It is common at this point in the year for the religious to beat up on secularism, commercialism, over-consumption and so on, including making uncomplimentary references to the portly gentleman in the red suit. If this has become an important part of the season for you, I aim not to disappoint, but hold that thought for a moment.
First let me suggest that those of us who are trying to prepare for Christmas as a joyful celebration of the incarnation are not the only ones who are up against it. Spare a thought even for Santa. The Santa Claus of the early- to mid-twentieth century and earlier was a kind of good-hearted moralist, who was at least interested in who was naughty and who was nice. Convention meant he was allowed to drop lumps of coal into some stockings – at least this is what I have been told, so feel free to press senior members of your families on the truth of the rumor - and economic necessity meant that even the rewards were more like sugar plums (whatever they are!) than the latest excesses of Harry Potter merchandizing lying in wait for us at Toys R Us.
Not every aspect of this tool of soft social control for the children of decades past was so edifying, it must be admitted. Yet now even Santa has been thrust a different script for the season; even he has to pretend that our children, and of course we ourselves, are all always nice, and that we not only deserve everything conceivable, but that we deserve it NOW. A story whose meaning and power, such as it was, depended on attention, readiness, a moral response, and the reality of judgment as well as that of hope, has evaporated. The story has simply been lost.
Feasts like Christmas need fasts to make any sense, just as judgment and hope need each other; and this society having lost the story, has no means to distinguish feasts from ordinary time except by superabundance. Since the privileged already live in superabundance in any case, there is a kind of crisis of festivity, overconsumption laid over customary excess, a kind of desperation to mark celebrations with still more and more of everything in a hopeless exponential expansion.
Our Christmas crisis is not, then, about Christmas – it is about the rest of the time. The loss in Western culture of spiritual disciplines such as fasting is not, I suggest, an accident, given the global reality. The gross disparities between rich and poor are a perverse parody of the rhythms of fasting and feasting, and of judgment and hope; feasting and “hope” always for some, fasting and judgment for the rest. The permanence of need for most in the world, and abundance as the norm for the few, brings with it not only the obvious suffering of the poor but a deep spiritual cost and moral damage to the privileged.
So some, especially in communities of faith, are calling us to reflect on how we celebrate Christmas, with simplicity as well as joy. There’s a lot to be said for this.
Yet it not a completely adequate response. We need to do more rather than less. The answer is not to level off celebrations to make them more like ordinary time; rather ordinary time itself must be lived differently, and we have to recover fasting as well as feasting, judgement as well as hope.
So I hope we all celebrate heartily, with whatever means are at our disposal, in the days ahead (all 12 – and it only starts on the 25th, by the way!). And I hope that afterwards we take opportunities to reflect on ordinary time, our ordinary lives, consider our patterns of consumption, and what stories of hope and judgement they tell about us, and about our world.