Unplugging the Christmas Machine
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, NOvember 26, 2006
Remember Yule by Ogden Nash
I guess I am just an old fogey.
I guess I am headed for the last round-up, so come along little dogey.
I can remember when winter was wintery & summer was estival;
I can even remember when Christmas was family festival.
Yes. I can remember when Christmas was an occasion for fireside rejoicing and general goodwill.
And now it is just the day that it’s only X shopping days until.
I can remember when we knew Christmas was coming without being
reminded by the sponsor
and the announcer.
What, five times a week at 8:15 p.m., do the herald angels sing?
That a small deposit now will buy you an option on a genuine diamond ring.
What is the message we receive with Good King Wenceslaus?
That if we rush to the corner of Ninth & Main we can get that pink mink housecoat very inexpenceslaus.
I know what came upon the midnight clear to our backward parents, but what comes to us?
A choir imploring us to Come all ye faithful and steal a 1939 convertible at psychoneurotic prices from Grinning Gus.
Christmas is a sitting duck for sponsors, it’s so commercial,
And yet so noncontroversial.
Well, you reverent sponsors redolent of frankincense and myrrh, come
smear me with bear-grease & call me an un-American hellion,
This is my declaration of independence and rebellion.
This year I’m going to disconnect everything electrical in the house
and spend the Christmas season like Tiny Tim and Mr Pickwick.
Why must Christmas always make us so sickwick?
“Unplugging the Christmas Machine” by Rev. Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz
As we were singing last Sunday, it may be a gift to be simple. But it’s not a gift we can buy at Wal-Mart, or even at Macy’s. It’s not easy in this accumulative culture of ours to live a simple life. The fact of the matter is that United States, with five percent of the world’s population, consumes 40% of the world’s resources-- and that’s not just a statistic. It is, rather, a mentality that’s carved more deeply into most of our beings than we’d like to admit. Speaking about “unplugging the Christmas machine” is to make a profoundly counter-cultural declaration. It’s certainly easier to declare it than to do it. We are taught the ways of excess, of waste, of wanting it all and having it all, almost as our American birthright.
At no time of the year, of course, does this need to “simplify, simplify” cry out to us more urgently than in this holiday season. About sixty years ago, Ogden Nash was fed up with what Christmas had become: “Why must Christmas make us sickwick?” he mused. Twenty five years after that, Charlie Brown was still moaning about how Christmas had become so commercial. And about twenty years after that, way back in 1982, Jo Robinson and Jean Staeheli published the first edition of their book, Unplug the Christmas Machine, with its appeal to us to simplify our winter celebrating, and “put love and joy back into the holiday season”.
But here we are, in 2006 already, and have things changed to any noticeable degree? I don’t think so—at least not for the better. At least judging from all the hoopla about this weekend’s “kickoff” of the holiday buying season, and outlet malls opening at midnight on (technically) the “day after” Thanksgiving; with near riots at Coach Outlets from coast to coast (you would think that people who could afford to buy Coach handbags would have better manners than that); not to mention all the pushing and shoving among people standing in line hoping for a chance to buy that new and coveted Play Station 3.
Ellen Goodman once wrote a column about the mountains of catalogues that weigh-down her postal carrier every year around this time. “Who cannot marvel,” she writes, “at a culture that promotes an iron as a Christmas present, or sells a $275 machine to vacuum seal leftovers, or covers the whole country in Polartec?” Seventeen billion catalogues are sent out each year, Goodman goes on. That amounts to 3.3 million tons of paper. How many trees does it take to make 3.3 million tons? How much busy-ness does it represent? How much needless, useless sound and fury? How deeply does it represent the needless complications we pile upon our lives?
I don’t know about you, but whenever I read How the Grinch Stole Christmas, I usually find myself rooting for the Grinch—and I’m not really a mean-spirited sort of guy, at least I don’t think I am, and there is so much about Christmas that I love, and that appeals to my sense of awe and wonder even more as I get older.
But, you see, those people in Whoville are just so frenetic-- so busy, busy, busy. They’re just so compulsive and driven about how they celebrate Christmas:
Maybe the Grinch thinks he’s doing them a favor by stealing Christmas. Maybe he figures he’s unplugging their Christmas machine once and for all!
Doesn’t it seem to you that those people in Whoville seem an awful lot like us? Or maybe, that we’ve become an awful lot like them, more and more with each passing year, it seems. So it is that that sometimes, like the Grinch, we look out at the Christmas madness, and we say: Enough! Enough noise! Enough crowds! Even food (even)! Enough muzak!”
But, of course, doing away with the excesses of Christmas doesn’t do away with the hunger in our souls that makes us yearn for holidays and holy days like these. “What do you want for Christmas?” Santa asks all the little girls and boys that come to see him—usually at the mall-- oftentimes with their lists all neatly drawn up. But in their book, Ms. Robinson and Ms. Staeheli came to the conclusion that there are four things that our children really want at Christmastime:
a relaxed and loving time with family;
realistic expectations about gifts;
an evenly-paced holiday season;
reliable family traditions.
No mention there of a Play Station 3—or even of a pony or a bike, for the more traditionalist among us. Indeed, don’t those four things sound like things that any of us might want, at Christmas or anytime?
But instead, we have replaced these genuine longings of the human heart with the whirring and blaring of the Christmas machine. It wasn’t always thus. Indeed, did you know that it was illegal to celebrate Christmas in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts between 1659 and 1881? The Puritans outlawed Christmas because they were suspicious of its pagan roots, and shocked at the “licentiousness” and “hooliganism” it engendered. Cotton Mather derided Christmas as a time for “reveling, dicing, carding, masking, and all licentious liberty.” Gifts had to be exchanged in secret; public singing of carols was forbidden; all businesses remained open under penalty of law. Time off from work was allowed only to attend church (now, that actually was a pretty good idea I think—only kidding!).
Back in merry old England, of course, the attitude toward Christmas was more tolerant and accepting There, Christmas was a time of feasting, visiting friends and families, and dancing and games at home—a time, as Scrooge’s nephew described it, “when men and women… open their shut-up hearts freely.” Gifts were small—a bit of candy, a piece of fruit, a little toy—and were reserved for the youngest children.
In America in the 19th century, this more secularized view of Christmas eventually gained ascendancy over the severe non-holiday of the Puritans, even here in the Puritan stronghold of Massachusetts. Sometimes, too, Christmas was used as a tool for teaching selfishness and generosity to children, and for caring for those less fortunate, It was a chance to reach out, and do a “little more” for others. Remember the opening scene of Louise May Alcott’s Little Women where the four March girls voluntarily decide to give their Christmas presents to the poor family next door.
The commercialized American Christmas as we know really came to birth in the days following the First World War. Merchants wanted to stimulate the post-war economy, which threatened to slide into a recession once the war was over. Aided by the great new science of “modern advertising”, businesses started placing ads earlier (a full month before Christmas—can you imagine that!) and launching their pitches more aggressively. No longer content merely to describe the worthiness of their goods, retailers started launching a full assault on the psyche of their shoppers. An ad appearing in the New York Times in December of 1919 extolled readers: “Don’t give your family and friends frivolous gifts that are sure to disappoint, buy them worthy gifts that will let them know how much you care.” “How much you care”—we can probably still find that verbiage in today’s New York Times or Boston Globe, as well.
So, the Christmas machine was born. But why does it continue to hold such power over us? Because, as the authors of Unplugging the Christmas Machine point out:
It’s when the Grinch steals the baubles and trappings of Christmas that the people in Whoville learn the holiday’s real message. They discover what they’ve really wanted for Christmas, all along:
You’re darn right it does, Grinch. It means a whole lot more deep inside-- and it means doing a whole lot less out on the surface of things.
Look at the great religious holidays we celebrate with our brothers and sisters around the world at this time of year: Hanukkah celebrates the miracles that can occur for people who have so little oil left in their flasks-- who have little but a deep abiding faith and a love of freedom. Solstice celebrates the return of light in the coldest, emptiest, most barren time of the year. Christmas celebrates the birth of a baby who gave his life so that the poor could find comfort, the empty could be filled, and the prisoner within each of us freed. The Islamic observance of Ramadan, too, calls upon Muslims to discipline their appetites, simplify their lives, and rely upon God alone.
At their heart, of course, none of these holidays carries the central message of buy-- give-- get-- more, more, more.
And they aren’t about perfection, either. None of these holidays has a sign on it that says “Saints only” or “Imperfect people need not apply.”
Martha Stewart wasn’t at the first Christmas, and it’s a good thing. If she had been, the shepherds would have been sent home packing, and the Wise Men would have taken one look at her and would have said, “Forget about it! We could never compete with her!” (And could you imagine her preparing the sacred oil for the rededication of the Temple at the first Hanukkah? The menorah would have to have fifty candles to burn long enough for Martha to be ready with the new oil!)
Christmas is about simplicity, and not complexity. It’s about God working miracles right here, in this down-to-earth, imperfect world of ours-- because that’s where they’re going to have to be worked if they’re going to do any good. The spiritual search (our day in/ day out journeys to Bethlehem, which we take every waking moments of our lives) is about simplifying our lives enough and not being waylaid by the judgmental stairs of others; not listening to the shushing of those who don’t want to hear what we have to say; not being swayed by particular social conventions of what’s “beautiful” or “elegant” or true or good. It’s about simplifying life enough to be able to pay attention to and listen for and glimpse those hints of holiness, those intimations of the divine, which are there, ours for the taking, constantly, if we allow them to grace our lives. It’s all about remembering that angels (even gods) don’t always look like they do in books, or on television. Sometimes, they look like little children, bringing us breakfast in bed. Sometimes, they look like an old man on a park bench, feeding the pigeons. Sometimes, our Christmas angels can even look an awful lot like the people all around us.
Of course, all this is easier said than done. We are not saints, any of us. We won’t be able to resist all those social and familial and personal pressures to do more, more, more-- especially at this busy time of year, when we so often find ourselves tired and weary, and our resistance is at its lowest.
But we don’t have to change everything, all at once. We don’t have to apply a Purtianical sort of perfectionism to changing our Christmas habits, either, and take that up as a merciless, joyless crusade.
Instead, we can start gradually, simply, right where we are, to disengage from the Christmas machine. Give yourself a present, each of you, and over the next few weeks: simplify just one thing about how you celebrate the holidays-- one little thing. In some small way, try to let go of something unimportant, and draw a little closer to what Christmas really means. Feel yourself doing it-- and then do it again. Feel the circle of change moving and turning... again... and again... and again...
Each one of you, give yourself some small, simple, imperfect gift of the simplicity-- the simple love; the simple joy-- that is at the heart of this blessed season.
When these fires burn in our souls, then this Christmas Pledge can be written truly in the depths of our beings: