I’ve been trying to work out how best to think about feasting, gift-giving and celebration more generally, especially at Christmas.
There were a few prompts: a Newsroom column by someone from the (Anglican) Auckland City Mission, which ran under a title suggesting that Christmas was about “food and family”. That seemed more than a little odd. And various comments from personal finance advisers counselling against heavy spending at Christmas (and even a suggestion from the government’s own financial capability/literacy body that we might exercise restraint “for the sake of planet” – all that wrapping paper, Christmas crackers, and food waste). And there was a conversation over lunch at a meeting I was at the other day with various late middle-aged (mostly) Christians, where the tone seemed to be mostly in favour of a fairly minimalist Christmas, as least as far as gift-giving goes.
Part of me is puzzled why non-Christians celebrate Christmas at all in any form. I suppose there must be elements of memories of childhood, but that only takes one so far: even when I was growing up (60s and 70s) most people in New Zealand didn’t go to Sunday School, let alone church. I can’t think of any festivals or celebrations I participate in that I don’t believe in. I can’t even begin to imagine doing so, and so I struggle to see why people would spend money – any significant amounts of money – on marking a festival that had no personal meaning to them. Perhaps you might look a litle odd to some of your friends – given the prevalence of Christmas in secular New Zealand – but surely you’d want to live consistent with your beliefs and worldview? (And yes I know some people will tell you they are really marking the solstice or some such, but we all know that for 99 per cent of them it is just a rationalisation.)
Of course, Christmas isn’t primarily about any of the stuff that costs money. It is a celebration – a wondrous, exuberant celebration – of the Incarnation: of God’s initiative towards salvation and redemption, sending Jesus (truly God, truly man). It is stunning truth, good news for all who will receive the message.
I’ve spent a couple of Christmases living overseas, single at the time, in which the church services – midnight and the following morning was pretty much all the Christmas there was. There probably were a handful of presents in the post, and perhaps Mum and Dad back in New Zealand rang during the day. But that was it. I wasn’t constrained by money, but it certainly wasn’t the glossy magazine Christmas celebrations. And did it matter? Not really.
Now I’m not recommending it as a model, in fact rather the contrary. But if circumstances mean you – as a Christian, taking Christmas seriously – have little or no spare money, the inability to spend to celebrate isn’t the end of the world. You don’t have to. Go to church (perhaps twice, preferably to a service where the organisers aren’t promising it will all over in 30 minutes so that people can get on with the “real business” of the day), go the beach, walk in the park, pick up a book, put on some music (Christmas or otherwise), watch a Christmas movie, and celebrate – individually or as family or with friends – the gift God gives us in Christ.
The same goes for many of the other big events of life. I find it bizarre that people postpone marriage until they can afford the big and expensive event. 21st birthdays, graduations, or whatever don’t need to be (financially) extravagant events.
But……which is really the point of the post ….. festivals, celebration, gift-giving – make a lot of special occasions – seems pretty deeply embedded in human culture and civilisation. Poor peasants plan carefully for periodic celebrations. And the world of the Bible seems no different in that regard. The supreme Christmas gift of course is Jesus – God himself given freely for us. And Luke records for us the visit of the wise men, bearing gifts – not cheap ones either, but gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gift-giving – generous gift-giving – seems a fitting element of our celebration of the Feast of the Incarnation.
Feasts and festivals aren’t some Christian innovation. Recall the Old Testament provisions in Deuteronomy regarding the tithe – two years out of three the proceeds were to be used to celebrate, exuberantly by the sound of it.
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.
Even for Israelite peasants, 10 per cent of annual income would make for quite some party.
We could think of Christ at the wedding feast at Cana – providing the best wine – or the costly devotion of the women in Luke 7 who break the alabaster jar of perfume and washed Jesus’ feet with some mix of tears and perfume. We can bring to mind the extravagant material celebration the father puts on when the Prodigal Son returns. And we look forward to the bridal feast of the Lamb, when scarcity and poverty are no more.
Eating and drinking in celebration, gift-giving too, are a part of human life and community, part of the way we acknowledge the significant milestones of life and faith. I’m an economist by training, and economists tend to have a problem with mutual gift-giving – talk of inefficiencies, deadweight losses etc – but few other humans do. It is one of the joys of life to be able to choose gifts for those one loves. One of the parts of being human to learn to receive such gifts graciously – grace, after all, is supremely at work in Jesus. And special foods, or drink, for celebration meals with family and/or friends, even with strangers speaks of all sorts of things: of community, of our recognition (more than just cerebrally) of special occasions. It was so in centuries past when wealth was much less abundant, and is so today Could we have cheese-on-toast for the main meal on Christmas Day? Sure, if that really is all you have. But if you choose to do nothing special when you have the ability to do otherwise, don’t you dishonour the Supreme Giver, God? Our faith and practice isn’t just a cerebral thing, it is about worship, discipleship, and celebration with all that we have and are – material, spiritual, whatever.
Can these things go wrong? Well, of course. We all know, or have heard or read of, people or families where gift-giving, or feasting, becomes a competitive act of one upmanship, or where instead of a generous gift signifying love, the gift-giving becomes a desperate attempt to prove the love by the size of the gift. All human actions, or inaction, is marred by sin – the line between good and evil runs through each human heart – but that knowledge shouldn’t be allowed to paralyse us, sacrificing the good because we can’t have the perfect.
Are there simple and unambiguous answers to these issues? Often not. Ideally I suspect we are called to celebrate as church communities at least as much as in nuclear families, and yet in a place like New Zealand – where Christmas often kicks off the summer holidays and dispersal to the beach – congregations are often scattered to the four winds. And when we do celebrate in families there is a need for sensitivity, as between families in the same congregation who have much and those who have little. But I’m not sure that is so different for festivals and celebrations than for the rest of life.
I’m somewhat lately reformed on this issue. I always enjoyed Christmas when I was growing up, even when my parents didn’t have much money: it was a real celebration, sometimes shared with those in congregation or community who didn’t have much, or have other people around. That, it seems looking back, modelled something of Christ. But between Puritan sympathies and an economics training, for a long time I tended to look slightly askance at extravagant celebration. I’d still counsel a young couple, committed to each other, to marry and have a simple, but joyous, ceremony and celebration, than to postpone indefinitely to have a fancy party. But if you can abundantly celebrate – church festivals or whatever – then do so. My old somewhat Gradgrindian attitudes diminish both a sense of human community – celebrations draw us together, bonding over (inter alia) shared memories, and diminish our ability to recognise wholeheartedly a God of abundance, a God who acts – has acted, will act – generously, without limit.
So for Christians in particular, I say embrace the Christmas celebrations next week – not just services, but the physical and material elements too. Eat and drink and give gifts, recalling as we do how God so abundantly gave, and the promise to which he calls us. Are (some) presents ill-chosen or wasted? Is the brother-in-law you never see hard to buy for? No doubt, but don’t let things like that be the enemy of giving generously, as God in Christ gives to us. Lets show the wider secular world quite how much the Incarnation means to us – not just in how we try to live day by day, but in how we celebrate.