“It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes, or bags! … then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store.
“Maybe Christmas… perhaps… means a little bit more.”
Each year, during this four-week season of Advent, those of us who attend church – as well as those of us who watch the classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas cartoon – are reminded of some very counter-cultural truths: that “maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store – and that maybe, Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”
Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store? You’d have trouble believing it, subjected to as much advertising as we are: annually, millions of dollars are spent to convince us of several disheartening lies:
• That this is the “shopping season;”
• That you can purchase affection;
• That your possessions (or lack thereof) give your life value.
It’s common to lament that most retailers don’t even wait for Halloween any more before they put the pre-Christmas shopping juggernaut into motion. So by this time – the first of December – we’ve already been bombarded for a full month with our culture’s expectation that if we aren’t spending money, we aren’t preparing properly for Christmas.
Worse, the most effective advertising deliberately exploits our “desire to be desired” (think jewelry commercials – the radiant, sensual glow of the one receiving a diamond). It exploits our legitimate eagerness to please those we love (thus the images on television of the joyful dance on Christmas morning of children who have just opened the The Perfect Present.)
Here’s the message of the advertising industry: “if you just spend more – and by the way, books and clothes no longer suffice, you must think diamonds or a luxury automobile with a red bow on it – then you will bring joy and happiness to those you love.” Just underneath this message is another message: “If you can just find The Perfect Present on Christmas morning, it will make up for the other 364 days of your being an unavailable, emotionally detached person – but in order to pull this off, you really must splurge.” (And “splurge” here means “spend even more money than you think wise.”)
By contrast, during this season of Advent, the church (and Grinch) sends a different story. An encouraging story:
• That this is not the “shopping season,” but a season of pregnancy – of expectation, anticipation, and wonder over what new thing God is going to birth;
• That while you cannot purchase affection, you can give it, because three of the things children (and adults) really want for Christmas – relaxed and loving time with family, an evenly paced holiday season, and reliable family traditions – are not found in a store, but are gifts of time and focused attention;
• That it’s not your possessions or lack thereof that define you, but the fact that you are created in the very image and likeness of God; that you are a beloved child of God, uniquely gifted, and valued for being you.
Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more? Yes, Christmas means “a little bit more” than shopping, decorating, and gift-giving. Even if you’re not a member of a church that tells you that, it’s important to hear.
It’s important to hear because year round, our culture – our North American, 2016 culture – tries to convince you of a series of demoralizing lies:
• That you are what you do;
• That you are alone; and
• our differences are greater than what we have in common.
And so the “little bit more” which the Advent and Christmas season seek to remind of you are these essential truths:
• That you do what you do, but you are someone far more than that: far more mysterious, far more interesting, far more complex;
• That you were made for community, and that there is a community seeking you – needing you, wanting you;
• That as long as we focus on things like the value of family, friendships, and faith, we have far more in common than the media – fed by exploitative political and religious leaders – would have us believe.
The quieter voices from churches (and the Grinch) may be voices crying in a loud wilderness of advertising, but that does not diminish the truth of what they are saying:
Christmas – as long as it’s celebrated in its historic, pre-advertising industry spirit – can come without ribbons; it can come without tags; it can come with a minimal amount of packages, boxes, or bags.
This season of Advent, the church invites you to think of something you had thought of before, but might be in danger of forgetting: that Christmas doesn’t come from a store.
That maybe Christmas…perhaps… means a little bit more.
John Ohmer is the rector of the Falls Church Episcopal.