How to save Advent

In our family, there is an unofficial contest to see when the first Christmas displays are up, when the first Christmas carol is heard, when the first Christmas advertisements are on television. If Advent is when Christians start readying themselves for Christmas, then Halloween is becoming the first day of secular advent.

It was not even Thanksgiving when the first radio station in our town began playing Christmas carols. Northern Indiana actually had some nice, warm weather in November, and we were listening to Christmas carols. It felt positively Floridian.

I’m a curmudgeon on the subject of the Christmas season, and the reason I rant about it is that I can feel myself succumbing, every year, to the same temptations. The shopping, the cards, the lists, the Christmas letter, the pressure: Every year I get mugged again by my own expectations and the expectations of the culture around me.

This is a particularly ironic Christmas in a particularly ironic year. In 2008 the markets crashed and the 401(k)s crashed and the housing bubble burst and society was beating its breast and swearing that it was done with its decade of irrational exuberance. People promised to start saving and stop spending what they didn’t have.

But the pressure to get consumers to keep spending and, presumably, keep digging themselves deeper and deeper into debt began almost immediately. After all, if we are a nation dependent on consumerism; not consuming is not only unpatriotic but dangerous.

Which brings us to Advent 2009 and the constant news stories about whether shopping is up or down, whether we are going to be cheapskates and bring down the free world or borrow our way to consumer bliss. It is no wonder we can’t do a thing about our national debt. We can’t get our act together when it comes to personal debt.

Last year I found a fascinating video posted on YouTube. It was called “The Advent Conspiracy.” It is a grassroots movement that was apparently started by a few Christian churches to bring some sanity back to the season. It hopes to bring more worship and less consumerism to Christmas, to “give presence.” Its four principles are “Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More and Love All.”

The movement is a small effort to help us get big priorities straight. It urges us to worry less about price tags and obligations and focus more on what Christmas should be all about.

Another video I saw on YouTube last year, called “Enter the Story,” talks about how much money is spent on Christmas ($450 billion) in the United States and how much money it would take to provide clean drinking water for the poor of the world ($10 billion). I don’t know if that number is accurate, but you get a sense of the scale of consumption we are engaged in, and how a fraction of that money could be put to better use.

I’m not sure a video changes lives. Perhaps the best it can do is to confirm our instincts. Advertising creates a nostalgic image of people made happy by receiving diamond rings and new clothes and kitchen appliances and flat-screen televisions. And we think we would be happy receiving those things too, until we remember all those previous gifts in previous years (First test: Can you even remember them?) and how few of them did much of anything for us at all. And then try to remember that special occasion when you did something special for someone, or someone did something special for you, and how easy it is to remember that.

Give presence. It’s a good slogan. Living it is the Christmas challenge. I encourage you to look up and see if you can find the inspiration to do something different this year.

Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.