Looking back, I recall it as the Righteous Whole-Wheat Christmas.
I was an idealistic college senior, eager to save the world, disdainful of the crass commercialism of popular culture in general and downright contemptuous of Christmas materialism. That fall, I resolved to embrace a simple, spiritual Christmas.
What presents I deigned to give and what decorations I chose to display would be either handmade by me or sourced from places like developing-world workers’ collectives and mom-and-pop cottage industries.
And, of course, because I was busy saving the world, I was eager to explain to everyone I knew why I was doing these things, and why most of the things other people did to observe Jesus’ birth were wrong.
Friends responded to my earnestly delivered Christmas critiques of wretched holiday excess, and to my gifts of homemade, doorstop-heavy wholegrain bread, with amused bewilderment.
My parents became convinced that my university career had turned me into a socialist — a socialist who’d forgotten how to bake anything anyone wanted to eat; who wanted to spoil everyone else’s innocent Christmas fun; who had been transformed by malevolent forces from an enthusiastic fan of all things Christmas to a preachy, scolding Christmas killjoy.
Fast-forward 30 years. I still give away baked goods at Christmas (although I think their edibility factor has ratcheted up a few notches over the decades). I still care about making thoughtful purchasing choices, instead of succumbing to the ever-earlier pre-holiday buying frenzies and societal obsession over the Next Big Thing under the tree. I still try to keep the holidays simple.
But what I’ve learned, since that Righteous Whole-Wheat Christmas, is that the story of Jesus can be just as ignored, just as diminished, in high-minded protest against commercialism as it can be in the noise and bling of the busiest shopping mall on Black Friday.
Either way, we run the risk of turning Christmas into a day about “stuff” instead of a day when we celebrate the coming of the Savior of the world.
Who, by the way, is also the Savior of the big-box-store employee juggling two or three part-time jobs to keep a roof over his family’s head; the local shop owner struggling to keep her profit margins low enough to accommodate the community but high enough to stay in business; the factory worker on the other side of the ocean with aspirations to a better life for his or her family. Jesus loves these people as much as he loves artisans in fair trade cooperatives and cottage-industry entrepreneurs and cranky, self-righteous holiday contrarians.
I still have my cranky holiday contrarian moments. But I also find myself cheered and inspired by acts of kindness and generosity around me that, no matter how modest or theologically clueless or merchandise-laden, hint at the way a life lived in wholeness, in a right relationship to God and to neighbor, could be.
That is the life Jesus said he wanted to bring us — brimful and spilling over. Glimpses of that life, during the Christmas season and all year long, are gifts from the Giver of all good things.
Ellen Polzien is a commissioned lay minister in the ELCA. She is a writer, a reader and a gardener. As she says, “I am what happens to people who major in the liberal arts.”