One benefit of taking a vow of poverty is that it greatly simplifies Christmas shopping. I realized this during my first year as a Jesuit novice, when our monthly stipend (or personalia, in Jesuit lingo) was set at $35. That year my family and friends, who had long been used to receiving numerous gifts in oversized boxes from Tiffany’s, Lord & Taylor’s and Nieman-Marcus, each received instead one box from Filene’s Basementand a small box at that. Fortunately, both family and friends grasped my situation and accepted their downsized presents with aplomb.
Pretty soon, though, my embarrassment over this loss of purchasing power turned into gratitude. For even now, with a somewhat more robust personalia, I am limited to small and inexpensive yuletide gifts. But this also means I am spared from spending hours and hours in crowded department stores during the weeks before Christmas and, as a result, have more time to enjoy my favorite time of year: Advent.
Perhaps since my nose is less buried in Christmas lists I am now better able to notice the burdens that others shoulder during December. A few weekends ago I visited Macy’s for my annual abbreviated holiday shopping spree and was astonished not so much by the sheer number of shoppers (who were shopping, after all, in the self-described World’s Largest Store) but by the heavy freight with which everyone seemed to be ladened. Maybe it’s just my imagination, but are Christmas gifts getting bigger and bigger? Some people were trundling around boxes that looked as if they contained small cars. I saw one poor woman carrying an infant in a Snugli, leading a toddler by the hand and toting in her other hand what looked like half the merchandise from the toy department.
Now, at this point, you might suspect that I am going to launch into a general diatribe against the commercialism of Christmas. That’s what many people think about when confronted with the habits of the American buyer this time of year. And one would certainly be justified in commenting on this: the ridiculous pressure to consume, egged on by wall-to-wall advertising (tired of those Gap ads yet?), can crowd out any time to ponder the meaning of the season.
But more often than not, when I see people carting around those big, heavy bags, I think not about commercialism but something like: Boy, they must really love their children. Or, Boy, they must have a lot of friends and family that they care for. Not to say that buying is the best way of expressing love. By no means! as St. Paul would say. Rather, the effort and struggle that many people go through before Christmas is one way of showing that they care for their children, their parents, their friends, their neighbors. Sure, it gets insane at times and sure, some people get too focused on buying the most expensive gifts possible, and absolutely, we would all be better off if we lived much more simply; but at the heart of even the most crazed Christmas shopper lies the simple and holy impulse to give and to make someone happy. And that is surely something to celebrate.
The trick, of course, is remembering why we are doing all that late-night and weekend shopping, why we’re spending hours online searching for the right color sweater, why we’re sweating through our overcoats in those endless checkout lines, why we’re struggling with those burdensome packageswhy, in short, we are giving at all.
We give because of God’s wonderful and everlasting gift to humanity: Jesus Christ. We offer our time, energy and love because of the time, energy and love offered by Mary and Joseph, two people whose lives were spent in generous service and sacrifice. And we struggle with those heavy packages because of the One who, in coming into our world, and in clothing himself with our humanity, willingly took on all of our burdens.
And surely those are things to celebrate even more.
Have a holy Advent and a blessed Christmas.