What cost, Christmas cheer?

by Woodeene Koenig-Bricker
Special to the Leaven

Bemoaning the glut of consumerism at Christmas has become a bit like talking about the weather: Everyone does it, but no one knows what to do about it.

We talk about “putting Christ back in Christmas.” But what does that really mean?

Running around with a marker, scratching out Xmas signs? Setting up a Nativity scene on our lawn? Shouting “It’s CHRISTMAS!” every time someone wishes us “Happy Holidays”?

Probably not.

Combating the consumer culture this time of year has more to do with what’s inside us than what we do on the outside. You can trim the tree, give the gifts, bake cookies and do the whole Christmas thing and not be caught up in the suffocation.

Or you can become a cross between the Grinch and Scrooge and spend the entire season ensnared in the grasp of consumerism.

Believe it or not, the choice is up to you.

Mind over matter

If you truly want to cut out consumerism this Christmas, the first step is to simply refuse to let outside forces dictate the type of Christmas you will have. The Scriptures tell us to “take every thought captive,” which, in the case of Christmas, means not letting your mind tell you that unless you have the kind of celebration seen only in Hallmark movies and Thomas Kinkade paintings, your holy day just isn’t measuring up.

Taking your thoughts captive also means banishing jealousy, envy and the desire to have more “stuff.”

Now this isn’t easy. Every time we turn on the TV or go to a store, we are bombarded with the message that we have to buy more RIGHT NOW.

It takes concentrated effort to keep our minds from racing down those mental aisles. It takes focus, determination and, yes, prayer. We need to pray daily (sometimes several times a day) for the strength to keep our wandering thoughts in check.

‘And lead us not’

Which leads to step two: Avoid temptation.  The most insidious temptations are the ones that don’t look like temptations at all.

“What’s the harm in going to the mall just to look at the decorations and get into the Christmas spirit?” you might ask.

For some people, there might not be any harm at all.

But for others (and I’ll raise my hand here), seeing all those bright, shiny things to buy creates an almost uncontrollable urge to whip out the credit cards. When I venture into the stores this time of year, I go with a specific purchase in mind. I don’t allow myself to linger and I don’t indulge in fantasy shopping, lest fantasy shopping becomes real-life buying. The old adage “Out of sight, out of mind” is most apropos.

If you don’t know that a waffle maker with reversible design templates is available, you are never going to want to own one.

Buy with recipient in mind

Step three: Shop with intent. Searching the stores for gifts can be fun, but it can also mean making purchases that the recipient might not actually want or use. Far better is to consider each person’s desires and decide upon a gift before hitting the mall.

You still can have the pleasure of deciding the details — “Do I want the red one or the blue one?” — but you will avoid the pitfall of buying just to buy.

While you’re at it, don’t overlook the joy of the handmade or even the recycled. One of the most treasured gifts I ever received was a necklace that had been my mother’s.

Sure, this approach takes more time and energy, but it’s also a boon to keeping those errant “I want more!” thoughts in check this time of year.

Count your blessings

Next, accept what is. We often create additional pain and stress for ourselves by clinging to the past, especially when it comes to the holidays. We torture ourselves with memories of Christmases when money wasn’t a concern or when the whole family was together or when, well, fill in your own blank.

If we aren’t willing to accept the reality of the present, we can get pulled into the maelstrom of consumerism all too easily. We may try to numb our pain with purchases, which often results in even more pain and creates a vicious downward spiral.

Or, we can become like Lot’s wife in the Bible, who looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt, frozen in memories and unable to enjoy the moment.

The best antidote for this pitfall is to express gratitude for the present. Before you get out of bed, list at least five things to be grateful for.  Then, before you go to sleep, list five more.

If you wake in the night, list five more. If you find yourself becoming fretful, five more.

When you focus on gratitude, you change your mind which, in turn, changes your heart which, in turn, changes your behavior.

Sharpen your focus

Finally, if you really want to cut out consumerism this Christmas, use the established rituals of the faith like the Advent wreath (it’s OK to start late), the “O Antiphons,” and the sacred carols (banish “Frosty” from your playlist) to keep your heart and thoughts focused.

Instead of cruising the mall, make a quick visit to the Blessed Sacrament. Light a candle and spend a few minutes in prayerful meditation. Read the Scriptures. Attend Mass. Pray the rosary.

It’s not very likely that our culture is going to do away with Christmas consumerism anytime soon, since most businesses rely on holiday shopping just to break even each year.

But we, as individuals, can opt out of the madness and find a center of peace as we await the coming of the Prince of Peace once again.

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