Alice Slaikeu Lawhead
“Every year it gets worse,” laments Vera. “First there was that big brouhaha about the nativity scene in front of the city office building. So they took that down. Then the board of education decided that Christmas couldn’t be celebrated as a religious holiday; so we couldn’t talk to the children about Christ’s birth or sing ‘Silent Night’ with the school kids. It is Christmas after all! Then we had to start calling everything we did a holiday this-or-that, like the winter holiday instead of Christmas break, or holiday program, or holiday singing. Oh, it’s gotten way out of hand. And every year it gets worse.”
How does one celebrate Christmas in the community? The fact that we live in a pluralistic society, that our Constitution mandates separation of church and state, determines that what is essentially a religious holiday cannot be imposed on those who do not hold to that religious belief. Recent policies, legislation and court decisions have made us aware that Christians might be barred from certain celebrative activities.
A few people are getting militant. They are lobbying school boards, filing suits in local and federal courts, and electing legislators who will represent and defend the majority (assumed to be traditionally Christian) point of view. They want a city to be able to have a paid-by-taxes nativity scene in front of the city hall, and they want public school children to sing religious carols in school.
The problem brings up all sorts of legal issues that can’t be dealt with here. I would submit, though, that in organizing and participating in community festivals and celebrations, such observances should be employed as a means of witnessing to others about the joy of the Christian faith rather than as a bludgeon to hit nonbelievers over the head. Consequently, when the personal religious celebration is expanded to the public observance, it should be done in such a way that it peacefully proclaims the Good News of the birth of Christ rather than frantically screams at those who have non-Christian beliefs.
From a purely strategic point of view, more _good will come from letting the church promote the religious significance of Christmas than from forcing our secular society to incorporate Christian symbols into its celebration when it neither respects the symbols nor properly understands them.
Those who do not believe that the Son of God was born to a virgin, who do not believe that Christ’s birth was the turning-point in humankind’s history and relationship to God, who do not believe that that event has any significance for them personally, these people cannot be relied upon to conscientiously and responsibly present Christian symbols and theology.
It’s up to each one of us to take the initiative and let our presence be felt in the community. We can start close to home.
In Your Neighborhood
The street where you live is also the apartment complex, suburb or dormitory in which you live. It encompasses those people who live near you say, within walking distance and who form your neighborhood community.
The arrival of the Christmas holiday brings a terrific excuse for getting to know your neighbors. Many of us live in apartments and have never met our next-door neighbors, even though they and we have been living side by side for years. And there is often no formal or accepted way of introducing ourselves and getting to know new families on the street.
Some people apparently feel threatened when their close neighbors take an interest in them. Most of us, though, recall a time when neighbors knew and cared for one another, and yearn for a place in a close-knit community. Recent years have seen a trend toward organizing neighborhood crime prevention programs, the rise of neighborhood, residents’ and tenants’ associations and even a revival of block parties. If we once coveted privacy, we now seem ready to resume involvement with our neighbors.
Christmas is also a uniquely intergenerational holiday. It naturally places toddlers and the elderly together with little thought about the disparity of their ages. Families with small children might think they have little in common with four single college students who live next door or the retired couple across the street, but when Christmas comes around, they are one big family: parents and children, aunts and uncles, grandma and grandpa.
Here are some ideas to get you started in involving your neighbors in your Christmas celebration. Remember, don’t try to do everything; it’ll be too much. Pick one or two ideas that pique your interest and give it a try.
1. Invite neighbors for a cookie exchange. Each guest brings a large batch of cookies, and when everyone has eaten his fill, the leftovers are exchanged so each person goes home with an assortment. You provide the coffee, spiced cider, punch, eggnog or whatever you’ll be having to drink.
2. Have a Birthday Party for Jesus for the children on your block. This can be a strong Christian witness to your neighbors.
3. Organize a potluck supper, lunch or, better yet, breakfast. If your group is going to be small and you are worried about a balanced menu, you can give food assignments, making them general so that each guest can exercise his own creativity. For example, stipulate “Something with protein” as opposed to “Two twelve-ounce packages of brown-and-serve link sausage (pork).”
4. Go caroling. First, get your group of carolers. They might be members of your church youth group, your Sunday School class, your softball team (that you haven’t seen since August), your co-workers, your Bible study group. About a week before the event, drop a note in your neighbors’ mailboxes telling them which night you’ll be out, and asking them to put on their porch lights if they’d like to be sung to. (This saves you the embarrassment of singing to a vacant home or apartment house balcony, and gives your neighbors a chance to have cookies ready for you.) You must have song-sheets for each caroler and might consider having a brief practice at your place before you begin. Plan on returning to your house or apartment for refreshments when you’re done.
5. In the fall, approach your neighbors about the idea of coordinating Christmas decorations. If you have a traditional neighborhood single family houses along a street you could:
String colored lights on your eaves and between houses, connecting the entire block.
Have everyone place candles (real or electric) in their windows all the same, all lit every night for an agreed-upon period of time (say, December 16-26).
Fill brown grocery bags with sand, and place a candle in each bag (held firmly by the sand). These bags can line the sidewalks of each home for a beautiful effect. Try six to eight bags on each side of each walkway. One neighbor might volunteer to go to a gravelyard and pick up enough sand for everyone. When the holidays are over, the sand can be added to the kid’s sandpile or saved for next year.
Do you live in an apartment? Slip a note under each tenant’s door, asking if they would like to work on some coordinated decorations, suggesting they meet in your apartment to discuss ideas. You could: Outline balconies with colored lights. Pool money to buy decorations for a fir tree (or any tree) outside your building; purchase an artificial tree for the lobby; get outdoor lighting for the building. The decorations would become the responsibility of whatever tenants live in the building at a given time, and could be used and added to over the years. In other words, a tenant who moves out doesn’t take her share of the decorations with her they stay with the building. Does someone in your building know how to make wreaths out of pine cones, corn husks, grapevines or calico? Spend an evening or two together making design-coordinated wreaths that each tenant can hang on her or his door. In addition to beautiful matching decorations, you will have an opportunity to get to know each other better as you slave over your masterpieces. Candles (real or electric) in every window of an apartment building have a stunning effect. Even a duplex or fourplex has a lot of windows. If you can get everyone in the building to cooperate, it will be spectacular.
6. Help the elderly. Christmas is a difficult time for senior citizens in your neighborhood or apartment building. Do you know who they are? Perhaps there is something you can do for them: Many of the elderly have given up on having a Christmas tree because they are unable to get out and buy one or can’t assemble their artificial one. You could quite easily do either of these things for them. Get some neighbors together to help decorate your elderly friend’s tree. Offer to do their holiday grocery shopping along with your own. Make a double batch of goodies, cookies, candy, bread, and give the extra away. Be sure your caroling party makes it to your elderly friend’s home. Offer to take them to church with you on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Involve your children. They can read Christmas articles and books to the elderly, help with chores, recite a Christmas poem. Invite some elderly person on your block to spend Christmas Day with you, adopting them as an honorary grandparent. You needn’t make a special fuss. In most cases, they’ll be grateful to simply be there. Use your Christmas experience as a springboard to show caring the rest of the year.
Our Little Town
It is at the local level that questions are most often raised concerning the propriety of blending the religious and secular elements of Christmas. If we decide, though, that all celebrations will be carried out with the intent of proclaiming the Good News instead of insisting upon it, then we can initiate (as opposed to legislate) community observances, enlisting the aid and support of like-minded friends and neighbors.
There are undoubtedly celebrations in your own community that you can plug into right away. Churches, civic groups, businesses and ad hoc committees of enthusiastic people organize all sorts of holiday activities, many of which you can wholeheartedly endorse.
In the city where I live, there are scores of interesting and worthwhile activities: a community Messiah sing; a bank that distributes dolls which have been beautifully dressed by volunteers and are then given to needy children through the Salvation Army; the Shriner Christmas party at the municipal auditorium, benefiting the handicapped; a day when a new toy will be accepted in lieu of the normal fare on the city transit system; radio stations that collect money and gift donations to provide Christmas toys for children; community centers that distribute food baskets for needy families; newspaper coverage of neighborhoods with especially nice outdoor lights and displays; Christmas decorations in the rotunda of the State Capitol building; and a host of other “come one, come all” events.
Your town is like mine, no matter how small or how large. In rural areas, pageants and festivals are often cooperative events involving many communities; in large cities, the opportunities are endless, more than any other person or family can take advantage of.
A Different Kind of Celebration
The Alternate Celebrations Catalog is a good resource for those who want a radical departure from the usual community affairs. The authors state that many people “experience anger and frustration at having their emotions manipulated by the ‘hard sell’ to buy at Christmas.” They suggest that “the will to be fair, to share, to live on less, to practice justice in our lifestyles and celebrations . . . this is where we can begin to incarnate our conviction that people can change the world.”
How does one practice justice in celebrations? This is an especially relevant question when we broach the subject of how we should interact with our community during the Christmas season. First, we must have an inner resolve to conduct our lives in such a way that the poor and powerless are not exploited and destroyed by our actions. Second, we must organize with others of like mind to create a forum for our convictions that the community-at-large can attend and from which they can draw their own conclusions about their own celebrations.
Are you intrigued with the idea of a different kind of Christmas celebration in your community? One possibility is an “Alternate” Christmas Festival. It differs from a Main Street Parade or Community Tree Lighting in that its purpose is to provide information, ideas and support for those who are more responsive to the challenge to celebrate the birth of Christ. The festival can include booths, displays and information tables from social change groups, neighborhood associations and religious organizations. Self-help craft groups can demonstrate, display and sell their creations. Food items can be sold, especially those that are made with an eye toward careful handling of the world’s food supply; homemade bread, “natural” cookies, homemade pasta, locally grown produce. The Food Pantry or Hunger Task Force in your town might like to come to the festival with information about their activities, as would food co-ops and collective buying services.
Invite participants who have skills in creating handmade Christmas gifts. Local musicians can sing and play. A skilled songleader can get everyone singing.
Perhaps a book table could be set up, presenting publications and books that have relevance to the issue of an alternative Christmas celebration. A live tree could be decorated with handmade ornaments (the tree to be planted later). You should do all you can in order to emphasize that, at your festival, you are exploring a different way of celebrating; you are considering alternatives.
Peace on Earth Goodwill Toward Men
All over the world, in every country where the Christian message has been carried by pilgrims and missionaries, the faithful gather to celebrate the nativity of the Christchild. Our own country is blessed with the customs of many nations, brought to us by immigrants who gifted the New Land with their Old World traditions.
The Christmas tree from Germany, baked goods of all sorts from the Scandinavian countries, the creche from Italy, the Victorian customs of England, St. Nicholas of Holland, pinatas of Mexico are all represented in our culture. Some customs are now thoroughly American, observed by nearly everyone in this country. Others are kept alive by those of our number who still have strong ties to the old country, wherever that may be.
The message of the angels, “Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Men,” expresses the longing of our hearts: universal peace and worldwide understanding. In the past, it has been traditional for countries at war to observe a truce on Christmas Day. We have all heard accounts of Christmas Day truces during World War I, in which American and German soldiers came out of the trenches to share with each other their holiday rations and to set aside, if only for a day, the fighting and hatred. The idea that this can happen inspires hope that our leaders, too, will one day be ready to resolve their differences.
If we are aware of the common brotherhood of man during the Christmas season, if we have new hope for our ability to exist peacefully with other nations, if we delight in the richness of other cultures’ celebrative customs, we are also reminded that we still live a long way from the true peace on earth and goodwill toward men.
Our Christmas preparations are interrupted by the evening news, declaring that the droughts, terrorism and oppression continue unabated; even declared truces have been broken by one or both sides. Our abundant feasts are marred by the realization that over one half of the world’s population is still hungry, Christmas or not. We know that there are young men and women in our armed forces who are away from their families on Christmas Day, charged with the impossible task of keeping peace and order in the world.
Still, it is worthwhile to find opportunities in our celebration of Christmas to work toward justice. We must believe and assert that one person can make a difference. For although the world gets larger and more complex with its rising population and compounded problems, it also gets smaller with each new advance in transportation and communication. Our great-grandparents wouldn’t even have heard about a drought in Ethiopia; these days, we know about it immediately and can quickly send help to victims.
We can heighten our own consciousness and that of our friends and families by looking to the world we live in for clues and cues on how we might celebrate Christmas in a manner that recognizes the variety and predicaments of the world’s people.
1. Include a different country’s celebration in your own. You might choose to have a holiday meal of a favorite cuisine, decorating the table with crafts from that country. My mother-in-law does this. Each year she works the Christmas dinner around an ethnic theme: once it was Hawaiian, once Italian (lasagna instead of turkey terrific!), and I believe she’s contemplating Mexican for next year. For those who tire of “the same old thing,” having something different every year can be a tradition, too!
2. At the bookstore or library, get books that chronicle holiday customs around the world. Read a little every day across the cleared dinner table with your family, or before bed with your children. As you do so, emphasize that each country’s traditions are different, all beautiful and wonderful in their own right.
3. Study one country during the Advent season, making it part of your Advent devotions. You might choose a country where your church has missionaries, that you have visited, that you have friends in, or that was the home of your ancestors. Learn as much as you can about its history and its current social and political situation. Pray about its problems, and see what you can do to help effect a change for its people. Send a money donation to missionaries there; write your elected officials about pending legislation or national policies that affect it; write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper expressing an opinion you have about that country.
4. Consider the drain on the world economy that our typically wasteful consumption practices cause. When Americans, and others in the so-called “developed” countries, live high on the hog, others may pay the price. High levels of consumption by 30 percent of the world’s population are directly related to the continued impoverishment of the other 70 percent. In 1982 we spent $20 billion dollars ($20,000,000,000!) on Christmas! This is a moral issue that we as individuals can address. Work toward world peace by conducting your life in an ecologically and economically responsible way.
5. Invite a foreign student or someone from another country to spend Christmas with you. Foreign students are sometimes “kicked out” when their dormitory housing shuts down over the Christmas holidays, and they have nowhere to go. Do you have a spare bedroom or a hidea-bed in your living room? Christmas is a great time to give visitors a taste of what our American celebrations are like (interesting from a purely anthropological point of view) and to learn about someone else’s country. Ask your guest if he or she would be able to cook a meal or native dish for you.
6. Celebrate Christmas with people from other lands. Many of us live near an ethnic community that celebrates its old world customs. Big cities have ethnic neighborhoods whose restaurants, social clubs, civic groups and churches provide opportunities for “outsiders” to join in on their authentic Christmas celebrations. Many small towns all across the country still capitalize on the fact that their population is largely composed of the descendants of early immigrants (like the Swedes of Lindsborg, Kansas), holding elaborate festivals, pageants and celebrations that are the next best thing to being there.
7. Seek peace! “Peace is not a season; it is a way of life.” Pray for and practice peace at Christmas, and throughout the year.
Drop a Dollar in the Kettle
Many of us plan, at Christmastime, to give some kind of special contribution to charity. In the midst of orchestrating our own celebration, be it lavish or simple, we are impressed with the needs of the world, our comparative wealth, and the multitude of worthy causes begging for our financial participation. Even when our own budget is suffering under the load of extra expenditures for food, clothing, entertainment and presents, we find ourselves dropping coins into the Salvation Army bucket at the shopping center or answering a direct-mail appeal from our favorite charity.
But if we are committed to trying to reconcile our expectations with our reality, we will first admit that the expected joy and satisfaction that we hope will result from our generosity is not often met by the reality of our giving. Why is it that we can’t get what we want when we give something away?
I would suggest that our dissatisfaction arises from two fallacies in our giving: we give for the wrong reason, and we give the wrong things.
First, we give for the wrong reason. Now I do not believe that unless a person can give something cheerfully, she shouldn’t give at all. There are simply too many cheerless people and too much to be done in this world, work that requires substantial funding, for me to go along with this. I do not believe that money given grudgingly carries with it a curse that will invalidate its potential for good once it reaches its destination. I believe that $10 given reluctantly to World Vision will buy as much rice for a hungry child as $10 given gleefully.
But when it comes to Christmas giving, the disparity between our wasteful, lavish celebration and the condition of the rest of the world’s population hits home as it does few other times of the year. When we exhaustedly view the stacks of expensive cartoon-character and embossed-foil wrapping paper and shiny stick-on bows, used once and now ready to be thrown in the trash; the battery-operated tin toys that will either be broken in 10 days or chucked, allbut-forgotten, into an overcrowded toy box; the tasted but uneaten food that will be thrown down the garbage disposal; the extra money spent to fill dubious needs with luxuries, ivory toothpicks, perfumed soap-on-a-rope, Moroccan leather bookmarks, a gold-plated corkscrew; the pile of ridiculous “joke gifts”pet rocks and so forth, then it’s hard not to feel a twinge of guilt at all the waste and all the pointless extravagance.
So our holiday giving is more often than not a buy-out. We send money to missions so we can have our holiday in peace. Is it any wonder that we don’t get the satisfaction we want? For no matter how much we give away, we must still deal with what we kept, and what we did with what we kept.
We might bridge the gap between expectation and reality more effectively if we would pay closer attention to our own spending, not necessarily for reasons of thrift, although that’s worth considering, as an attempt to live a responsible existence in this world, aware of the drain we put on the world’s resources, and mindful of our interrelatedness with the rest of the world’s peoples.
Second, we give the wrong things. This isn’t always our fault. Some charities and organizations are asking for the wrong things, and we can’t assume all the blame for giving them what they say they need.
Armand Marquiset, the French artistocrat who founded the Little Brothers of the Poor, was once a carefree young man who traveled the world in search of excitement and adventure. At the age of 30, after the death of his grandmother, he devoted his life to the service of the poor, eventually forfeiting his entire fortune for their care, especially the care of the elderly.
He coined a phrase that has now become famous, “Flowers Before Bread”, because he believed that all people, rich or poor, are worthy of respect and dignity. He was much criticized for giving the poor holiday food baskets containing smoked oysters and caviar, providing summer vacations in castles, or giving diamonds to couples who had been married 60 years. Some donors were offended by his extravagance, calling him “Armand the Magnific.”
But a well-dressed lady who reproached him for having given too lavishly to the elderly received this reply: “Madam, there are many people who will be very embarrassed when they arrive in Paradise and see on our Lord the castoffs that they have given to the poor.”
Marquiset visited Mother Theresa in India, laying red roses at the foot of each bed where men in misery lay dying. He later told Pope Paul VI, “Never did I feel a stronger feeling that each of them had become Christ for me,” to which the Pope replied, “Each of them was Christ.”
Can we take too literally Christ’s words that “whatever is done unto the least of these my brethren is done unto me”? I think not.
While there is certainly a place for the giving of our castoffs to Goodwill Industries or the Junior League Thrift Store, there is, as Doris Jantzen Longacre pointed out in Living More With Less, much more to be said for having very little to give such organizations because we have been careful in our purchasing and frugal in the use of our possessions.
We give the wrong things. We give what is left over, we give what doesn’t fit, we give what is worn out, we give what is broken. We proudly deposit a baby doll whose hair has been shorn and whose body is covered with crayon marks into a large bin in the shopping mall, a converted trash can marked “Christmas for Kids”, and wonder why we don’t feel better about our donation. If we have a dollar or two left over after all our Christmas shopping has been done, and we have had lunch at the department store tearoom, and we have picked up some candy for our kids, and we have figured out how much parking will cost, then we’ll drop a buck in the Salvation Army bucket. We find that we are unable to get even one more item of clothing into our overstuffed walk-in closets; so we piously clean out the mess, throwing outdated, stained and shabby clothing into a large bag given to us by the Disabled American Veterans. Whew! We’ve killed three birds with one stone: cleaned out the closet, helped the vets and gotten a great end-of-the-year tax deduction.
Is it any wonder we are unsatisfied with our benevolence? Are we willing to see the face of Christ on each shopper at the Goodwill store, on each poor child who will receive a doll through the “Christmas for Kids” program, on each “bum” who walks through the food line at the Salvation Army on Christmas Day?
If so, we will give for different reasons, and we will give different things. We will give to charity out of charity, out of love. We will give because we recognize our kinship with the poor of the world. We will alter our own lifestyles so that we are living more responsibly. And we won’t give away only what we don’t want or what is left over. We will give away the best; we will give away the first. We will give Flowers Before Bread.
On a more general level, you can challenge yourself in the following ways:
1. Let presents to friends and relatives do double-duty. You can give a nice gift to a friend that also supports an organization and people who are working toward self-support. There are organizations employing indigenous people making their native crafts in this country. For example, you can shop at the thrift stores in your town. By doing so, you give a thoughtful gift to your friend or relative and also support the poor.
2. Give the best. When you buy new toys or clothing for your children, buy the same toy or outfit for a needy child you don’t know. Get lists of needed items from local orphanages, missionaries on furlough, family shelters and day-care centers. Spend the same thought, effort and money on your gifts to these organizations as you would on your own children. You’ll feel better about what you give if you do.
3. Give of yourself. As much as money and material goods are needed, there is also a great need for people who are willing to get personally involved. Run errands; visit the poor with food baskets; help serve meals on Christmas Day. We sometimes get the mistaken idea that we can do our greatest service by simply giving money, but without loving hands to help, the money does not go as far as it might.
4. Work outside established channels. Do an act of kindness that is totally your own, unsponsored by your church or any other group. Look around you to see what can be done for a neighbor or shut-in. Get the name of some needy family from your pastor or your city’s social service agency. Visit the family, find out what they need, and do your best to fill the need. Don’t report what you did; don’t include it on your charitable “resume.” Let your gift be just between you, the recipient, and God, no one else. It may even be possible to give anonymously. Savor the sweetness of silent giving, receiving no praise or recognition for what you have done.
If we want more joy in our giving, and if we want our gifts to be more worthwhile, we must examine every aspect of our lifestyle. We must concentrate not only on what we have given to others, but what we have kept for ourselves. The Bible story of the widow’s mite the old woman who was praised by Jesus for giving such a small offering underscores the fact that it is not what we give, but what we keep that determines the value of our offering.
We will all keep for ourselves more than we need. But we can challenge ourselves, day by day and year after year, to close the gap between what we give and what we keep, and consequently between our expectations and our reality.
The above article, “Christmas on the Street Where You Live” is written by Alice Slaikeu Lawhead. The article was excerpted from a pamphlet written by Focus on the Family in 1988.
The material is most likely copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.