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What a Christmas!

Dear friends,                                                               December 2011

As you all know, Christmas has always been a season of tremendous significance to Claire and I. We both loved the season growing up in Denver and Lincoln, respectively. We first met at Christmastime. And throughout our married lives, this wonderful season has been for us an intense, busy time of fun, fellowship and spiritual service.  And what a Christmas season this is already lining up to be!

It began during our working vacation down in Branson where our 40th anniversary (on November 4th) was celebrated in a town whose halls were already splendidly decked for Christmas. We went to a couple of Christmas shows, a Christmas play and listened to Christmas music the whole time. Back home we started playing carols in the background as we worked. And once December started, we really got going.

I have, for instance, taken a break from Galatians and started preaching over at Faith Bible Church a mini-series on Christmas -- and an adult Sunday school class too. I’ve spoken about the shepherds outside Bethlehem to 3 groups of AWANA kids at Country Bible Church in Blair. I’ve started writing Christmas cards and Claire has started baking cookies for friends, neighbors, and folks we know from the nursing homes. And we have begun hosting the first few of what will eventually be 10 Christmas dinner parties at our home.

What else? Well, on a couple of occasions already we have engaged in a special kind of spiritual warfare outside the abortion mill by joyfully singing Christmas carols there – songs in which we “join the triumph of the skies” by praising and thanking God for the Advent of Emmanuel, He Who was “born to save the sons of earth.” If you’d like to join us, we will be doing that again a few times this month. And the American Chesterton Society recently told me they will be offering an audio file of a lecture I gave at one of their annual conferences a few years ago.“Chesterton and Christmas” will be given as a bonus for people who buy stuff on their web site. Neat.

Oh yes, one more very important part of our Christmas celebrations? We have already presented the Christmas edition of “When Swing Was King” at 11 nursing homes or assisted living facilities! And we have 6 more to go!

Of course, these Christmastime activities must be folded in to our other duties. Those include helping develop the website and other ministries of Nebraskans Against Planned Parenthood, our normal correspondence tasks, arranging my material for translation for our Russian-language web site, preparing for the quarterly Vital Signs Board meeting, and running Vital Signs Blog. The traffic on the blog, by the way, continues to move forward. By the end of this year, it will have logged over 130,000 page loads for 2011.

And speaking of Vital Signs Blog, I’m going to pass along here one of the brief columns that got quite a bit of attention over there. And yes, it’s appropriate to this LifeSharer letter, concerning as it does Christmas. It deals in particular with the commercialization of this splendid holiday.

Will Yours Be a Car Wash Christmas?

While leaving Blair the other night, I drove by a car wash that had this posted on a big sign, "Need a Christmas gift idea? Give free tokens!"

I smiled at what I figured was a quirky kind of joke. But, after a few minutes, I thought again. Maybe it wasn't a joke at all. With the modern Yuletide so awash in remarkably garish, gratuitous and expensive gifts, maybe these guys have gone in a completely different direction -- opting instead for something as mundane and impersonal as car wash tokens.

Is this what Christmas has come to?

In the "olden days, happy golden days of yore" (the line comes from Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"), giving presents required some personal investment. Dad made you a little wagon; Momma knitted you a scarf; Grandma baked you a pie. Even after Christmas began to be commercialized, shopping for family and friends was a time-consuming activity -- not because there was so much to buy but because you were searching for just the right gift, something you knew the recipient needed or wanted.

But who painstakingly considers what special presents to buy nowadays? No, we just hand out the Home Depot or Amazon.com gift cards instead. And making something by hand? Good grief -- forget about that. We've lost the time. We've lost the talents. Worse still, we've lost the desire itself to put something of ourselves into our gifts.

One of the causes for this condition is that the commercialization of Christmas just got further and further out of hand. One Christmas gift wasn't enough for little Timmy. He now had to get 2 presents, then 4 presents, then 11 presents. And the Christmas lists expanded too. No longer were parents expected to give presents to just their kids (and maybe a little tip for the milkman and the paperboy) but to practically everybody they knew.

So no longer could gifts be very personal. After all, Grandpa can whittle only so many flutes. And beyond that problem, Americans were seduced (almost forced) into a whole new way of “celebrating” Christmas by advertisers, storekeepers, peer pressure, and an distorted doctrine of what true affection required; namely, that the giver’s esteem for the recipient was measured in the amount  of dollars spent. Instead of creativity, personal investment and tenderness, the new celebration system brought us the mania of Black Friday, excessive spending, debt, stress, and resentment. The giving of gifts became one of the banes of Christmas rather than one of its blessings. And it crowded out the more social, more serene, more spiritual blessings that had once marked this holy season.

Can we go back? Can we recover some of those warmer, healthier Christmas customs? The answer, of course, is yes. But it will take a bit of courage to truly live counter-cultural. It will take some explanations to family members. And it will take some patience and sacrifice -- baking cookies takes longer than buying an iTunes gift card. But if we want our lives (and those of our family members and friends) to find in Christmas some genuine affection, spiritual meaning and moral stimulation, we need to concentrate again on quality, not quantity.

And don’t forget the larger stage on which this problem is played out. Our country just can't afford to keep Christmas according to Madison Avenue anymore. We don’t have enough “scratch” (to use an archaic word for money) to satisfy the “itch” produced by the endless TV commercials that tell us we will never be happy or healthy or hip unless we buy their stuff. 

The never-satisfied spirit of consumerism has ruined our economy. It has spoiled our culture. And it has left in its wake a false sense of entitlement, irresponsible expectations,and a secularized Christmas ethic.

But again, I say that we can – we must – recapture that Christmas spirit of the “olden golden days of yore.” Recall for a moment the intense warmth and hope you feel when watching an old Christmas movie, sitting by the fire listening to Christmas carols, or decorating cookies with the kids. Those feelings have nothing to do with Christmas presents. Rather they bless us with more valuable treasures: faith in Christ, family intimacy, friendship, beauty, romance, memories, community, and festivity.

With love, reason, and inventive effort, we can indeed recapture some of that warmth and bring it into real life. Perhaps, like me, you're unable to whittle or knit. Fine. But can you bake a pie? Decorate cookies? Throw a party? Sing a song? Tell a story? Write a personal Christmas card? Any of these -- or anything of a similar nature – is much more authentically Christmas than cash, gift cards…or car wash tokens. Don’t you think?

Have a safe and very merry Christmas.


P.S. A wholehearted thank you from Claire, myself and the Vital Signs Board to all of you who have made donations to Vital Signs Ministries this year. We are particularly grateful to those of you who have given so faithfully and generously. Deep thanks also for all who have prayed for us, for those who have given direct help of any kind and for those who have passed along encouraging words.  We are forever grateful.