Our gifts can disclose avenues of hope

November 10, 2010 | Viewpoints | Number 22
Aiden Enns |

Every year at this time I feel some anxiety. I’m talking about Christmas and it has to do with shopping. Well, to be exact, my anxiety has to do with “not” shopping.

For almost a decade I’ve been one of the organizers of a little campaign with the delightful name of, get ready for it: Buy Nothing Christmas.

The name is rather unfortunate because people often see it as a Give Nothing Christmas, and they think of us as scrooges. So, for the record, I’m not against giving gifts at Christmas. In fact, this is an essential way to show love, to build community and to honour the core of our tradition.

We affirm that out of love God gave to humankind a one and only child, a divine being, to live and die among us mortals. This impossible mix of human and divine is the crux of the mystery. It discloses the possibility for us to participate in the sacred as well.

In gratitude, we express our love at Christmas by giving gifts. How can I not be in favour of such exchanges? We express our love by giving. And we express our values by what we give.

Unfortunately, in a consumer society we often express consumer values with our gifts. If I give someone a $100 gift card for her favourite store, I’m showing her my love and thoughtfulness, which, of course, is significant. But I’m also affirming the centrality of shopping in our lives. We fortify a retail-driven economy that preys upon our penchant for ease and our vulnerability to the whims of style.

Or I could choose an “alternative” gift and buy something promoted by Mennonite Central Committee and Ten Thousand Villages as a “fair trade” gift. Or, in the name of a loved one, I could buy a goat for a poor rural family in some “under-developed” foreign country.

While the merits of such actions are spelled out in brochures and websites, there are downsides here as well: I show my trust in the charity model (where the rich stay in power), or my belief in development (where intervention may bring exploitation or unsustainable western patterns of living).

Of course, things are not so clear cut; there’s ambiguity. In a sense, we are trapped by a powerful system, caught up in the plunder and blunders of the world’s super powers.

But like the Magi who visited the baby born to Mary and Joseph, we can switch allegiances. We can betray the empire of power. In their case, they disregarded King Herod’s demand to report back on the whereabouts of the Christ child (Matthew 2).

In our case, we may wish to disobey the gods of the market system and make our giving reflect post-consumer-capitalist values. This option, by definition, will not be sexy, glamorous, instant, easy or fun. It will be burdensome and create a disturbance. But it will be meaningful and may disclose further avenues of hope.

Concrete examples of such gifts abound: anything of a do-it-yourself nature (baking, handiwork, knitting, preserves); experiences (meals, retreats, travel, sing-songs); services (babysitting, visits, walks); and heirlooms (family clock, furniture, tools, stoneware).

I can see a day coming when, among Christians in Canada and the United States, we abandon a consumer-capitalist Christmas that blesses overconsumption, and embrace a sacred, liturgical, relational, sustainable celebration of feasting and sharing of talents that, like the Magi, expresses our dissent from an empire of power.

Aiden Enns is a member of Hope Mennonite Church in Winnipeg and the editor of Geez magazine. He can be reached at aiden@geezmagazine.org.

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