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THE CHRISTMAS CONSUMER COLLISION

Matthew 2:1-12
12st December 2003

I observed something new this Christmas. Since the 1970's the large city department stores have had after-Christmas sales of left-over Christmas stock. Many people save some of their dollars, and the day after Christmas the doors of the stores opened to long queues of people wanting to buy post Christmas bargains. But this year, the post Christmas sales started four week before Christmas with 50% off and so on! The retail giants do not want you to enter Christmas Day with any money or any credit left on your credit cards.

Preachers have long implored people not to let the meaning of Christmas be swallowed in the commercialism of Christmas. We have been warned not to let the 50% off presents overshadow the gifts of the Wise Men, and not to allow the heavenly voices to be drowned out by the ring of computerised cash registers. This year I stopped wishing people a happy new year on their Christmas card. I wished for people a happy and holy Christmas, and any message about the new year is another thing altogether, and I will writes such messages to people without tangling it all with my Christmas greetings. There is good reason for confusion over the Christian holy day of Christmas with a consumer holiday of the same name. Simple Living, a Christian-oriented organization formed in 1973 to protest the commercialisation of Christmas, calls the consumer holiday "Consumas." That name may never catch on, but it's a helpful way to distinguish two very different seasons. Christmas and Consumas don't even occupy the same time period, although this isn't apparent because they do overlap.

Christmas is part of a celebration that begins the First Sunday of Advent and ends with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. The waiting that precedes December 25 and the celebration that continues after it are essential elements of the holy season. The commercial holiday, on the other hand, officially begins with a mad shopping spree starting at the end of November. Many stores open early and stay open until late, so consumers can have more time to spend money, which they do. It's the biggest shopping spree of the year. But the celebration of the commercial holiday doesn't really begin there. Christmas sales seem to start earlier and earlier each year, as do the Christmas store displays designed to spark spending. This year, one newspaper reported the Christmas decorations were up in July. Indeed, this year, "Christmas In July" spending reached a new peak. To even up, I noticed in one of the Christmas catalogues, a whole lot of Easter eggs!

Some stores advertised the 12 Days of Christmas sale that begins on December 12, reinterpreting the 12 days that traditionally started on December 25 and ended with the coming of the Wise Men on January 6. But the Christmas consumer collision goes much deeper to the central figure in the Christmas story. These overlapping Christmas seasons have different heroes. The central figure of the Christian Christmas is Jesus Christ. The central figure of Consumas is Santa Claus. While Jesus gives us love unconditionally, Santa Claus gives us things if we've been good. Almost everything that Santa Claus brings has to be bought. The whole meaning of Consumas-commercial Christmas-is to sell stuff. By that measure, it's a tremendously successful holiday.

Many publications feature stories about the longing that many people express for a more spiritual and less commercial Christmas. This is nothing new. One history professor found complaints about the over-commercialisation of Christmas as far back as the early 1850s. But it's harder now to escape the message of commercial Christmas because of our media.

1. GIFT GIVING BEGAN WITH THE WISE MEN.

Matthew 2:1-23 records the coming of the Magi from the East. The church celebrates the Epiphany, the showing forth of the Lord to the wise men, not at Christmas, when we are so eager to see the meaning of God's gift of Christ, but twelve days later. The twelve days of Christmas refer to the coming of the Wise men. "After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him." The holy family was experiencing the suffering of all homeless poor. They felt pawns in the bureaucratic machinations of the Empire. The little family at Bethlehem suffered loneliness, far from family and home. Joseph was a carpenter, knowing poverty, the threats of evil men and the greed of others. They were only ordinary people, but God came to them through the gifts of the Wise Men. The Magi from Arabia, with their fine robes, haughty camels, expensive gifts, and very determined purpose that had taken them over far deserts in the dead of winter, were also seeking to follow the purposes of God.

Matthew was a customs collector at Capernaum where the trade routes from the East entered the land of Palestine. What was he interested in? The same as all customs men: who are these people? What is the purpose of their visit? What goods are they bearing? Are they for commercial use or are they personal gifts? The customs inspector and tax assessor of Capernaum took a professional interest when Mary told him of their visit. The young man Mark was not interested - was more interested in the dramatic activity of Peter the fisherman. Luke, the doctor, was not interested in taxes, but was vitally interested in the fact that Mary was a virgin when she conceived. John the visionary thought more of the eternal Word from heaven than the laws of a customs house. Matthew alone was interested in international travellers and their gifts.

Every child remembers the gifts presented by the Magi: Gold was not found in Israel only in the Arabian peninsula. It was a gift made to royalty. Incense was extremely rare and came from the resin of a desert tree found only in Arabia, Somalia and India. It was dark red, and was burnt as a sign of prayer to God and therefore associated with the priesthood. Myrrh was a fragrant resin from desert trees in Arabia, used to perfume ointment, mixed with cheap wine to drug criminals before their execution, and to embalm dead bodies to counteract the smell. It was extremely expensive. These were strange gifts for a royal child. But the gifts given to Jesus picture his life as King, High Priest, and his death as a Sacrifice as the Saviour of the world. They would never see the child again. They left their gifts from their homeland and returned by another route.

Joseph was far from Nazareth, was poor and without resources. He did not know that shortly the whole family would be in danger from a homicidal king who would cause the massacre of the infants of Bethlehem in his mad search to destroy the new-born king. How could Joseph possible finance their emergency? Matthew understood the position clearly, because if there was one thing this young family would need to escape the murderous king, to travel to safety in Egypt, and to establish themselves in a proper home, it was money. Who but God could have possibly thought of having the wise men offer to the Christ child gifts of gold, expensive frankincense and costly myrrh?

2. GIFT GIVING GREW WITH ST NICHOLAS.

Saint Nicholas was born in the Middle East in the fourth century and became the bishop of Myra near the coast of Turkey. He helped three poor sisters who all had suitors but no dowries. So they could marry, Bishop Nicholas wanted to give them money anonymously. When the first daughter was ready to marry, the good bishop tossed a bag of gold into the house at night. When the second daughter was to marry, she too received a mysterious bag of gold. When the third daughter prepared to marry, the poor father kept watch and saw the bishop drop another bag of gold into the house. Saint Nicholas climbed on the roof and dropped the third bag of gold down the chimney where it landed in a stocking hung to dry. From then on, whenever anyone received an unexpected gift, they thanked Nicholas. Six hundred years later, the Russian Emperor Vladimir visited Constantinople and heard all the wonderful stories about Bishop Nicholas and made him the patron saint of Russia.

The stories even spread to Lapland - to the people of the reindeer sleds. The three bags of gold Nicholas gave the sisters made him the focus of merchants in northern Italy. As the patron saint of the merchants, the bags became gold balls, representing money lenders and today, pawnbrokers.

3. GIFT GIVING DEVELOPED WITH SANTA CLAUS.

An American writer, Thomas Nast has depicted Santa Claus in a red outfit, trimmed in white ermine, in 1866. By the middle of the nineteenth century, stores began referring to themselves as "Santa Claus headquarters." A Boston Store hired Edgar, a Scottish immigrant, who was a tall, roly-poly man, with a white beard, a warm voice and a hearty laugh, who loved children, to be the first store Santa Claus. Children sat on his knee and whispered their deepest secrets into his ears.

4. HOW CAN A CHRISTIAN CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS?

It's not easy, but here are a few suggestions:

Be aware. The first step is to recognize that commercial Christmas is a non-Christian and at times even an anti-Christian celebration. That's why Consumas is a good descriptive name: It can consume us.

Take responsibility. You can't change the culture but you can change your own actions. Don't blame the media for your own willing seduction.

Present gifts from the heart. Buying or making gifts from the heart is an appropriate way to share the holy season of Christmas with those you love. Keep it meaningful. I admire the hard work my wife puts into purchasing just the perfect gift for each person. Can you remember the gifts we were given for Christmas last year? Try to find the most thoughtful gifts.

Opt out of the buying frenzy. Buy gifts throughout the year so that when Christmas comes you do not spend all your time in shops. Increased preparation time reduces your stress.

Watch what you watch. December and January are months of junk TV. This is when networks screen shows they have had to buy in parcels to get some peak viewing programs, but which are not good enough to be screened during the year. It is junk TV.

Simplify Your Life Style. On January 6th, the twelfth day of Christmas, take down your decorations, collect the cards, think on the Epiphany when the Wise Men gave their gifts and the Holy Family fled to Egypt. Go through your wardrobes and toy chests and decide what you can now give away after all the new things you received at Christmas. Use the Epiphany to make decisions about how to donate your time and money in the New Year to the poor and to the homeless and refugees like the Wise Men.

Worship Jesus as Saviour. Jesus is the reason for the season. Worship Him, acknowledging God loved you so much as to give His son to die for your forgiveness. Your friends and family may not even notice what you are up to. But making these adjustments will help you live the Christmas season that most people say they want-the one built around a Christian holy day instead of a commercial holiday. Christmas, not comsumas.

Nothing is more important than discovering the true meaning of Christmas, of recognising Jesus, born of a woman, is your Saviour from your sins who can give you life eternal. Will you accept Him as Lord and Saviour of your life now?

REFERENCES.

Wesley Mission, Sydney.