7 Ways to Spend Christmas

December 2nd, 2011
American consumers spent $451 billion on Christmas gifts last year.

I stood in the aisle at Toys ‘R’ Us and I cried my little eyes out. My mom had told me that I could pick out one toy, and I simply could not decide which one to choose. To be honest, I wanted all of ‘em, and the pressure of having to decide on just one was too much for me to bear. Needless to say, I acted like such a brat that day that I ended up leaving the store without any toys at all.

Why would a child have a meltdown like that in the middle of a toy store? I mean, I was just a kid - how had I already learned to be so dissatisfied with what I had? Who taught me that there was no such thing as enough, or that happiness and self-esteem could be found in places like malls? At such a young age, how would I already have been aware of the fact that Americans existed for just one reason: to collect more and better toys than the other kids?

Perhaps it was because I had already been indoctrinated into a teaching that would be considered far more valuable than any I would ever learn in the classroom: I had been taught how to be a consumer. By the time of my little meltdown in Toys ‘R’ Us, I was well on my way to being one of the more than 1.7 billion people worldwide who are known today as the consumer class: the group of people characterized by diets of highly processed food, a desire for bigger houses, more and nicer cars, higher levels of debt, and a lifestyle devoted to the never-ending accumulation of non-essential goods.

Behold the “fruits” of consumerism: Americans spend approximately $20 billion on ice cream each year, $50 billion on our pets, $66 billion on soft drinks and $110 billion on fast food. To put this spending in perspective, for a little less money we could provide basic education and clean water and eliminate preventable deaths due to hunger and disease to every developing nation on earth (total $226 billion).

Consumerism: it is one of the ugliest, yet most celebrated and embraced “-isms” known today. As good American capitalists, though, each of us has been trained from birth to believe that this ever-increasing consumption of goods is not only economically desirable for our nation and our economic advancement, but is also our duty as good Americans. In other words, if you and I don’t spend, we will all suffer. Although there is some obvious economic truth to this because of the way capitalism works, we must name consumerism for what it is: nothing more than an unjustifiable, immoral, unethical, and anti-Christian lifestyle that encourages people to want more than we need – more than is necessary to be fulfilled, and more than our Earth can sustain.

And the awful spiritual truth here is that the more we consume…the emptier we actually become. One of my favorite bands captures the truth of this well when they sing, “After sex…the bitter taste…been fooled again…the search continues.” So whether it’s by having casual sex, as referred to here, or by consuming stuff, the truth is that our souls are constantly seeking fulfillment – and will do or buy anything to find it. But as the song says, when our souls seek happiness, self-worth, or meaning in the wrong places, we’re left with “the bitter taste…been fooled again.”

“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.” That prophecy is nearly 2,500 years old. Who knew it was referring to last Friday? When the people walked in darkness… to malls across the United States, many which opened at midnight on Thanksgiving, to Target, Toys ‘R’ Us, and countless other stores, all which will opened at ungodly hours to greet hordes of shoppers.

The people still walk in darkness. Maybe that’s why they call it black: Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, the beginning of our $451 billion search for happiness and fulfillment. That’s right, $451 billion: the amount you and I and the rest of the well-trained American consumers spent last year for Christmas.

It happens every year: the frenzied drive to crowded malls, the scramble for parking, the long lines, the agony of deciding what to buy for friends and family members - just to load up on a bunch of over-priced junk that was made overseas to give to people who don’t even need anything simply to make them feel like we love them or haven't forgotten them!? It makes me wonder, do you think Jesus is bummed that we celebrate his birthday on Christmas? Would he have accepted those 3 gifts from the Wise men if he knew what the ensuing gift exchange would look like 2,000 years later?

Have we forgotten all about the child who would be known as the Wonderful Counselor? That’s what Isaiah prophesied he’d be called – the Wonderful Counselor. And by that he didn’t mean Jesus would be a really good therapist. By Wonderful he meant wise, and by Counselor he meant one who advises his subjects, as in - a King: the King who would come as a child and teach those who walked in darkness a new way to live, a more fulfilling way of life that had absolutely nothing to do with purchasing power or consumption.

And Isaiah was right, a child did come: he was wise – so wise, and he was also a king. But not the kind of king we expected. He was homeless by the time he was thirty. In fact, he didn’t own a thing except the clothes on his back. Really, quite a pitiful excuse for a consumer if you ask me; would have made a lousy American. He was a King with no court; a Prince without a penny to his name; royalty with no Rolls Royce.

The people tried to make him their king by force – but he wouldn’t have any of it. He could have ruled over all the kingdoms of the world, but instead he chose a life of simplicity. In his great wisdom he taught us that life is not about consumption or the accumulation of things: “where your treasure is, your heart will be also,” and showed us what a life consumed with God would look like: “but seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you as well.” It was the only kind of life that could ever possibly fill that gaping hole in our hearts and souls.

You know, despite all the bright lights – Christmas can be a very dark time. Most of us never actually stop to question the insanity of people who have everything they need making mindless purchases. Friends, I think it’s time we stop complaining about how out of hand things have gotten at Christmastime, and this year actually do something about it!

I believe that guilt is generally a worthless emotion, and in my opinion, has no place in the church. So, we can all sit around feeling guilty about being consumers and as a result just end up doing business as usual this Christmas, OR we can decide to act together to make a change. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you to sell everything you own; only Jesus can ask you to do that, but I am saying that if we really want to say happy birthday to the child of light this year, and if you agree with me that consumerism is beginning to destroy our environment, expend all of our resources, gobble up justice and hope for the worlds’ poorest and neediest, and suck the soul right out of you and me, then it’s time to make some radical changes in the way we do things this Christmas.

The way I see it, it’s the perfect year to start some new Christmas traditions. Most of us have less money than we did last year and could certainly use more quality time with family and friends and less crazy time in malls and traffic jams. Will it be easy to start new traditions? Of course not! That’s what makes this such a fun challenge!

The cards are stacked against us: parents face the prospect of feeling massive guilt when their kid’s friends are totally raking in the gifts; as usual, we’ll be hit with the multi-million-dollar ad campaigns that will try to convince us that “we can’t live without their product, and of course we’ll try to fill the emptiness in our lives by stuffing it full of things we can buy. But we are all creative, smart people. I’m convinced that despite the odds, together we can make this the most stress-free, fun, fulfilling, Christ-centered Christmas we’ve ever had!


  1. Celebrate a buy-nothing Christmas.
  2. Practice a “Wise” Christmas: each child receives 3 gifts (no gifts for adults). Tell the story of the 3 Wise men.
  3. Downgrade. Buy less gifts than last year.
  4. Adopt-a-Family! In place of gifts for each other, buy gifts for someone in need. Children can buy for other children. Teach them early that Christmas is for others.
  5. Relationships not retail! Don’t think about how you’ll SPEND money, decide how to best SPEND your time. Ideas: Family game nights, dinners, plan a hike.
  6. Christ-Centered Christmas! Make Christmas more spiritual. Teach the story of Christmas to your children. Take 5 min. a night during Advent to read, reflect and pray.
  7. Give the best gift: Yourself! Volunteer.

The options are endless to create new family traditions this Christmas that will continue to bless us and others for years to come. Will it be easy? Change never is. But will it be worth it? Without a doubt. This Christmas, let’s not consume gifts, let’s consume relationships with one another and with God. After all, it’s not our birthday. It’s a time to give Jesus a gift. And what do you give to the King who had nothing? Everything.

Jay Cooper is the pastor of Jacob's Well, a United Methodist Church plant in Chandler, AZ. He blogs at Souls Gone Wild.

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