Every year at this time, some of the mommy blogs I read or check in with will feature a post containing these points:
1. Christmas is insanely materialistic.
2. The Ingalls family of "Little House on the Prairie" fame had small, simple Christmases.
3. We need to recapture the joys of a Homespun Prairie Christmas. Right now. Or else. On, Donner and Blitzen--to the craft store!
I can understand the impulses behind these posts. Christmas has become an insanely materialistic shop-fest, an over the top carnival of riotous overindulgence, an endless drumbeat of the call to spend money frivolously on things we don't need and don't even want.
But unfortunately, while point #1 may be perfectly true, points 2 and 3 don't necessarily follow.
In the first place, while we may feel a kind of awe at the notion that Laura Ingalls and her family could be content with such little gifts, an orange, a penny, a candy-stick, a homemade toy or garment, and the like, we aren't really looking at it the right way if we insist on focusing on the simplicity. The Ingalls family's lives were tremendously austere, compared to ours today--not on some principle of great virtue, but simply because that was the way most people lived. So to the children, Christmas morning was as much a feast as it is to our own children, because such delights as exotic fruit, actual money of their own, and candy bought from the store and made with expensive white sugar were real treats, not some political statement of anti-materialism. And the homemade gifts were the rarest and most precious of all, because it meant that Ma or Pa had, in the midst of lives that most of us would find characterized by unending drudgery, set aside their most priceless possession--time--to create these well-loved treasures.
Now, none of that is to say that we aren't living lives of disordered materialism--because we are, and as Christians we must guard against these temptations and struggle to live lives of poverty in spirit even in the midst of material excess. But this is not something which may be done at Christmas without reference to the other 364 days of the year--because to decide to implement a policy of austerity and thrift on Christmas morning is going to be of little avail in rooting out the impulse to score bargains at the January sales, and is going to add an inappropriately penitential spirit to Christmas Day itself, if the practice of restraint and moderation has not already become a part of the family's habits.
And the third point on my list above shows where the danger lies: in that we may not be fighting materialism at all, but merely transferring it from the mall to the craft store and/or the thrift shop. Because materialism is, ultimately, too much concern with the things of this world, and not enough concern with the things of the next; the woman who scours thrift stores and flea markets on a weekly basis and then congratulates herself on her "austerity" in only spending a fraction of the money that she would spend on similar items at the regular stores has missed the point. A homemade Christmas that comes from the family's customs and habits is a delight, but a homemade Christmas that first requires the expenditure of a large sum of money to equip a craft center in an unused room in the home is probably not really avoiding the materialistic habits we seek to overcome.
If the Ingalls family Christmas celebrations are inspiring, it is because even out of their simple lives Ma and Pa managed to make Christmas a time of feasting and joy. It's not necessary for us to clutter the space under the tree with every sort of plastic toy or expensive gadget to make our families happy, but it won't do much if we replace these items with piles and piles of thrift-store finds and an excess of handcrafted goods, either. If we wish to give our children the gift of avoiding materialism, we need to start by a resolution to set good habits, to avoid mindless spending, to use what we have and give away what we do not need, and to stop coveting what others have, even if what others have is a life of apparent simplicity--that will only cost us $32,000 at Pottery Barn or $6,000 at Ikea to re-create in our own homes.