Part 3: Christmas

Part 3e: Christmas

Treasury of Celebrations:

Intro/Cover Page | Gifts | Jan-Apr | May-Aug | Sep-Dec | Advent | Christmas | Rites of Passage

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From Alternatives' Treasury of Celebrations, published by Northstone Books. The entire 288 page book is available for $12.

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See also Advent for other Christmas preparation and ideas.



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Christmas in history: Mingling cultural traditions

Despite the fact that the Gospel of Luke links the date of Jesus' birth to a census in Palestine decreed by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1), nothing is known of the time of year of his birth. The first evidence of speculation about the date is in the third century when Clement of Alexandria suggested May 20. The earliest mention of observance on December 25 is in the Philocalian Calendar, representing Roman practice in the year 336. At about the same time, the Eastern church began to observe the Nativity on January 6, the feast of Epiphany. By the middle of the fifth century, however, most Eastern churches had adopted December 25.

As with other Christian holy days, the date of Christmas appears to have been set to provide an alternative to one or more popular pagan festivals. December 25 was originally the date of the feast to the sun god, Mithras. The cult of Mithras had spread from Persia into the Roman world in the first century, and by the third century was Christianity's main rival. December 25 also came at the end of the feast of Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival commemorating the golden age of Saturn. Both of these festivals may well have been related to even earlier festivals marking the winter solstice.

Although Christmas was intended as an alternative to pagan festivals, the practices of those festivals were often simply incorporated into the Christian celebration. As Christianity spread through central and northern Europe, the accretions from local religions continued. As early as the fifth century, a small minority of Christian leaders expressed alarm at the growing pagan character of Christmas, a cause for concern that continued through the Middle Ages.

Christmas celebrations were not only enlarged by absorbing elements from local religions but from other Christian traditions as well, for example, St. Nicholas. The association of Christmas with St. Nicholas came about in the Middle Ages, especially in northern Europe. Little is known about his history except that he was Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor in the fourth century. Of the many stories about this saint, one of the most popular tells about his generosity in giving gifts anonymously to the poor. He became the patron saint of numerous countries, cities and groups, and especially of children. Because of this special relationship, tradition developed that he gave gifts to children on the eve of his feast day, December 6.

During the Reformation of the 16th century, many reformers wanted Christmas dropped as a Christian celebration. In their view, not only was there no biblical sanction for Christmas, but its popular practices still looked too much like the old Saturnalia festivals. In their general resistance to things Catholic, they also wanted St. Nicholas banished. For a few years in 17th-century England, the Puritan-dominated parliament outlawed the feast of Christmas. At the same time, Puritans in Massachusetts passed similar legislation. Between the 16th and 18th centuries the widespread antipathy to Christmas as a holy day - especially by Puritans, Quakers, Baptists, and Presbyterians - had important consequences, consequences which those religious groups could not have imagined.

Resistance to attaching religious significance to Christmas encouraged its growth as a secular holiday. For example, St. Nicholas was replaced by a more secular figure known as Christmas Man, Father Christmas, and Papa Noël. The Dutch, reluctant to give up St. Nicholas, brought Sinterklass (St. Nicholas) with them when they came to America and honored him on December 6. In the 17th century, when the Dutch lost control of New Amsterdam to the English, Sinterklass was gradually anglicized into Santa Claus and acquired many of the accoutrements of Christmas Man - the workshop at the North Pole and the sleigh with reindeer. By the 19th century, when the formerly-resistant Protestant groups began to celebrate Christmas, it was not only a religious holy day but a well-established secular holiday as well.


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The 20th century: Commercializing Christmas

Through the 20th century in Europe and North America, the popular celebration of Christmas remains an amalgam of Christian and non-Christian traditions. The lack of clarity about the celebration's purpose has remained, accentuating a new factor in the 20th century: the commercialization of Christmas.

More than just a mixture of diverse traditions, Christmas is now big business. While the Christian calendar calls for a solemn four- or five-week preparation to celebrate the birth of Christ, the "Christmas economy" overshadows even Halloween, with Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. serving as little more than a prelude to the greatest shopping weekend of the year. In 1939, President Roosevelt moved the date of Thanksgiving back to the third Thursday of November to expand the Christmas shopping season. With the survival of many businesses dependent on Christmas profits and half of the annual advertising dollar spent on Christmas-related advertising, it is not surprising that for some shoppers Christmas spending is regarded as a patriotic duty.

The commercialization of Christmas did not occur in a social vacuum. It is part of our society in which consumption for its own sake - regardless of need - is legitimated and encouraged. Without reluctance, consumerism exploits religious beliefs and deep emotions to persuade people to buy. Advertising's behavior modification specialists demonstrate that the strains of "Joy to the World" trumpeting throughout the shopping malls in December produce greater profits, and that "Silent Night, Holy Night" is even better. Using Christmas as a religion-sanctioned occasion for extravagant spending, businesses hope that the practice of spending billions of dollars on Christmas gifts in North America is simply practice for greater spending throughout the rest of the year.

While it may be good for the economy in the short run, commercialized Christmas also has its costs. Preparations for observing the birth of one whose coming is "good news to the poor," are often displaced by the more financially attractive preparations to observe the coming of Santa Claus. Extravagant Christmas spending means fewer dollars available for those ministries and agencies addressing critical social and environmental problems. And the loss is more than dollars. The sense of exploitation that many feel at Christmas, the depression that comes when Christmas does not deliver the happiness popular hype promises, and the guilt from being willing participants in a religious fraud, all rob Christmas of its power to renew the human spirit.

Perhaps the greatest cost of commercialization at Christmas is paid by the poor. In our society, the poor experience Christmas as a cruel hoax. Our pervasive cultural Christmas ideology is not Christology - celebrating Christ's coming as "good news to the poor" - but what we might call "Santology."

The creed of Santa Claus theology is the well-known song, Santa Claus is Coming to Town. According to this creed, Santa is omniscient; like God, Santa knows all about us. There is also a day of judgment. It comes once a year when "good" children (and adults!) are rewarded with good things, while the "bad" (i.e., the poor) get coals and switches. The truth is, of course, that gifts are not distributed based on who has been "good or bad" or "naughty or nice," but on what people can afford or get credit to buy. But that's not what our culture teaches children.

What it teaches is bad for both poor and non-poor children. Poor children are told that they don't receive gifts because they are bad, while the non-poor are taught that they receive gifts because they are good. Both notions, equally reprehensible, are part of this culture's Santa Claus theology.

Commercial Christmas, its underpinnings of Santa Claus firmly in place, continues its spiraling growth. It seems evident that its cultural pervasiveness makes future change little less than a distant dream. It is also true that many Christians and congregations accept the distortion of their holy day without challenge. The reason, one suspects, is not so much an insensitivity to the issues, but rather a feeling of impotence - not knowing what to do or how to do it. Aware that slogans such as "putting Christ back in Christmas," and ideas about "Christmas basket charity" are simplistic, many Christians opt to do nothing. The commercialization of Christmas is something everybody talks about, but nobody does anything about.


Alternatives to the commercialized Christmas

What can you do to make Christmas a joyful celebration of Christ's birth? How can the meaning of Emmanuel, "God with us," be made real at Christmastime?

1. Recognize at the outset that there are no quick fixes for miraculously transforming our Christmas celebrations. Christmas commercialization is deeply ingrained in this society. You can save yourself a lot of frustration by realizing that patience and perseverance are virtues needed in good supply for this venture.

2. Let Advent be Advent! Use the Advent season to develop a spirituality of cultural resistance to the commercialization of Christmas.

3. Turn down the volume of commercial Christmas hoopla. Long before Christmas arrives, the airwaves, print media, and shopping malls are saturated with messages to provide a "good" Christmas. Restrict exposure to this propaganda by watching television less frequently, making fewer trips to malls, and getting "Christmas" catalogues out of your house.

4. Tune in to activities that are less consumption-oriented. Set aside time in the weeks before Christmas for personal quiet time and reflection, time for family and/or friends, time to work through an Advent calendar or the Gospel Bible readings for Advent, time for making gifts at home, and time for household members to share in the pre-Christmas cleaning and cooking responsibilities.

5. Expect your religious community to provide resources and opportunities - through its church school, worship services, and outreach committees - for members looking for ways to resist the pressures of commercialization. Then, help out. Act to see that your expectation becomes reality. Consider organizing a community-wide alternative Christmas festival.

6. Take Santa Claus theology seriously. Perpetuation of the Santa Claus myth is an issue on which people of good will can and do disagree. Many - especially young parents - struggle with this issue alone because some congregations actively perpetuate Santa Claus theology, while others say nothing. Consider recovering the St. Nicholas tradition, thereby creating new celebration traditions that do not detract from celebrating Christ's birth.

7. Rediscover creativity in gift-giving, both in what and where you buy. Recover the almost lost art of self-giving through gifts of time and skill, as well as presents made in the kitchen, workshop, or at the desk.

8. Include in your congregation and family celebrations, those who would otherwise be alone. Celebrate Christ's coming as "good news to the poor" by sharing the joy and intimacy of your Christmas with senior citizens living alone, foreign students, street people, refugees, or people who simply need hospitality.

9. Give to honor the birth of Christ. Do a cost analysis of your spending last Christmas. How much for presents? Decorations? Travel? Food? Covenant with members of your household to take 25 percent of what you spent last Christmas and make that a "birthday gift" this Christmas. Give it to those who are working with and on behalf of the really needy.

10. Plan for Christmas. Don't just be defensive. Find positive ways to react to society's idea of the "good" Christmas:

- Reprinted from To Celebrate: Reshaping Holidays and Rites of Passage, 1987


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Watch-dogging the media

In recent years there has been a growing movement against the barrage of television advertising aimed at children. Until more public outcry grows against the commercial domination of our airwaves, the big corporations and the media will continue money-making at our social, psychological, and financial expense.

What you may not realize is that you can work to combat this in your community. You may want to consider forming a special committee as a part of your community alternative Christmas campaign to begin work in this critical area. Consider organizing and sending delegations to talk with the management of local media about public concern over their advertising and program policies. You might:

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New Orleans church bonds with Mexican parish

St. Joseph the Worker Parish in New Orleans has "bonded" with a parish in a small mountain town in Chiapas, Mexico.

Parishioners correspond with Mexican parishioners, providing needed financial assistance and exchanging pictures.

A member of the parish staff in Chiapas spent a week with the St. Joseph community sharing her own faith experience and learning more about her friends in the States. Her week concluded with the church's annual Christmas fair, which exhibited many crafts from Chiapas.

- Brenda Broussard, Baton Rouge, Louisiana


Mission Mexico

Several years ago, our family felt the frustration of observing Christmas in ways that failed to celebrate what God did in that wondrous moment. So we deliberately planned a Christmas that would serve a need with no way for the gift receiver to give back anything of material value and no expectation of the giver to receive anything of monetary value in return.

What began as our family's alternative has become an expression of the miracle of Christmas for hundreds of people. It started with our "five fish" (our five children) and we estimate at least 10,000 people were the recipients of the food, clothes, toys, and other gifts we personally delivered into the desperately needy areas between Ciudad Acuna and Piedras Negras, Mexico's hill country.

Though most of the clothing and toys we take into these areas have been used before, we ask donors to make sure gifts are suitable and in good condition. Our criteria is to take only what we would feel good about giving. We also try to respond to community needs. One year we took gloves for street sweepers and policemen, along with gloves and rubber boots for firemen who, we had observed the year before, had to work without them in the coldest weather.

As a result of these efforts, our group now receives full support and cooperation from local officials. The first year they were very skeptical, but after our third year, border officials allowed us to cross without a search. Local police now escort us through the towns, our T-shirts communicating the message we bring more effectively than our halting Spanish: Cristo Te Ama Y Yo Tambien, which translated means, "Christ loves you and I do, also."

- Jerry L. Mash, Guthrie, Oklahoma


Las Posadas

Las Posadas, which literally means "the inns," highlights the plight of the refugees of Bethlehem. This custom was developed in the ancient Franciscan missions of Mexico and what is now the American Southwest.

One of the high points of Christmas festivities in San Antonio and other towns with a strong Hispanic tradition, Las Posadas is a procession led by Mary and Joseph looking for shelter. As they arrive at various places, they sing a song of entreaty, only to hear a song of rejection by those inside. Eventually, they are recognized by those in an "inn," and allowed to enter. Great rejoicing and feasting follows.

An English version of one of the songs for Las Posadas (see below) may be sung to the familiar tune of Good King Wenceslas.

Reenactment of this festival might be used at a church supper where Mary and Joseph, looking bedraggled and dirty, seek shelter at different tables. When they are finally allowed in, all can join in singing the first stanza of Gentle Mary Laid her Child, to the same tune. If possible, prepare traditional Mexican food for this occasion. The important point is for the congregation to see Mary and Joseph as unwelcome travelers whom "decent" people would not let in and how this wandering couple resembles homeless refugees in our midst.


Las Posadas (hymn)

Verse 1

(Joseph and Mary sing:)

In the name of God we beg: will you let us enter?
We are tired and we are cold. May we please have shelter?

(The Innkeepers sing:)

You look dirty and you smell.
Will you please keep moving?
For your kind there is no place, for our inn is decent.

Verse 2

(Joseph and Mary sing:)

It is not by our own choice that today we travel;
But the Emperor has said that all must be counted.

(The Innkeepers sing:)

For your reasons we care not. Every room is taken.
Can't you see the place is full? You are bad for business.

Verse 3

(Joseph and Mary sing:)

Will the child be born tonight out on a street corner?
Can't you find a place for him! Do you have no pity?

(The Innkeepers sing:)

Oh my goodness do come in. You can use the manger.
For the rooms that we do have are for a rich traveler.

Verse 4

(All sing:)

Holy Jesus you are still with the poor and homeless;
If we wish to do your will, we will bid them welcome.|
Holy Jesus do forgive, in this Christmas season,
That the way in which we live, so beclouds our vision. Amen.

- by Justo L. Gonzalez, Decatur, Georgia

Verses 1-3 translated and adapted from traditional words.


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The ecological cost of Christmas

Many people go around turning out lights to ease the energy crisis, then buy electric toothbrushes, hair dryers, toasters, and shoe kits for Christmas. Try making this a "low energy" Christmas by refraining from buying anything which uses electricity, by leaving the tree lights and spotlights in the attic and decorating with popcorn and cranberries.

Consider ideas for gifts and holiday preparations which focus on conserving, rather than consuming, so that these may be symbols of life and not death. Give to life-supporting organizations instead of buying that electric gadget that will only add to the pollution of our air and to the profit of war-supporting industries.

Make your own decorations. Set aside time for the whole family to make holiday decorations and ornaments: colorful wall-hangings, pine cone wreaths, Advent calendars, garlands of flowers or colored paper, dried nuts, seeds, or seashells. Lids to tin containers can be made into ornaments by fringing and cutting shapes with scissors and pliers (use gloves).

According to the Christmas Tree Growers Association over 30 million natural Christmas trees become a part of our throwaway society each year. An estimated 10 million artificial trees are bought each year. The natural trees are cut, sold, decorated, and discarded all within an eight-week period. It is a credit to some cities that the trees are collected, shredded into mulch and returned to the homeowner.

Buy a live tree. The Sierra Club or a local nursery can give you advice about using a live tree for Christmas.

Tons and tons of wrapping paper, much of it containing metal, goes through the same throwaway cycle. Reducing the number of presents bought will have a corresponding effect on wasted paper. Use homemade Christmas wrappings instead of commercial paper: decorate scrap paper or brown bags, or try potato printing on newspapers. Save and decorate shoe boxes, cookie and coffee cans to put gifts in, pieces of leftover material could be batiked, tie-dyed, or embroidered and used for wrapping gifts.


For the birds!

One of the best ways of affirming the environment at Christmas is to care for the birds. One of our family's greatest delights is watching nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, juncos, and cardinals come to our feeder outside the kitchen door. If you don't have a bird book, get one for the whole family

Bird feeders can be made by children from all sorts of recycled "junk." Check out your library for easy how-to instruction books. Bird feeders, bird books, and bird food all make wonderful gifts to another person and to the world.

Remember, too, when you plant such flowers as sunflowers, you provide more than wondrous beauty - you can feed the birds with the seeds during winter.


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Different Season's Greetings

I was sick and tired of receiving Christmas cards from people I see all the time. It's wasteful and ecologically unsound. I asked the people at our local paper if they would print a "Community Season's Greetings Card" in the form of a full page ad at Christmastime, listing all the people who made a contribution to charity that year instead of sending cards to their friends in town. They agreed, leaving me to select the charity, stipulating only that it be local. After researching, I chose the Salvation Army because of their reputation for delivering the goods where they were most needed with a minimum of nonsense.

More than 270 families responded. We collected about $2,300, all of which went for food allowances, clothing, and for small gifts for deprived families, nursing home residents, and the homeless people who rely on the Army for shelter. Because regular advertisers in the Times contributed the space, our total overhead was $17, the price of the fliers.

- Paula Krongard, Upper Montclair, N.J.



When I was little, I got a perfect apple, a perfect orange and a narcissus bulb in my stocking.

- Eugenie Bradford, Alexandria, Virginia



Hold an open house before Christmas with homemade food that everyone brings. Assemble supplies for making decorations - straw stars, snowflakes, popcorn and cranberries for stringing, pine cones, seed pods for ornaments, colored paper for chains.

Have lots of things for the children to do. This is a decoration workshop.

- Helen Brewer, Washington, D.C.


Simple Christmas meal

In lieu of a traditional Christmas dinner (turkey, ham) we had a simple meal consisting of beans, tortillas, and rice. We then gave a $25 contribution - representing what we would have spent on a traditional meal - to CROP, a hunger program of Church World Service.

- The Miodunski Family, Barnhart, Missouri


Good business

Occasionally we hear about a businessman who has quit giving lighters and bourbon to customers for Christmas. Instead, a sizeable contribution is made to a human welfare project. If you own a business, make this change this year. If you work for a firm, ask the owner to consider doing this.


Checking out hunger

We kept a record of what we spent on our gifts, Christmas dinner, and tree. On Christmas Eve we wrote several checks to hunger appeals or other ministries equal to what we gave ourselves and our loved ones. That sum comes from our living budget.

- Carolyn Brown, Chapel Hill, N.C.



Why not devote the adult section of Vacation Bible School to the alternate Christmas idea?

- Mary Gray, Davidson, N.C



Make a rubber stamp which reads "OPEN SOMEBODY'S MIND FOR CHRISTMAS" and stamp it on all your mail.

- Karen Zetit, Denver, Colorado


Family Christmas fund

This "alternative" idea became a part of our family's thinking about 25 years ago, at which time we decided to stop exchanging Christmas gifts in our family and instead use the money we would have spent on gifts to help at some point in the world. In the early years, we used to sit around the table after our dinner on Thanksgiving Day and discuss how we would use our Christmas fund, to which everyone (even the little ones) contributed.

In recent years, the family has scattered and the collection of the fund is by mail, solicited by a photocopied letter. There are 28 in our family group now. Participation is voluntary now, and there is not 100 percent participation, but we think it is wise to continue it.

- Carolyn Miller, Columbus, Ohio


Real Christmas message

By going through our local Council of Churches, a very colorful yellow, green and red billboard was put up at the end of a large shopping mall. It said "Celebrate! with a creative alternative gift."...I was especially pleased with the spot they gave it; right beside "Season Ticket," the sign Master Charge had put up for an entirely different direction in Christmas spending.

- June Barnwon, Chico, California


Richest Christmas

For Christmas last year we gave prayer to our friends and family. At the time, my husband and I worried that our gift might be misunderstood. Prayer, after all, doesn't sound like much. But it was given out of our need to make Christmas more meaningful. To our surprise it was received as a gift of great value, and it brought us, in return, the richest Christmas blessings we had known.

Our children took part in our prayers enthusiastically. Before the first devotion day arrived, our daughter noticed the craft supplies we had collected for illustrating the prayer cards. She volunteered to be in charge of crafts the first day, and thereafter she often planned that activity. Our son jealously guarded his role as acolyte and filled a basket with once-lit candles to send with prayer cards. We wrote prayers together, and even after the holiday season ended, the children did not tire of devotions.

Then our friends and relatives showed us the grace of Christmas in the way they received our prayers. For one couple, our prayers were the impetus for re-establishing a relationship. They came to our home to share their prayer day with us. Jewish friends invited us to join their Passover celebration in the new year. Several other friends planned special holiday dinners or concert trips with us. We were overwhelmed by the love and closeness of people.

Our alternative celebration permanently changed Christmas for us. It will always be a time when we remember that just as Jesus came as a gift to us, we are gifts to each other.

-- Co-laborer, Winter 1986. Used by permission.


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Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway?

In the Land of Puzzling Tales, there lived an eight-year-old boy by the name of Jason.

Now in this land and in the neighborhood where Jason lived, the unexpected always happened.

Instead of football they played kneeball; instead of the children "going to school" the teachers were busy "going to homes." In the summer time, it was not uncommon to see water freeze and in the winter time to see leaves on trees. It was a funny, strange place.

One incident in the Land of Puzzling Tales stands out. When it was time for Jason's ninth birthday, as usual, the unusual happened.

Jason's grandparents came from their home across the country to help celebrate, but of course, when they got to Jason's neighborhood, they went immediately to the Browns' down the street and visited and stayed there.

When Jason's mother baked the birthday cake, she gave it to the letter carrier to eat.

And when all the neighborhood kids heard it was Jason's birthday, they exchanged gifts with one another and, of course, Jason got none.

There was a blizzard of birthday cards. The post office had to hire extra workers and work longer hours to handle the deluge of cards. Of course, in the Land of Puzzling Tales, the expected was the unexpected, and all the kids, the moms and dads, grandparents, and even a couple of dogs and a parakeet got cards, while poor Jason got none.

Finally, at about nine o'clock, in a fit of frustration and anger, Jason went out of his house, borrowed the school cheerleader's megaphone, rode up and down the street on his unicycle and shouted at the top of his lungs, "Whose birthday is it, anyway?"

And the night was so silent that all night long echoes bounced off the mountains. "Whose Birthday is it, anyway?" "Whose Birthday is it, anyway?"

The baby Jesus will be kidnapped again this year and held ransom for millions of dollars. This year North Americans will surrender billions of dollars to the stores to buy gifts to swap.

But it is Jesus' birthday! Jesus ought to receive the gifts. Jesus said, "Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me." We give to Jesus when we give to the poor, the weak, the hungry, the homeless, the refugees, the prisoners.

It will be a great birthday celebration when God's people begin in earnest to give once again to Jesus. For after all, it is his birthday, isn't it?

- Rev. Arley Fadness, Harrisburg, South Dakota


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Alternative Christmas Campaign

Is it any of the church's business?

Although individuals and families can and must make their own decisions about changing the ways they celebrate, the church has a critical role in encouraging them. Indeed, if it is not the church's business to call for more responsible celebrations of Christmas, whose business is it?

What can the local church do?

1. Challenge commercialized celebrations and call for ways to observe Christmas which focus on the needs of others:

2. Encourage members who want to change by providing supportive programs and resources. Consider a mailing to members (or a special issue of the church newsletter), including the reasons for, and ideas about, an alternative Christmas.

3. Shape the worship life of the congregation to reflect the concerns about Christmas:


What gifts shall we bring?

1. Remember whose birthday it is. Christmas gift-giving begins with a recognition that Christmas is the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. He should be first, not last, on our Christmas list.

2. Give to those he came to serve - the poor, the homeless, the prisoner, the hungry, the oppressed, and the outcast. Is there a better way to honor him than to give of ourselves to these?

3. Plan your gift giving! Make your gift list early. Discuss with your family your willingness to spend in time, skills, and money at least 25 percent of what you spent on last year's Christmas.

Warning: You probably do not have enough time or money to do everything you have done before and add this commitment, as well; this commitment must replace some of what you've done and spent before.


A Litany for Christmas

O Lord, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, we give thanks for the light that has come into the world and given us hope. And we give thanks for those in every age who have been witnesses to the Light.
The light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
In the darkness of the threat of nuclear war, we are thankful for the witness of those of all classes, races and nationalities who say, "It does not have to be."
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
In the darkness of hunger and homelessness in a world that has enough for all, we are thankful for the witness of those who feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and struggle for them in the halls of government and corporate board rooms.
The light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
In the darkness from unsafe streets to death row cells, we give thanks for the witness of those who remember that justice is not served by violence.
The light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
In the darkness of greed that is a sickness in our souls, we give thanks for the witness of those who dispel the illusion that life consists in the accumulation of things.
The light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
O God, forgive us when we are content to live in the shadows. This Christmas, strengthen our faith and renew our hope that we may be witnesses to the Light. Amen.

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Organizing a Festival

Imagine how it would be to share and celebrate the true spirit of Christmas with your community in a well-planned and popular festival! Think how many, many more people might become involved in an alternative Christmas

Festival goals

A Community Christmas Festival will contribute to:

Planning the festival

1. Plan early: Plan your festival to be very early in the Christmas season. September and October are ideal. This way you can expose the idea to many people who are unfamiliar with the alternative Christmas idea and leave time for them to participate this Christmas. This means getting the organizing and planning process underway much earlier.

If it is October when you first read this and begin to think about a festival, don't despair! Adjust the scale of the festival to what you have time to organize, or use this as the time to begin organizing for next year.

2. Planning committee: An Alternative Christmas festival will involve many members of the community. Therefore, you should form a committee that represents all of the noncommercial interests of your community, such as people from other churches, schools, clubs, social change groups, and workers. People from all of these groups will have different and interesting ideas for the festival.

3. Where to begin: There is no one formula about where to begin organizing a festival. Since there are so few precedents for this kind of activity, you are really on your own! As you begin thinking about where to start, consider the following ideas:

4. Logistics: Once you have a planning committee together, set up the logistics of the festival with great care: where and when to have it, how to spread the word about it, what facilities and special skills you will need, who will be in charge of what, etc. Attention to detail will pay off in a more smoothly-run event and a greater sense of community self-confidence.

5. Publicity committee: Charged with obtaining widespread attention for this important event, this committee should be led by persons who believe in the festival and who are not timid in dealing with the media (see the section on dealing with the media below).


Ideas for the festival

1. Invite as many community social change groups (hunger coalitions, senior citizens groups, environmental protection groups) as possible to put up displays and information tables; ask them to make signs and posters relating their issue to a need for people to reorient themselves to more socially responsible lifestyles.

2. Invite all self-help crafts groups in your area to come and share their creations with the community. They can have crafts available for sale as alternative Christmas gifts. And, if possible, have representatives from the craft groups present to demonstrate their skill in their craft. Some of the groups will send a quantity of their goods on consignment for the festival.

3. You can also include booths with appropriate food items for sale (home-baked breads, nuts, fruits) alongside booths that educate about nutrition, food systems, hunger, and world food distribution. The hunger task force or lifestyle committee in local churches will probably be glad to work on these booths. Also contact local food co-ops for participation.

4. How about booths with people demonstrating how to make Christmas gifts? Perhaps a list of suggestions could also be made available at these booths. You might be surprised to find out how many persons in your community have skills they would be glad to demonstrate in a booth.

5. Every festival needs music and dancing. Arrange for local groups to play music and perhaps lead some folks to dancing. What about a sing-a-long for Advent carols? Someone might be able to rewrite some secular songs to fit the alternative Christmas.

6. You might have a video playing continuously which deals with hunger, Earth, or people issues. You may want to ferret out celebratory films that fit the theme, too.

7. Invite a storyteller to perform a story about successfully celebrating Christmas in an alternative way.

8. You may want to have a book table where many of the books written on social justice issues, responsible lifestyles, and alternative celebration resources could be sold as gifts for friends and family.

9. You can have a table for making homemade decorations where people can either take their creation home, or hang it on a tree. The decorated tree (or the decorations) could be donated to a women's shelter or other suitable place.


A tree

The best way to obtain a tree is to find someone in your community who would be willing to give one from his or her own property. After the festival, the tree can be replanted where it came from, or maybe in a public park. If you can't find someone to donate a tree, then you might have to buy one from a nursery. Either way, make sure that the tree is replanted when the event is over.

You can decorate your tree with handmade decorations, such as strings of popcorn, chains made of paper (perhaps each link of chain could bear the name of one of the members of the community who cannot attend the festival due to illness or disability, or maybe each link could have a special "wish" of good intention printed on it), pine cones from the ground, cut-out pictures of people helping people, or any other decoration that would make your tree a real symbol of life. The rest of the hall could be decorated with such things as children's art or paper snowflakes made from recycled paper.


An alternative Santa Claus

Santa Claus is a very powerful cultural image in our society. An "alternative Santa Claus" could be an exciting, interesting, and attention-grabbing mechanism to call attention to the commercialization of Christmas. The alternative Santa might be the highlight of your festival, especially as the culmination of other activities.

What would an "alternative Santa" look like? Perhaps the traditional Santa outfit in a different color (say, green or blue in place of the red) would be appropriate. Or maybe just the white beard and cap with overalls or some other simple clothing. Whatever you decide, bear in mind that you want this Santa to be recognized as Santa Claus, but as one who is different.

What would an alternative Santa do? This Santa should personify the spirit of Christmas and at the same time protest the commercialization of Christmas. There is a lot of room for creativity.

Here are some suggestions:

1. Alternative Santas could show up, when appropriate, at public meetings, church functions, college campuses, and at shopping malls handing out announcements about the upcoming Alternative Christmas Festival, and talking with persons about commercialized Christmas celebrations.

2. Draft a letter to the local newspapers (signed "Santa Claus") asking why people have allowed Christmas to become so commercialized. Explain that Santa is changing his ways and so should they. You may want to arrange a press conference so that you could get coverage by local television and radio stations as well as the press.

3. If your city or town has any official Christmas festivities such as parades, fairs and the like, request that the alternative Santas be allowed to take part.

Warning: Unlike other activities in the alternative Christmas festival, this one is sure to arouse opposition as well as support. In 1980, in Chico, California, a green Santa who was passing out "Whose Birthday is It, Anyway?" leaflets was run off the sidewalk, reprimanded for obstructing traffic, and ridiculed. Never mind. Change comes slowly!


Dealing with the media

Today's mass media play a central role in the commercialized Christmas celebration. Each November and December, billions of dollars worth of ads and commercials are bought by thousands of businesses, each vying for a piece of the Christmas take. "Television and radio stations," notes Broadcasting magazine, "are singing a happy tune during the Christmas advertising season."

If we hope to reach large numbers of people with the alternative Christmas message, it will be necessary to work with, or through, the media to whatever extent possible. While understanding the built-in limitations you will face, it is important to learn the following:

Feature coverage

In the fall, newspapers, television, and radio will all be hunting for interesting Christmas stories, and especially for those with a local angle. Try to arrange an appointment with the appropriate editors, producers, or journalists to present them with written material and information on the alternative Christmas idea, some basic facts about commercialization, and an outline of the local activities you are planning.

Public service announcements

Radio, television, and newspapers generally have free announcement times or space for community events or public service announcements (PSAs). Policies on these PSAs will vary greatly from station to station, or paper to paper. Check out each media outlet in your area on policies: time, space or word limits, content guidelines, deadlines.

When writing a PSA text, be brief, and end with the appropriate address or phone number. Repeat the phone number if possible.

For all publicity efforts, be sure to send copies of announcements to relevant community publications (church newsletters, college newspapers) and put posters or flyers on community and office bulletin boards.

Press releases

A community alternative Christmas festival is "news." You will want to prepare a press release to send to all relevant media.

A press release should be written in a particular style. In the upper left hand corner, type in the words NEWS or PRESS RELEASE. In the upper right hand corner, put your group's name and address (if it does not appear elsewhere on the stationery). In the same corner, put the contact person's name and phone number so reporters will know who and where to call for further information.

The release should include a "release date" indicating when the news item can be used or printed. In most cases, this will read "for immediate release."

A brief, interesting heading should be at the top of the release text. Remember that the person receiving your release may read over dozens of others that day, hunting for the most interesting item. Follow the headline with a summary of the "Who, What, Where, When, and Why" information. This should be followed by several paragraphs of background data, and possibly some quotes from people with insight into issues of commercialization and the commercialization of Christmas in particular. One or two pages should be the maximum length - a press release is an attention-getter, not an essay.

The releases should be mailed or hand-delivered to all television and radio stations and newspapers in your area. A release announcing your festival should reach the media two or three days ahead of time. If you can identify which reporters cover community news, religious affairs, and business news, send them a personal copy of the release. Then make follow-up phone calls. If the release is for the festival, ask if a reporter has been assigned to cover it. If the release was more informational in nature, call and ask if there are any more facts or figures that you can provide.

Finally, keep a file of all journalists and media contacts who cover your story or show a personal interest in the issue.


When the media comes

If your press release and public service announcements about the festival are successful and the media people show up at your festival - what then?


One final reminder - have fun!


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