Thursday, November 27, 2008

A very material Christmas

At least 100,000 nonprofits nationwide will be forced to close their doors in the next two years as a result of the financial crisis, according to Paul Light, professor of public service at New York University.
The dire prediction was made Wednesday at a forum on the impact of the crisis on nonprofits and social service delivery in New York City.

--crain's new york business, 19 November 2008

One December years ago while dispiritedly shopping for Christmas presents, I suddenly realized what Marshall Fields's Musak was playing:

"If I were a rich man (ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum) ..."

I suppose they were trying to set the mood.

Well, the mood this year is indigo, or darker, and decisions must be made. Should Christians celebrate the Nativity with schadenfreude, rejoicing that, after decades of manic spending, Americans may this year reject materialism in favor of the season's true meaning? Or should patriotic Americans (who are still employed) gather their credit cards and spend as much as they possibly can in a last-ditch attempt to rescue the economy?

There's a way to resolve this dilemma, but few there be that find it.

First, let's get one thing straight: the true meaning of Christmas is not about spirit. It has little to do with the vague goodwill that carolers and eggnog are supposed to produce, and even less to do with mystical piety or disembodied spirituality. Christmas--the incarnation ("becoming flesh"--meat, as in chili con carne)--is about a God who loves the material world so much that he becomes part of it.

In the Hebrew scriptures, this God is described as favoring lovemaking, babies, feasts, and comical animals well before the Christian scriptures add that he was born in a barn, became a healer, and earned a reputation for his taste in food and wine. The true meaning of Christmas is about God's love for the material world--so no guilt trips about buying presents and having a great dinner, okay?

Then should we try to rescue retailers by grabbing our credit cards and charging out on another out-of-control Christmas spending spree ($460 billion in 2007)? Here's an alternate idea, one that simultaneously honors the material side of Christmas and helps the economy:

Go out and buy to your heart's content, but give a percentage of what you spend to someone who really needs it.

The economy doesn't care what you do with that thing you bought. You can give it to a coworker who will thank you politely and then put it on a shelf in the basement. You can give it to a teenager who will return it for something much cooler. You can give it to a child who will be confused about its origin because it's one of approximately 98 gifts she got this year. Or you can give it to someone who is out of work or homeless or hungry or cold.

Alternately, you can give the value of the gift--a percentage of your Christmas budget--to an agency that knows who needs help and is equipped to provide it.

How high should the percentage be? To put the $460 billion spent on Christmas last year in perspective, look at the revenues of several major relief organizations:
Total of these five charities, $6.7 billion. That's less than 1.5% of what we spent on Christmas presents last year.

Imagine what would happen to the economy--and to human happiness--if we donated a full 10% of our Christmas spending ($46 billion! the equivalent of eight Red Crosses!) to people in need. Perhaps some to a national organization that responds to emergencies, some to a local organization where we might volunteer time as well as money. (The next post, "What to get the Neffs for Christmas," tells how to find the agency of your dreams.)

The thing is, most of us could do this so easily. Even during a recession. And without giving up presents or carols or a good Christmas dinner.

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