A different kind of Christmas

More people reconsider their response to the gift-giving pressure of the season
December 22, 2009

Tyler, a five-year-old who attends the Episcopal Church Chapel of the Good Shepherd in Hawk Run, Pennsylvania, was so inspired by the success he had earlier this year raising $1,600 to purchase pigs through Episcopal Relief and Development's Gifts For Life campaign that he began thinking about what to do about Christmas.

He managed to raise another $200 so that, as he put it in the note that accompanied his check, "20 families can have a mosquito net for Christmas!"

The Ven. Keith McCoy, archdeacon for the Diocese of New Jersey recently sent $150 to the Gifts for Life campaign to buy a goat and two geese as a Christmas honoring of his staff at the Roselle Public Library "instead of the usual small trinket from my travels."

And in Minnesota, the Rev. Devon Anderson, executive director of Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation, her husband Michael McNally and their children Svea and Coleman have been trying to have a different kind of Advent. They are making most of the gifts they will give, taking their cue from the Advent Conspiracy movement which urges people to "worship fully, spend less, give more, love all."

Tyler, McCoy and the Anderson-McNally family may not realize it, but they are part of a growing trend.

As the days of Advent waiting dwindle down to arrival of the joy of the Christ child's birth, the clash between the season's theological importance and its commercial impact on the world's economy becomes clearer. Coupled with the economic downturn that began in 2008 and from which the U.S. is only now theoretically emerging, some observers report that more people are changing the way they approach holiday gift giving.

Many people are still spending money, however, and predicting Christmas spending and its economic impact occupies many experts. For instance, the National Retail Federation suggests that Americans will spend $437.6 billion on Christmas this year. Pollsters for Gallup reported Dec. 18 that Americans now estimate that they will spend an average $743 on Christmas.

New-Jersey based PNC Bank even publishes a slightly tongue-in-cheek annual Christmas Price Index based on the cost of the goods and services purchased by the True Love in the traditional carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas." According to the 26th annual survey, the price tag for the 12 gifts is $21,465.56 this year, just $385.46 more than in 2008. Purchasing the 12 gifts online would cost $31,434.85, with the nearly $10,000 difference owing to potential shipping costs. The index's "True Cost of Christmas" -- the total cost of the 364 items gifted by a True Love who repeats all of the song's verses -- would be $87,402.81.

Meanwhile, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported Dec. 10 that "by every measure, 2010 could be far more painful for charities and the people they serve than any other they have known" as charities expect a median decline of 9 percent in donations. All this while, the newspaper reported, the U.S. government says nearly 49 million Americans now don't get adequate nutrition every day, an increase of 13 million over last year.

At least three Episcopal Church-related organizations -- Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD), Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation (EGR) and Episcopal Peace Fellowship (EPF) -- offer different ways to aid people who want to transform the way they give gifts.

ERD's Malaika Kamunanwire told ENS Dec. 18 that this year's Gifts For Life catalogue has tried to acknowledge the financial pressure some donors are experiencing by offering price ranges for contributors to find a level of giving with which they could be comfortable.

The catalogue, which began in 2003 and went online in 2005, offers ways to contribute to the group's ministry by purchasing things like the malaria-preventing bed nets that Tyler gave and animals such as the goat and geese McCoy purchased for those living in poverty who can use them generate income and food. Donors can also buy seeds, wells, micro-credit loans, smokeless stoves and disease-prevention education, among other gifts. Those who give to honor someone else can get electronic or paper cards to announce their gifts to those they have honored.

"For us, it's been very humbling to see how generous people are and we know it's been hard," Kamunanwire said, speaking of 2009's economic climate.

The group's president, Robert Radtke, often notes what he calls the "sacrificial gifts" that are made by people who say they can't give as much as they did in the past, but that they want to make some contribution, according to Kamunanwire.

Because the season of giving hasn't yet ended, Kamunanwire said ERD does not have statistics to compare to previous years' campaigns, but she said the "phones have been ringing of the hook," and online and mail-in orders have been arriving at a steady pace.

EGR decided this year to "conspire" with Advent Conspiracy as a way to help people "change the conversation around giving and how we spend our time and how we locate this season of seasons."

The state of the economy has caused more people, and their faith communities, to consider economic justice and ethics and to ask "how do we want to live as Christians in a really challenging economic time," Anderson said, by "re-examining behavior and trying to better align our faith and our belief with our actions."

"I think we all as Christians want to do that; we want to be in better synch with what we believe in our heart and how we spend our money and our time, and what kind of people we are, especially in this really crazy time of year," she said.

Advent Conspiracy tries to remind people that Advent and Christmas are the seasons "where love wins, peace reigns, and a king is celebrated with each breath." It suggests that people should spend less money, buy fewer unwanted gifts, give the money not spent on unwanted gifts to help those in need, volunteer time to social-service organizations, and simply be together with others to emulate Christ's relational giving.

"This year, give presence," its website suggests.

Tim Biaggne, an Advent Conspiracy blogger, wrote recently that "we're not Scrooge. We love gifts. We just think you should give gifts that actually mean something, rather than gifts that'll make the rounds at the next white elephant party."

Advent Conspiracy's logo shows a woman who pushes a shopping cart meeting one of the Wise Men on a camel. Its 2009 promotional video, posted here on YouTube, has already been viewed more than 1 million times.

In trying to change their personal approach to Advent and Christmas, Anderson said that she and husband McNally this year "made an intentional decision not to get worked up if everything isn't perfect; this year we're settling for 'good enough.'"

Christians call Christ the Prince of Peace and the Episcopal Peace Fellowship emailed its followers Dec. 17 to suggest that a contribution to its work would be a way to honor family and friends. Givers can make a donation and recipients they name will be sent EPF's greetings in the giver's name and a premium from the organization's store. Givers need to email epfnational@ameritech.net or epfsaraf@ameritech.net with the name and address of the recipient, the amount they would like to give and the premium they want to be sent. Arrangements are then made for payment of the donation.

"May we all remember the Prince of Peace every day we work for peace in his name," the EPF's email invitation concluded.

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