Christmas Is About Presence, Not Presents

by Sarah Allison   |   November 9, 2018

Candle Church

The end-of year holidays induce a special type of hysteria. Between buying your weight in gifts, succumbing to a food coma, and spending time with extended family who may have differing political views, there’s no shortage of reasons to stress.

I’ve always liked Christmas—especially the lights, trees, and music. As a kid, 95 percent of the reason I looked forward to the holiday was receiving presents from Santa or my parents. But as I've gotten older, and started going to church regularly, my relationship with Christmas has evolved.

Now, my favorite aspect of the holidays is coming together with family and friends for uninterrupted and extended quality time, big meals, and to remind them how much I appreciate them. I still understand how a gift can convey appreciation, but I’m also more conscious of the impact of extreme consumption on our planet—from the wrapping paper to the plastic packaging, fast fashion, stocking stuffers, etc.

The return on investment in gifts seems limited, especially when there are so many other ways to express generosity and caring.

A Message of Values

My relationship with Christmas has also changed as I’ve learned more about whose birthday we’re celebrating. Jesus was more than a mythical human/God hybrid. Through attending my church—New Day—in the Bronx, I’ve come to a deeper appreciation for all that he stood (and stands) for.

Yes, Christianity has a long legacy of violence—colonial, homophobic, patriarchal, and xenophobic all come to mind, among others. Many members of my congregation have complex relationships with church because of these dynamics. But our community is comfortable with naming these violences while maintaining that Christianity—when practiced intentionally—can be a space for healing and transformation.

What drew me to church in the first place was a need for a faith that sustains work for justice. My church has three central values that really spoke to me when I was first introduced:

  1. connecting with God in an authentic relationship;
  2. crossing boundaries, including race, class, sexual orientation, gender, and age; and
  3. confronting injustice with the compassion and abundance of God.

Jesus modeled all of these values throughout his life and ministry. He showed compassion and friendship to those on the margins, he spoke truth to power, and he shared lessons about the abundance that can come from building community. He showed people that the way of the empire (Roman in his case, U.S. in ours) is not the only way.

A Time of Healing

In a time like ours—fraught in so many ways—I find Jesus’s example inspiring, and I seek out opportunities to be both grounded and challenged. The only way we’ll survive is if we can choose ways of being that are different from the ones we’ve been spoon-fed since birth.

Another central aspect of Jesus’s life and ministry was healing—bringing sight to the blind, making wounds disappear, granting speech to the mute. In our moment, we need reminders that healing and reconciliation are possible. The holidays are a time to come together, to patch up arguments, to remind others that you love them, and to be reminded that you are loved.

"The holidays are a time to come together, to patch up arguments, to remind others that you love them, and to be reminded that you are loved."

Capitalism creates a culture of disposability. Corporations convince us that we’ll only be satisfied when we have the latest gadget, sweater, or serum. This leads to a lot of throwing away of our old items, and that morphs into us thinking that we can also throw away people, when they stop “working” to appease or support us in some way.

All in all, Christmas can be a reminder that transformation and healing are possible. In our quest to reimagine the holidays without sending ourselves into a consumption frenzy, we can reshape how we operate throughout the rest of the year as well.

Sarah Allison is a graduate of Fordham University, where she majored in American Studies and minored in Spanish and Peace and Justice Studies. She turned her investment in decarceration into a job as a youth advocate at Friends of Island Academy, which provides reentry support for young people on and returning from Rikers Island. Sarah is frustrated that we have all the resources, land, water, and emotional/mental/spiritual wherewithal to take care of all of our people, but we choose not to. She sees racial justice and equity as central to liberation and is curious to know how we can de-alienate ourselves from our bodies, each other, and our heritages/lineages.