December 1, 2008 Volume 22, Number 18
The mall or the alley?
A Christmas shopping debate
By Josiah Neufeld | ChristianWeek Staff
Aiden Enns (left) and Gerry Bowler (right).
Is Christmas a season to celebrate abundance, buy generously and bless our economy, or acknowledge injustice and go dumpster diving for that perfect gift? ChristianWeek assistant editor, Josiah Neufeld invited two Christians with very different views to debate our Christmastime calling.
Aiden Enns is the publisher of a mischievous magazine called Geez and a founder of Buy Nothing Christmas (www.buynothingchristmas.org). He's been known to give homemade relish as a Christmas gift.
Gerry Bowler is a historian who teaches at the University of Manitoba and author of Santa Claus: A Biography and The World Encyclopedia of Christmas. He loves a good party.
Describe what it's like for you to walk through a shopping mall at Christmas time.
Bowler: I can't tell you because I don't go. I have all my shopping done well before or I do it online. One hears second-hand that it's madness, certainly not a place to induce spiritual thinking. I think it's a great Christian who can get out of a shopping mall in December without having killed somebody.
Enns: Usually when I go to a shopping mall at Christmastime it's to spread the good news of slowing down the shopping patterns. Recently we've been involved in the Buy Nothing Christmas campaign where we annually go into a shopping mall and sing anti-shopping carols just to see what would happen to the people and the establishment.
What kinds of responses to you get from people?
Enns: Responses are mixed. Some people are delighted; others are bitter, you can see it. And others are amused or curious.
Bowler: One of the reasons why I'm antipathetic to Aiden's crusade is that you are interrupting people doing an important thing.
Each one of those shoppers bears love in the form of plastic and cash. They're buying a package to show somebody that they love them. And so there's something almost sacred about what goes on there.
Enns: I agree that in our society the dominant way of demonstrating our love is to purchase things or give cash or gift cards. Showing love is good. What kind of Christian would I be if I did not condone the sharing of love?
At the same time, those people in a shopping mall who demonstrate their love with plastic and cash are participating in a destructive sickness. And that leads, for the sake of love, to corruption. Sometimes you have to shout in the hallways saying there's a better way of doing this at Christmas time.
Bowler: This street theatre I find dysfunctional and reprehensible. I find that the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ is not the time to be embarrassing our neighbours. If you want to manifest love there is a much better way to do it. I'd far rather see you guys handing out warm socks or cookies.
So how much love in the form of plastic or cash do you plan to spend this Christmas?
Bowler: More than the average. Our family has always been big on gifts, big on hospitality, big on charity. It's not an inconsiderable sum that the Bowlers pump into the North American economy at Christmas time.
Enns: I hope to spend zero dollars.
Does that mean not giving gifts?
Enns: No, it doesn't. Often I make things. And I should add that I need to acquire supplies and sometimes I buy them. So I may end up spending some money on gifts in terms of materials.
Do you feel guilty at Christmastime?
Bowler: I feel blessed at Christmas to have so much. There are many times of the year for making people feel guilty. I try to make my students feel guilty all the time and it has very little effect. I think this is a guilt-proof generation. Christmas is not a time for inducing that feeling.
Enns: I feel a certain mystery and wonder and anticipation and hope in the birth of something new and redemptive.
At the same time, I also feel guilty for participating in a society that you could almost say is gluttonous, in a world where so many live in need. More than 20,000 people will die of starvation-related illnesses today. And to demonstrate gluttony at Christmas time for the sake of peace and love seems to me...well, bad. I feel guilty for that, and that's part of the complicated emotion we're stuck with here in the North.
Bowler: Well said. It's sad that people die of hunger, particularly as there's no shortage of food in the world. But its also sad to have the attitude that the world economy is a zero-sum game, that anything that I spend on my children at Christmas is somehow snatched out of the mouths of widows and orphans in Bangladesh or Shamattawa. There's much we can do to make the world a better place, and I don't think being less festive at Christmas is high on the list of things to save the planet.
Enns: I agree with Gerry about being festive. To be festive on available resources that we havein the face of dysfunctional economic activity of retail consumerismis such a delight because we're showing an alternative way to be joyful and to love one another outside the gates of consumerism.
What do you see as an appropriate way to celebrate the abundance that middle-class Canadians enjoy?
Bowler: Give it away in the form of presents, in the form of charity, in the form of hospitality, in the form of service. Christians ought to have all four components as part of their Christmas celebration because it's a happy time. It is the birth of our Saviour.
So what purpose do you think gift-giving at Christmas should serve?
Bowler: Manifestation of love. We show love to members of our familywhoever we choose to give presents to. And nothing says it like money.
Enns: The act of giving something precioussomething valuable to yourselfto another, is profound. The giving of God's own Son to humans is a very vulnerable thing and a profound act of love.
When you receive a gift you feel love, and that's a tremendously empowering thing and it builds community. We are not independent. We need to rely on each other for help and gift-giving is a way to cement that.
One more thing that gift-giving does at Christmas time: it demonstrates our values. If I give you a plastic gadget I'm saying, "Take this as a demonstration of my love. Let plastic gadgets lead the way."
Instead, why not use gift-giving to build a more sustainable future? If I make a cake for a loved one and give it at Christmas time, it's kind of awkward, different, alternative. But that gift incarnates the values that we seek, and also the hope that we aim to build in the world.
But giving homemade gifts or found items or used items does not have the same gleam as something plastic wrapped, and sometimes I do feel like a bit of a schmuck.
Bowler: You shouldn't, though. You're absolutely on the right track. I wish every family could include more of that. The problem is there's often so little time through the year to do that. My manual skills are dreadful. I really can't make anything.
Enns: You could give of your time. You could say, "For Christmas this time I want to do something different; I want to go for a walk with you once a month. Or if the person has a dog you could walk their dog for them.
Gerry, do you have any gift suggestions for Aiden?
Bowler: He could keep his storm troopers out of the mall. That would make me happy: if I didn't turn on Global TV this year and see Aiden and his gang getting turfed out of Polo Park.
This is a shortened version of the complete debate. Click to download "The Mall or the Alley?"here and read the full text.