Materialism at Christmas

It has been the call for many years that materialism has taken over the festive season. The ring of the church bells has been echoed by the rings of shop tills – or it did until shopping on the internet took over.

The definition of a ‘good Christmas’ for many people is determined by how much is spent, in gifts, food and drink. There are countless tales of people who have experienced financial difficulties after Christmas because they have overstretched themselves, as their expenditure exceeded their income and savings.

From my earliest memory, at the Christmas church services, the children were always encouraged to bring their gifts to the front of the congregation and display them in some way. In our house, we were encouraged to open one present before we went to church so that we could have something to show.

However, as the years have rolled on, the seed of doubt about the way that we have treated the season has grown so that I am now uncomfortable about how the spirit of materialism has managed to ingrain itself into the Christian celebrations. Somehow, we have ingrained our consciences so that we perceive that event is all about us rather than the Christ child, who He is and what He came to do. The hewn manger leads up the dusty road to a cruel cross, where sin was dealt which included the individual sins of pride, greed, selfishness, covetousness and uncaring.

Part of this realisation came about when I walked past an unopened package and thought that I had been given this present for my birthday and still had not used it. It is symptomatic of the disease of the West where we do not need for anything and our wants can become fleeting shadows – what we thought that we desired and only found out that it was fuelled by an illusion.

We have become extravagant in our materialism and yet so contradictory. There was applause for the outcome at the recent climate change conference in Poland (however limited the actual resolutions were in reality), yet there are many houses in the United Kingdom that are covered with decorations on the outside that can only be environmentally unfriendly. Modern western society sees the festive time as a matter of excess, as illustrated in the overload of food (in the United Kingdom, it is estimated that at least £3 million worth of cheese will be thrown away). There will also be the consumption of much alcohol, where getting drunk is considered as part of the social norm.  It is the time of the year where it is considered to be respectable to waste the earth’s resources, which were given by God in the first instance. It did cause me to consider that I do not want lights outside (where it is an auspicious display), but that I want the Light of God to shine brightly within.

Somehow, we have managed to construe a situation where we impoverish many as they seek to have the ‘perfect Christmas’ Erica Sweeney has encapsulated the situation in these words:

‘For many, the pressure to spend on holiday gifts can lead to overspending or even debt. Last year, Americans spent an average of just over $800 on holiday gifts. According to Discovery’s 2018 holiday shopping survey, a quarter of people are planning to spend more this year, with 38 per cent using credit cards to pay for most of their holiday gifts.’

In a 2017 SunTrust Banks survey on holiday spending, almost 70 per cent of respondents stated that they would stop exchanging gifts if their family and friends were agreeable, and 60 per cent thought that they would spend more time with family and friends if they were not so preoccupied with the gifts. The same survey revealed that almost a half of the respondents were feeling the pressure to spend more than they could afford.

Although many people worship something on 25th December, it may not be the Son of God who came down to be a man. They could easily echo the words of Charlie Brown (a character who could be the subject of a thousand psychologist’s dissertations) to his friend Linus (in ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’): ‘Christmas is here but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel. I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.’

It will be costlier, maybe not necessary in material terms, but in the things that really matter like time and reputation. It will be contrary to the ‘cultural Christianity’ that is so prevalent and is not expected to have an impact on the rest of a person’s life. This veneer of the true thing leaves the baby in the manger and does not want Him to grow up to show His mission in glorifying God by redeeming people.

We are developing adults and children with a grasping attitude, it is as though Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dicken’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ has modern day adherents who need to be reminded of the lessons that the character learned the hard way. It appears that ‘Ignorance’ and ‘Want’ are very much alive and much of the western world are blocking their ears so that they cannot hear them. The words of Randy Acorn are true: ‘With no vision for the joy of giving and of investing in eternity, they can’t see that God’s purpose for prospering them is not so that they can live in luxury, but so that they can help others, support their churches, aid the poor, and reach the lost with the gospel.’

It is indicative of our culture that we become so self-centred. There is the reminder in the film ‘Chariots of Fire’ where Eric Liddle the Olympian champion remarks: ‘I believe God made me for a purpose…and when I run, I feel His pleasure.’ We are so gorged with filling up on our own delights that we can barely waddle to help others, let alone run. In fact, Eric Liddle gave up the glory that he could had as a champion to serve as a missionary and die in a Japanese concentration camp in China, serving people made in the image of God to the end.

There is no better time that in this season we seek the welfare of others. We have volunteered to help those who were lonely on Christmas Day and sought to walk alongside those who are older. Others have served those people who are homeless. It epitomises the attitude of the One whose arrival on earth we celebrate (Matthew 25: 31 – 46). Jesus too held lightly to the material things of this world: ‘Foxes have holes and the birds of the earth, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.’ (Matthew 8: 20)

We were made by God to be reach out to others in acts of altruistic generosity. When we fail to do that, it has been shown that selfishness has a reciprocal relationship with loneliness. It is in looking up to see others that we have a broader outlook – far wider than any present of a drone could possibly give us. It has also been proved that serving others leads to the server having a greater sense of meaning and purpose.

It is reflected in the nativity narrative where the emphasis is on the giving. The shepherds gave their worship, the magi their gifts and, more importantly, Christ gave of Himself.

In going back to the church services, children could be asked instead of ‘What present did you receive?’, the question could be ‘What have you given?’ It is a more challenging question, which will impact them for the whole of their years and not just on a day in December.

Andrew Drury is the author of ‘Christmas: How the Gift was given’ (published by Day One), available on Amazon

Randy Alcorn, ‘Raising our children to be givers in a culture infected by affluenza,, 14 December 2018
John T Cacioppo, His Yuan Chen, Stephanie Cacioppo, ‘Reciprocal Influences between loneliness and self-centredness: A cross-lagged panel analysis in a population-based sample of African, American, Hispanic, and Caucasian Adults,’ Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 13 June 2017
‘Kindness Health Facts’ ( – kindness increases: oxytocin (the love hormone), energy, happiness, lifespan, pleasure and serotonin; whilst reducing pain, stress, anxiety, depression and blood pressure.
Jerf W K Yeung, Zhuoni Ahang and Tae Yeun Kim, ‘Volunteering and health benefits in general adults: cumulative effects and forms,’ BMC Public Health, 2018, volume 18 issue 8
John Elliott, ‘The Joys of Not Gifting at Christmas,’ Intellectual Takeaway, 11 December 2018
Erica Sweeney, ‘The case against giving holiday gifts,’, 10 December 2018