Monday, November 30, 2009

Christmas, Capitalism and Advent

Yesterday, was the first Sunday of Advent, the four week period leading up to Christmas (although Eastern Orthodox adopt a longer 40 day Advent). Advent is like Lent and is supposed to be a time of preparation and recollection for the Christmas period. In my childhood, it was very much a time of fasting for adults, just like Lent but nowadays there seems to be little stress on fasting and it would appear that, unlike Lent, Friday abstinence is not required in Advent either. I'm largely vegetarian these days so abstinence from meat is not a big issue for me anyway. In recent years, I've tried to apply an Eastern Orthodox approach to Lent and, to a lesser extent, Advent by going mostly vegan during the period, at least for food I prepare or purchase for myself (but if I'm invited to dinner by friends or family I happily eat what I'm given out of respect for their hospitality). This year I have some feta cheese in the fridge and so, as I also don't like to waste food, I will finish the feta before I move to a more vegan diet.

Last Thursday in the US was Thanksgiving, not something we've ever observed in this country or across the Tasman, although I believe there is a Canadian Thanksgiving but observed one or two months before the US one. A friend of mine who comes from the US says that one of the advantages of US Thanksgiving is that it puts a barrier beyond which all the commercial Christmas frenzy can't go.

Oh bliss! because here in Australia XMAS, which is how I'll render the commercial, corporatised consumer festival of Christmas shopping, has been going for two to three weeks already. It was two weeks ago that I was meeting my elderly friend for his birthday in one of the suburban shopping centres to go to the movies. It was one of the big shopping megaplexes and although mid-November, the full XMAS frenzy was in full swing, decorations everywhere AND a musical ensemble parading around playing XMAS music, all suitably secular stuff to do with snow and winter cheer and Santa and stuff. Of course outside, temperatures were in the 30s Celsius.

I like Christmas and I'm happy to do things like cards and stuff. I like some of the seasonal foods and I enjoy a good midnight Mass with carols and all. Since most Anglican churches have a midnight Mass that ends around midnight instead of starting midnight, from 2004 I've been able on most years to do two midnight masses, starting at the local Anglican church and then ducking around the corner to the Roman one. Unfortunately, as I'm housesitting over Christmas in a neighbourhood where the Anglican and RC churches are too far apart and may not even have a midnight event anyway, I won't be able to do ecumenical midnight Mass this year (but I would strongly urge RCs and Anglicans in areas where their churches are very close together to coordinate their liturgies to allow for more such ecumenical inter-action).

However while I like Christmas, I really despise XMAS. Lets face it for capitalism, shopping has been elevated to the status of a sacrament and ironically, following the global financial crisis, it has also taken on an almost patriotic veneer too. All the Thanskgiving news reports out of the US spoke of how important strong Christmas spending was for the good of the US economy and likewise in this country we've had the same discourses of the importance of a strong shopping splurge as a measure of this country's economic well-being.

As someone who is a sessional worker XMAS can be a rather anxious time. I have no idea what work prospects I have for next year, not an unusual situation for me these days. My current work ends in three weeks time. So the prospect of being caught up in the XMAS shopping melee does not fill me with delight. I try to avoid it as much as possible. At least I try to buy gifts that aren't too expensive and, if I can, I stay away from the big department stores. Eventually I hope to do Christmas without the expectation of gifts, to eliminate XMAS as much as possible from the festive season

Nowadays, I'm becoming keen to rehabilitate Advent. I think there is a certain sense to the notion of preceding a festival with a time of preparation, one that actually involved cutting back on things, living more simply, less frenetically. In today's Age there was a story about the Parliament of World Religions. It's headline was to do with religious freedom and laws against apostasy but towards the end the story turned to the question of asceticism and fasting:

On the environment, Professor Pedersen 300 million people were already living with the effects of climate change. Global warming and resource depletion were going to force people to change how they lived.

''People see asceticism as extreme, people who sleep on beds of nails, are celibate and [who] fast. I'm scrutinising the idea of what is extreme. We think a 40-day fast is as much as the body can stand but a Korean Buddhist nun friend told me, 'It's no big deal, we all do it,' '' she said.

Asked for examples, Professor Pedersen said preaching at people was futile. ''But do you have to have a car? How many sets of clothing are enough? They say the meat industry contributes enormously to greenhouse gases, so eat less meat - there's an ascetic practice right there.''

Professor Pedersen, 63, who ran her most recent marathon a year ago, said the secret of restraint was training, like an athlete or musician.

''Don't think of it as self-denial, but what you can accomplish,'' she said.

Imagine if Roman Catholics, like their Orthodox cousins, went vegan in Lent and Advent (mind you I don't know how strictly most Orthodox observe the Lenten and Advent fasts). And rather than thinking of such practice as self-denial it could be regarded as a way of giving respect to the biosphere, of even slowing down the capitalist frenzy (although I'm sure it would eventually generate a frenzied market in vegan shopping sprees, such is the nature of the capitalist beast).

I will certainly maintain my Advent observances and in time hope to one day only celebrate Christmas and ignore completely the capitalist XMAS. [1]

[1] Or if I was to do gifts they would be little surprises without any expectation of being in a gift giving round


  1. I've never even heard of Advent Lent. Imagine how pleasant even Xmas would be if it followed a period of restraint, rather than the current season of general excess leading up to a day of overwhelming excess (xmas day) followed by a week or so of more general excess leading to a night of drunken riotousness (NYE). Molly

  2. Yes, Michael, thanks for the challenge and the inspiration.The call to restraint is more difficult given the jolly tradition of Xmas staff parties.

    I also find that November-Devember is my AGM season when the community group I support invite me along to their Annual General Meeting which usually includes great hospitality and celebration, all fine values in our fragile gloabl village.

    I attempt to show restraint in my gift giving by selecting fair trade products or as this year, the fund raising album for the Victorian Bushfre appeal.

    I have an advent shrine in my study with four candles and will hold off on the nativity and decorations this year till Christmas eve. My real passion is to reclaim the 12 Days of Christmas which most people just miss.

    I love the idea of sending Christmas cards right up to the feast of the Epiphany on January 6. It is such a frustration that Australia Post choses to cut out the special Christmas stamps on December 31.

    Advent blessings and let us wait in hope!


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