The cost of Christmas
In a few weeks most of us will be celebrating Christmas. Not all of us, of course. Some of you have settled it in your minds that you’re going to have nothing to do with it. If that’s your position, I admire you and I must admit I feel a pang of envy. I understand and can see the strength of your arguments. (I listed out some of them in the letter from the manse for December 2001). But in the end, on balance, I can carry on celebrating Christmas with a clear conscience. And the same is true for most of us.
The church here makes use of Christmas as a gospel opportunity. We hold carol services, distribute Christmas cards round the area, sing Christmas carols down at Morrisons. And most of you will send Christmas cards, give Christmas presents, put up Christmas decorations, and eat Christmas dinner on December the 25th.
It’s not cheap
It’s estimated that last year more than 72 billion pounds were spent in the UK celebrating Christmas – that’s more than a thousand pounds per man, woman or child. This year, it’s expected to be higher than that: somewhere nearer 88 billion pounds. Where does it all go? Christmas dinner, we’re told, costs an average of £161 per family. The average UK child receives gifts worth £132 (Looking at what some children receive, I’m amazed the figure is so low). Visits to seasonal attractions (“Your children will love Santa’s Winter Wonderland!”) or a Christmas pantomime can add hundreds of pounds to the Christmas bill. (Opt for a skiing holiday in Austria and hundreds can become thousands). A trolley full of wines and spirits can add hundreds more. Even Christmas cards are a major item. Apparently, we spent £1.37 billion on cards last year.
Consumer surveys report that two out of five of those questioned say that they feel pressured to spend more then they can afford. When it comes to buying children’s presents, the figure rises to nearly 50%. Parents who say no to their children’s demands are made to feel uncaring and mean. Two out of three people questioned say that they expect to start the New Year in debt as a result of Christmas spending. Two in ten of those who ran up debts at Christmas 2013 have still not paid them off as Christmas 2014 approaches.
So how do we, as Christians, decide what it’s right to spend at Christmas? We face the same pressures as other folk. We don’t want our children to be disappointed when Christmas Day arrives. We don’t want our unconverted relatives to think that we are stingy and killjoy. We don’t want the folk in the office to note that we are the only staff members who never send Christmas cards. And in the middle of a cold, dreary winter, yes, we want to enjoy food, festivities and fun as much as anyone else. Yet we know that we cannot spend money as others do – with no thought for God’s kingdom and his righteousness. In this, as in everything else, we want to please and honour God. So we ask, what does that mean in practice?
Let me remind you of five important truths.
(1) Our money is not our own
Whatever money is in our hands has been entrusted to us by our Master to be used in His service and for His glory. It is not to be used carelessly, selfishly or wastefully. Jesus told us to think of ourselves as stewards who will give account of the way we have used our master’s property (Luke 16:1-12). And he has told us that he expects us to use “our” money, not for short-lived pleasure but in ways that will bring eternal rewards. “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with money bags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys…” (Luke 12: 33); “Use worldly wealth to win friends, who when it fails, will welcome you into eternal dwellings…” (Luke 16:9).
Paul talks about the right use of money in almost every one of his letters. He tells us that Christians should use their money to relieve the needs of their fellow-believers (Romans 12:13: “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality”); to assist missionaries (Philippians 4:16: “Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once again”); to care for dependent relatives (2 Timothy 5:8: “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever”; to support preachers and pastors (Galatians 6:6: “One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches”) and to give generously to all in need, (Ephesians 4:23: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour doing honest work with his own hands so that he may have something to share with anyone in need”).
On the Day of Judgement each one of us will be asked whether we used the money entrusted to us in the ways that God wanted us to use it. “We must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10). Before I spend money, I must first remind myself, “This is not my money”. And I must ask myself “Am I using it in the way that will best please its real owner – the Lord Jesus?”. That’s not just a rule for Christmas. It’s for all the year round. But perhaps I need to keep it in mind more at Christmas than at any other time.
(2) Self- indulgence is forbidden – even at Christmas
For many people, Christmas is the time when they feel entitled to shake off the restraints which apply through the rest of the year. People who are normally sober feel free to get drunk. People who are normally careful not to overeat stuff themselves. People who are normally careful about their outward behaviour feel no shame if they get carried away at the office party and join in obscene conversation or lewd behaviour. The fact that it’s Christmas is seen to justify any departure from morality, good manners or common sense. (“Well it is Christmas, isn’t it… you’ve got to let your hair down…”). For such people, overspending is simply part of the package. If you’ve been careful with your money all through the rest of the year, you’re entitled to forget caution when it comes to Christmas. That’s the world’s thinking.
But the Christian sees things differently – or should do. The Lord Jesus tells us that we are to take up a cross and deny ourselves daily – every day of the year (Luke 9:23). Wild parties, drunkenness, self-indulgence are forbidden as much at Christmas as at any time: “You have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do – living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you…” (1 Peter 4:3-4). Overspending is no different. God’s Word forbids us to spend money we don’t have and to get into debt. “Owe no man anything…” (Romans 13:8). The writer of Proverbs warns us that “the borrower is the slave of the lender” (Proverbs 22:7). Is it really worth enslaving yourself to a loans company for a single day of self-indulgent pleasure?
If my children are desperate for some costly toy, and I don’t have the money to pay for it, they’re going to have to do without. Better to spoil their Christmas dreams than to have our home repossessed twelve months later. If we’ve always had a turkey on Christmas Day, but can’t afford it this year, better to live on corned beef than run up a debt on the credit card, and then have to scrimp and save for a year to pay off the interest.
Never use Christmas to justify doing sinful, unwise or self-indulgent things that you wouldn’t do at any other time. Christmas is supposed to be a reminder of the self-giving of God’s Son, born into poverty and pain. How horrible if it became an excuse for us to indulge in greed or folly!
(3) Selfishness is always sinful – all the year round
I’ve given you already a string of quotations from the New Testament about the use of money. Each one of them emphasises that the Lord has entrusted money to us, not just for our own benefit but for the benefit of others. Jesus said “Love your neighbour as you love yourself”. If a Christian takes that command seriously he or she will find it impossible to lavish money on his own pleasures and entertainments while he sees people around him in desperate need. Jesus told a story of “a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day” while a poor man lay at his gate, sick and starving (Luke 16:19-21). Jesus declared that that rich man would be cast into hell. The first Christians in Jerusalem “were of one heart and soul, and no-one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common…” (Acts 4:32). And the result was that there was “not a needy person among them, for as many of them as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold, and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need…” (Acts 4:34-35). They took Jesus’s commands and warnings seriously!
Remembering those commands and warnings will put a restraint on our spending. Yes, it would be nice to buy my children everything they dream about… but what about children on the streets of Manila who are starving or selling their bodies to survive? Yes, I could treat myself to the latest electronic gadget, but do I need it as much as my Albanian brother needs a heart operation? The fact that it’s Christmas doesn’t mean that I’m entitled to stop loving my neighbour as myself! Christmas ought to be a time when we are more conscious than ever of the need to share all we have with others.
(4) It is not wrong to spend on those whom we love
I’ve quoted Jesus’s words: love your neighbour as you love yourself. Who is my neighbour? Answer – every person I encounter. I should be prepared to care for every person whom God brings across my path. But there are some people to whom I have a special responsibility. My wife. I have promised to love her as I love no-one else on earth – to think of her needs before I think of anyone’s else. “Husbands, love your wives…” wrote Paul (Ephesians 5:25). My parents. “Honour your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12). My children. My wider family. My fellow church-members. I have a special debt of love to all these people.
And sometimes love demands extravagance. Jesus made that clear when a woman came to him and broke open a hugely expensive jar of ointment, and poured it over his feet. Judas Iscariot was quick to protest. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” (John 12:4). To which Jesus replied, “Let her alone. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me…” It was appropriate that that woman should show her love for the Lord Jesus without thinking about the cost.
There are situations and occasions when it’s right to show our love for someone in an extravagant way. The Bible assumes that a bridegroom will shower costly treasures on his bride; grateful subjects will bring costly tribute to a king, that brothers who have quarrelled will bring costly gifts to each other as sign of their restored love.
For many of us, Christmas is the natural opportunity to show our love for the special people in our lives by buying them gifts that we would normally consider too costly. Or by making costly journeys to be with them. Or by providing costly meals to celebrate our reunion with them. That seems right and proper. If we are going to celebrate Christmas at all, let’s ask ourselves whether there are particular people to whom we owe extravagant love. And then let’s be prepared to make Christmas special for them – even if that’s costly.
So am I saying that, when it comes to family and friends we should forget the first three principles? Not a bit of it. I’m not saying for a moment that we can forget that this is God’s money we’re spending. Rather, we should say, “this person is someone whom God has commanded me to love in a special way. And he wants me to show that love in a costly way”. I’m not saying that we can throw off all common sense and spend money that we haven’t got. By all means do without coffee at Starbucks for six months so that you can afford the handbag your wife has long dreamed of – but don’t go into debt for it. And I’m not saying that as you spend money to make Christmas happy for your loved ones, you should forget the poor. Why not covenant with your family that for every pound you spend on one another, you’ll put aside another pound for needy believers in Sri Lanka or Turkey? Loving your neighbour and loving your family isn’t an either/or. It can be a both/and.
(5) Fun doesn’t have to be expensive
How much does it cost to make Christmas memorable and happy? Answer – a lot less than most people imagine. Yes, the advertisers and the media pressure us into thinking that we need to spend a fortune to celebrate Christmas. But, in this, as in everything else, we don’t need to believe the propaganda of the world. “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” (Romans 12:2).
Children don’t need to have scores of trendy, in-the-stores-for-Christmas presents in order to enjoy themselves. Many parents have had the frustrating experience of buying costly presents for their children, which are then abandoned while the children play with the cardboard boxes the gifts came in! Or they turn up their noses at the big, expensive presents but get excited by a stocking-filler that cost fifty pence – a packet of plasticine, a super-bouncy rubber ball, or a pack of snap cards.
Find out what each of your children really enjoys doing, and then find presents that match their individual personalities and interests. Often you’ll find that those presents cost a lot less than the “this is what every child wants” product that the advertisers are pushing. The latest fashionable toy or electronic gadget is likely to be discarded as soon as the novelty wears off. Look for something that they can come back to day after day, and find fresh pleasure in.
What we’ve said about children’s presents applies equally to presents for grown-ups. Isn’t that true in your own experience? When people give you presents, is it always the most expensive presents that have brought you the most pleasure? Or is it the presents – however small – that have been chosen individually to match your personality and interests?
I’m told that the number 1 present for men last Christmas was a “tablet” (ie a portable computer with a touch screen). Well, frankly, if someone had bought me one, I’d have been distinctly unexcited. After all, if I had needed one, I’d have bought one for myself. But there were presents that are still giving me pleasure. My wonderful parents in law gave me an insulated coffee-mug with a built-in plunger to make fresh filter coffee. I didn’t know there were such things so I would never have bought one for myself. But I’ve enjoyed it almost every day for the past year. It probably cost less than a tablet – but it was the perfect present for me. Thoughtful, individual gifts – often home-made gifts – can bring far more pleasure than much more expensive choices.
The same applies to entertainments. For the children, visits to Santa’s grotto, or Winter Wonderland, or a Christmas pantomime aren’t compulsory! For children whose parents are usually too busy to play, a long evening playing Monopoly together can be just as enthralling. We’ve taken our children walking through the snow and watching the deer in Lyme Park on Christmas Day. We’ve invited friends round and listened to Handel’s Messiah together. Some of you can remember coming to Christmas jigsaw parties at the manse. Entertainments like these cost nothing – and the visitors can help you eat up the left-over turkey and mince pies!
Christmas cards – think carefully why you send them, and who you want to send them to. Don’t feel pressured to send them to everyone who’s ever sent a card to you! Some of you will feel you want to send cards to people who are your closest friends. Others will feel that those people already know that you care about them and that it’s better to send cards to people with whom you’d otherwise lose touch. Others again will reckon that the folk to whom you send cards should be the people who are likely to get fewest. In any case, decide how many cards you want to send and stick to it. You can always send a (free) ecard to everyone else! Hand-made or home-printed cards, of course, are always appreciated and can save a lot of money.
All the trimmings
Christmas decorations? Our children have enjoyed collecting holly and making their own wreaths. Or making chains of coloured paper just as I did fifty years ago. Christmas tree? Well, yes, if you can afford it, it’s lovely to have a real tree. But if you can’t, why worry? Some of the artificial trees are very realistic now. And the children will get just as much pleasure out of decorating the fake tree as a real one (preferably of course with more home-made decorations). If you’re going to celebrate Christmas, do it properly – the old fashioned way: let the children do as much of it as possible themselves. Let them bake shortcake and mince pies. Let them put on their own Christmas plays and plan their own Christmas surprises. Those are the things that will make Christmas memorable for them.
Remembering Christ at Christmas
I’ve been writing about Christmas simply as a midwinter festival – a time for feasting, gifts, games, fun. Of course, for most Christians it’s more than that. We use it as Christ’s “official birthday” and remind ourselves of God’s love in giving his Son to a guilty world. At times, I wish we could separate out the two dimensions and keep Christmas as one or the other. But for better or worse, Christmas has become, almost unavoidably that dual-purpose celebration.
So let me close with one more Bible verse. “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Paul reminds us of the bitter poverty into which the Lord Jesus was born. And he points us to the real riches that Christ bestows on his people: not worldly wealth and luxury, but the presence and love of God himself. Two great truths for our meditation in these last weeks before Christmas. The Christian who understands those truths will know how best to use his money – and his life – for God’s glory, not just at Christmas but all the year round.