Washington Diarist: Unsilent Night

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POLITICS DECEMBER 31, 2001

Washington Diarist: Unsilent Night

It's Christmas, festive season of goodwill, time of sparkling delight for the little ones, and... argggghhhhhhh, how many hundred chores left? For parents of young kids, the run-up to Christmas is the most exhausting period of the year. A dozen large boxes of decorations and lights to string. Two trees in our household, plus miniatures for each kid's room. The Tyranny of the Presents: dozens of relatives are present-qualified in our extended family group, and each of the five of us gives an average of 2.5 gifts to each, meaning uncountable gifts to buy or make. Plus toy drives and Secret Santa events, parties to attend, parties to give, stockings to stuff, the wrapping of those uncountable gifts, rehearsals for the pageant (our offspring are two camels and a shepherd this year), all the while regular homework and housework and income work continue. By Christmas morning, my wife Nan and I are in a state of pure fatigue. Then the event goes by in a blur and it's time to start cleaning up. As a child, my favorite moment each year was Christmas Eve, when bells were ringing and everything was in prospect. As a parent, my favorite moment each year comes around the morning of December 29, when I've finally caught up on sleep.

Of course I feel grateful to live in a place and time when it is common to hear people complain about too many presents. The year 2001 has reminded Americans what really matters in life, how petty and fleeting most of what we grumble about is, how thankful we should feel to be up at 2 a.m. wrapping gifts for children who live in liberty and prosperity. The only real problem with overdoing the holidays is that not everyone can. One-fifth of our country lives near or below the poverty line, while one billion worldwide are destitute, and perhaps two billion more barely get by. Everyone at The New Republic was also reminded of what really matters by the recent announcement that our dear colleague and former editor Michael Kinsley has Parkinson's disease; he is doing well. My initial reaction to word of Kinsley's health was that we have now had enough of being reminded what really matters in life.

Each season, someone proposes making the holidays less stuff-oriented. There are calls for a national commitment to asceticism. No parties, no presents, switch off the colored lights; a few years ago Bill McKibben devoted an entire book to scolding people for spending more than $100 on Christmas. But proposing no holiday spending is about as practical as proposing a ban on foul language. People like parties and surprises in shiny paper. Life is short; we should enjoy it by doing things we like. The challenge is not to eradicate seasonal materialism, but to put it into perspective.

My suggestion: follow a standard that for each dollar spent on self, family, and friends during the holidays, another dollar is given to the needy or to charity. Had a good year? More power to you! Celebrate with lots of presents--but give an equal amount to those who did not have a good year. Giving away as much as you spend would naturally reduce holiday excess, while making the parties and gift-giving that still happen more enjoyable, since they would come with a clear conscience. Families and groups of friends who subscribed to this idea would know they were not only indulging themselves--and nothing wrong with that--but helping others as well. It has always seemed to me that this idea could catch on if promoted from the pulpits of America as a formula for enjoying Christmas while keeping the day in spiritual perspective. All the plan needs is a catchy name. Two-For-One Christmas is the best I've been able to come up with. Please, couldn't some marketing whiz find what Malcolm Gladwell calls a "sticky" way to advance my idea?

At least Christmas shopping headaches are palliated by the arrival of the Web. I placed our orders for Harry Potter paraphernalia early by computer, and now the stuff just comes to our door-- no battling mobs at the mall. But speaking as someone who has been using Amazon.com pretty much since the day its portal opened, I sense an alarming trend in Web retailing. Around Thanksgiving Amazon started running bright banners promising free shipping for orders exceeding $99. I placed an order exceeding $99 and was hit with an $11 shipping charge. I e-mailed customer service--once in Seattle, now in Bangalore, India--and got a reply telling me I hadn't read the offer's fine print closely enough.

They linked to the fine print, which ran 403 words. You had to order either $99 worth of toys or $99 worth of non-toy merchandise. Aha, I had ordered $99 worth of toys. But, using Amazon's vaunted 1-Click, I'd foolishly also ordered a Christmas CD. That's not a toy, and invalidated the deal; essentially, I was charged extra for spending more. "In the future, please pay close attention to the promotional guidelines before placing an order," I was admonished by customer service rep "Chuck P." (The Bangalore staff uses anglicized pseudonyms; you're not supposed to know customer service is outsourced to another hemisphere.) In its early years Amazon relentlessly hyped itself as a company that was sensitive to customers and enlightened to workers. But as Jonathan Cohn explained in these pages (see "The Jungle," February 19), it gradually became a company hostile to workers. The next step in corporate decline is turning on your customers, which Amazon seems poised to do. Of course, if this Web leader adopts a new philosophy of conning customers, Wall Street may applaud.

I will banish such commercial thoughts from my mind as I watch the Christmas pageant, hoping our six-year-old, Spenser, doesn't muff his line: "We are camels from the East." The suburban Washington church we attend, Bradley Hills, is a joint Christian-Jewish place of worship. As the weekend begins, the sanctuary is used by Bethesda Jewish, a Reform congregation. On Sundays, Presbyterians take over. Classrooms, meeting halls, and finances are shared. I wish similar arrangements were more common. One of the shortcomings of Christianity is that most adherents downplay the faith's interweaving with Judaism. It is far from clear whether Jesus meant to create a new faith, reform an ancient one, or move the world beyond religion as such. But how can anyone understand 2,000 years of Christianity without the 3,000 years of Jewish life and thought from which it arose? The Bradley Hills sanctuary has crosses, and also Stars of David; I find it pleasant to imagine that my Redeemer would feel at home there. At the hub of the campus, the dual congregation is building a special "sacred space," mainly for Reform ceremonies. When that work is done, Bradley Hills will in literal terms be a Christian church with a Jewish church at its center, a perfect representative of the story of my faith. And a perfect place for a pageant depicting the birth of an itinerant Jew who never owned a thing, wrote a thing, or held any office, yet changed history.

By Gregg Easterbrook

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