Unsilent Night

By

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 me 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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