A Jolly Conspiracy

In one of those awful Disney movies about dogs who talk, there is a scene where a sleigh pulled by puppies is trying to get back to the North Pole. Yet these puppies had never pulled a sleigh before, and they didn’t fully believe in the North Pole anyway, so they had to ask how to get there. The driver of the sleigh, another puppy, said, “Just follow the North Star!”

My family watched that scene, just last night, and after the sleigh puppies were told to follow the North Star, one of my daughters said, “That’s not how you get to the North Pole. That’s how you get to Jesus!”

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Saint Nicholas is everywhere. His image is on boxes of cereal and band aids and chocolate goodies. He is featured in countless commercials, seated on firetrucks in local parades, and is embroidered on those really bad Christmas sweaters. He’s mostly caucasian, with a white beard and a red suit. And he’s always smiling.

It struck me as odd, though, that for an annual season, an entire culture (the entire world?) promotes a belief in a supernatural benefactor that requires an inherent goodness from people before gifts are given — and his name isn’t God. And mostly, we are fine with that, until we realize that we are the ones giving gifts in the name of the patron saint of both thieves and children.

We spend money so gifts can be given in the name of someone who really isn’t even alive. Inordinate amounts of money, by the way — amounts that are probably disproportional to our income. We spend gobs just to make sure that this jolly conspiracy is perpetuated.

I wouldn’t call it lying.

But I would call it a masterful deception.

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One day a year, children awake with sleepy eyes and generous dreams, with the hope that Saint Nicholas has visited their home. They soon hold in their hands the gifts and presents that were given to them in the name of Saint Nicholas. (“We don’t need no stinkin’ parents!”)

Parents smile, and create Instagram shots of their kids. Grandmothers call and say sweet things like, “Santa was good to you this year, wasn’t he?”

And then, a few days later, when the tree becomes a nuisance, parents receive the credit card statements, and wonder why they spent so much money on gifts that are already forgotten.

So the budget-shuffling to pay those bills begins, because the minimum monthly payment has just grown by more than moms and dads had expected.

(“We just wanted them to have a good Christmas!”)

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We are slaves to something that, in the end, does more damage to our family than does it good.

This jolly conspiracy is built around debt, over-consumption, and excess, and it enslaves us. Moreover, it becomes difficult to find the mission of Jesus in the midst of soaring credit card bills. Yet we continue to be a part of it, even when it hurts.

When it’s put that way, it sounds almost diabolic, doesn’t it?

Or, like an addiction that needs some serious therapy.

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It’s hard — really hard — to not look at this jolly conspiracy as it is filtered through a gospel lens. Read no farther than Luke 4, and Jesus’ own mission statement, where he believed his divine mission was to feed the poor, to give sight to the blind, to give freedom to prisoners and to give freedom to the oppressed.

Freedom.

Freedom!

Jesus’ mission was to give freedom, yet our national spending habits from November 25 through December 25 rob us of freedom.

We willingly make decisions that teach our children about the gross excess of Americanism, at the expense of the very freedom Jesus offers.

And, by default, our kids will continue the cycle of ignoring the the most profound blessing of Jesus on the biggest gift-giving day of the year.

I’m not sure that’s exactly what we want to teach our kids, especially if we believe in Jesus, and believe in his message of freedom.

(An iPad mini just doesn’t seem to compare to that kind of freedom, does it?)

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Isn’t it interesting that we are partial to such a conspiracy, though? To underscore the point, consider this question:

What would Christmas morning look like if our children received gifts from their parents in the name of Jesus, instead of the name of Santa?

I think gift-giving, and gift-receiving would change. I know, because I speak from experience.

My family ended this jolly conspiracy a few years ago, telling our own children that the gifts they would receive, meager though they may be in the eyes of some, and extravagant in the eyes of others, would be because we were blessed by God to give those gifts. These gifts would no longer come in the name of a man in a red suit. And, we told them,  there may come a day when the Lord gives us trials, and gifts would be sparse. I am not a pessimist, but no one is spared from times of desperation, and I didn’t want to find myself enslaved to something, and someone, that — if that day ever came — wasn’t even real.

So, no more conspiracy. No more strange men visiting our home in the middle of the night, while everyone sleeps.

(And no more strange rabbit delivering eggs, either.)

In fairness, it took us almost a year to reach this decision, in large part because our culture says to uphold this jolly conspiracy as long as we can. For the longest time we thought perpetuating the deception was the right thing to do.

In the end, though, I grew tired of my kids “praying” to Santa — in the form of a Christmas list — and asking him for the things that would make their lives complete. I found myself to blame for those strange moments, when I began to believe that this loved tradition ignored the God who had graciously provided for my family.

I wanted to praise God on Christmas morning, and I wanted my kids to do the same.

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I’m dreaming of a better Christmas — a Christmas that doesn’t mix a fictional character with the birth of the Messiah. Our world has very little against the man in the red suit, but is quick to disregard the baby in the manger. I, for one, am tired of that.

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So here I am, and here you are, together, on some strange corner of the Internet, talking about Christmas. We haven’t discussed children in foster care, who wish to be reconciled to their families. We haven’t discussed the poverty experienced by some children, and we certainly don’t want to discuss it when we gather around a table of plenty. We haven’t talked about those who sleep in their cars on Christmas eve, or those who wake up with a hangover on Christmas morning. I’m not sure we need to.

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If the reason for the season is Jesus, then let Jesus be that reason. Let the gifts we give be in his name. Let those in our circle, in our community, know we care because we become the hands that give the gift of freedom in the name of Jesus. Let our kids see Jesus throughout the season, not only in pedantic Christmas specials on television, but in the face of the hungry who are fed.

It’s time to end this jolly conspiracy.

I’m not trying to start a movement. I just want you to pray about it, and let the Lord show you what you should do next.

Crisis

A Christmas Crisis?

Americans spend $450,000,000,000, in just thirty days, for the Christmas holiday.  And moneysupermarket.com claims that four out of five people will unwrap presents they neither want, or need. 

We are in a Christmas crisis.  Perhaps there is value in this post, then:

“You Shouldn’t Have:  The Economic Argument For Never Giving Another Gift”
by Joel Waldfogel
for Slate Magazine

With just three weeks till Christmas, the Red Bull-infused phase of the holiday shopping season is upon us. If recent history is any guide, the month of December alone—with just 8 percent of the year’s shopping days—will bring 23 percent of the year’s sales at jewelry stores, 16 percent at department stores, and 15 percent at electronics stores. U.S. December retail sales can be expected to exceed sales in other months by $65 billion. Finally, some good news for the economy. Or maybe not.

Normally—during the 11 non-December months of the year—I’ll spend $50 on something only if it’s worth at least $50 to me. Typically, measures of spending provide a lower-bound on the value of the satisfaction that buyers expect to reap from their purchases. While some of our own purchases ultimately disappoint, we generally buy well for ourselves, so using spending as a barometer of consumer satisfaction makes sense. Spending on gifts is different. When I set out to spend $50 on you, I operate at a significant disadvantage. I’m not certain about what you have or what you want, so when I spend $50 on a gift, I may buy something worth nothing to you. There’s no guarantee that consumer satisfaction meets, exceeds, or even comes close to the amount spent on the gift.

How much satisfaction do we purchase with the $65 billion worth of stuff we put under the tree? Over the past 15 years, I’ve done a lot of surveys asking gift recipients about the items they’ve received: Who bought it? What did the buyer pay? What’s the most you would have been willing to pay for it? Based on these surveys, I’ve concluded that we value items we receive as gifts 20 percent less, per dollar spent, than items we buy for ourselves. Given the $65 billion in U.S. holiday spending per year, that means we get $13 billion less in satisfaction than we would receive if we spent that money the usual way—carefully, on ourselves. Americans celebrate the holidays with an orgy of value destruction. Worldwide, the waste is almost twice as large.

But doesn’t this analysis ignore the joy of giving? you ask. Can’t that joy make up for the inefficiency of gift giving? Let’s consider an example. Your Aunt Mildred buys you a $50 sweater. You don’t hate it, but you don’t love it, either. In all likelihood, you’d have bought it for yourself only if it was a steal—let’s say you’d have been willing to pay no more than $30 for it. So far, her gift appears to destroy value. But suppose Mildred got joy in giving the gift, and while it would be hard to do so with any precision, let’s suppose we can attach a dollar value to Mildred’s joy. For the sake of discussion, let’s say it’s another $30. That would bring the total benefit of the transaction to $60, $10 more than its cost. But wait: If Aunt Mildred got the same joy from giving you a sweater you actually wanted—worth its $50 price tag to you—then the transaction could have created $80 in value. Relative to this, the bad gift misses out on $20 worth of satisfaction. So even accounting for the joy of giving, our gift-giving is inefficient. Of course, it’s also possible that Mildred enjoys giving you only sweaters you do not like, but if so, then Mildred is a sadist. And I doubt that sadism motivates the vast lot of gift giving.

It’s bad enough that we buy a lot of stuff that no one wants. It turns out we buy it using money we don’t yet have. It wasn’t always this way. In the 1930s, almost 10 percent of Christmas spending was financed with money squirreled away into Christmas clubs—bank accounts paying little interest but helping consumers save for the holiday. Participants promised to contribute weekly, frequently as little as $0.25 at a time. These accounts were popular because they helped even unsophisticated consumers—many of whom didn’t have another bank account—avoid the temptation to fritter their money away. Since 1970, by contrast, the explosive growth in consumer credit has had the opposite effect, helping consumers fall prey to their lack of self-control when it comes to borrowing. In recent years, one-third of holiday spending is still not paid off two months after Christmas.

Hold on there! Isn’t spending good for the economy? The economy consists of buyers and sellers. In normal transactions, the seller gets a price exceeding his cost and therefore makes some profit, while the buyer gets an item she values at or above its price (in which case the buyer receives some surplus). A well-functioning market maximizes the joint surplus experienced by sellers and buyers. With gift giving, the seller still gets his profit, but the ultimate consumer (the gift recipient) gets an item that produces less satisfaction than an equal amount of spending would have led to if she had purchased an item for herself. So, is holiday spending good for the economy? It’s good for sellers, but it’s not sufficiently good at producing satisfaction for the ultimate consumers. And most of us are, after all, consumers rather than sellers.

Second, while cash is in principle an appealing gift, as it allows the recipient to choose something she actually wants, it’s considered tacky in our culture. Gift cards are probably the next best thing, although you need to be careful about fees and about losing them. Gift cards would be even better if their unspent balances—10 percent of spending by some accounts—went automatically to charity after a few years. With about $80 billion in annual gift card sales, there’s $8 billion at stake here.

OK, Professor Scrooge, I can’t really just not give anyone gifts—do you have any advice for how to give better gifts? First off, keep giving gifts to people you know well and see often, especially kids. When you know your recipients’ wants and needs, your gifts are far less likely to destroy value. Gifts from givers in daily or weekly contact are, on average, about 10 percent more satisfying, per dollar spent, than those from givers in only monthly or yearly contact. In fact, the right gift can, in some circumstances, be even more satisfying than what the recipient would have done with cash. While textbook economics views people as fully aware of all the things they might like to buy, in reality our friends sometimes know about things we’d like before we learn of them. In those situations, well-chosen gifts can allow us to enjoy wonderful items that we did not know existed.

Finally, gifts to charity on behalf of recipients deserve a look. Such gifts can allow your friends and family to experience a luxury they probably can’t usually afford. While luxury evokes images of jewelry and fancy chocolates, if you look at household spending data, one of the clearest luxuries—that is, an item whose share of expenditure rises with income—is charitable giving. So charity gift cards (offered by Charity Navigator or TisBest.org), which allow recipients to choose which charity gets the money, make it possible for recipients to act like rich guys, while transferring resources to high-value uses. Admittedly, these would be terrible gifts for 11-year-old boys, but they may be an ideal way to fulfill your giving obligations with other adults. Like it or not, we are about to go on our annual holiday spending sprees. That spending can be a force for waste or a force for good. Think twice before you put that sweater on your Visa.

Joel Waldfogel is the Ehrenkranz professor of business and public policy at the Wharton School. This article is drawn from his new book, Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays.

For another take, visit The Advent Conspiracy.  You’ll be glad you did.

Room

The Christmas Celebration in Bagdad included a poster of Jesus.

Joy to the world, the Lord has come!
Let earth receive her king!
Let every heart prepare Him room, and heaven and nature sing!

That may be possible …

The following story is from CNN, and you can find it here.

And maybe, just maybe, every single heart can prepare him room.  Even the heart which has never believed.

Baghdad Celebrates First Public Christmas Amid Hope, Memories
by Jill Dougherty
CNN.com

From a distance, it looks like an apparition: a huge multi-colored hot-air balloon floating in the Baghdad sky, bearing a large poster of Jesus Christ. Below it, an Iraqi flag.

Welcome to the first-ever public Christmas celebration in Baghdad, held Saturday and sponsored by the Iraqi Interior Ministry. Once thought to be infiltrated by death squads, the Ministry now is trying to root out sectarian violence — as well as improve its P.R. image.

The event takes place in a public park in eastern Baghdad, ringed with security checkpoints. Interior Ministry forces deployed on surrounding rooftops peer down at the scene: a Christmas tree decorated with ornaments and tinsel; a red-costumed Santa Claus waving to the crowd, an Iraqi flag draped over his shoulders; a red-and-black-uniformed military band playing stirring martial music, not Christmas carols.

On a large stage, children dressed in costumes representing Iraq’s many ethnic and religious groups — Kurds, Turkmen, Yazidis, Christians, Arab Muslims not defined as Sunni or Shiite — hold their hands aloft and sing “We are building Iraq!” Two young boys, a mini-policeman and a mini-soldier sporting painted-on mustaches, march stiffly and salute.

Even before I can ask Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Abdul Karim Khalaf a question, he greets me with a big smile. “All Iraqis are Christian today!” he says.

Khalaf says sectarian and ethnic violence killed thousands of Iraqis. “Now that we have crossed that hurdle and destroyed the incubators of terrorism,” he says, “and the security situation is good, we have to go back and strengthen community ties.”

In spite of his claim, the spokesman is surrounded by heavy security. Yet this celebration shows that the security situation in Baghdad is improving.

Many of the people attending the Christmas celebration appear to be Muslims, with women wearing head scarves. Suad Mahmoud, holding her 16-month-old daughter, Sara, tells me she is indeed Muslim, but she’s very happy to be here. “My mother’s birthday also is this month, so we celebrate all occasions,” she says, “especially in this lovely month of Christmas and New Year.”

Father Saad Sirop Hanna, a Chaldean Christian priest, is here too. He was kidnapped by militants in 2006 and held for 28 days. He knows firsthand how difficult the lot of Christians in Iraq is but, he tells me, “We are just attesting that things are changing in Baghdad, slowly, but we hope that this change actually is real. We will wait for the future to tell us the truth about this.”

He just returned from Rome. “I came back to Iraq because I believe that we can live here,” he says. “I have so many [Muslim] friends and we are so happy they started to think about things from another point of view and we want to help them.”

The Christmas celebration has tables loaded with cookies and cakes. Families fill plates and chat in the warm winter sun. Santa balloons hang from trees. An artist uses oil paint to create a portrait of Jesus.

In the middle of the park there’s an art exhibit, the creation of 11- and 12-year-olds: six displays, each about three feet wide, constructed of cardboard and Styrofoam, filled with tiny dolls dressed like ordinary people, along with model soldiers and police. They look like model movie sets depicting everyday life in Baghdad.

Afnan, 12 years old, shows me her model called “Arresting the Terrorists.”

“These are the terrorists,” she tells me. “They were trying to blow up the school.” In the middle of the street a dead “terrorist” sprawls on the asphalt, his bloody arm torn from his body by an explosion. Afnan tells me she used red nail polish to paint the blood. A little plastic dog stands nearby. “What is he doing?” I ask. “He looks for terrorists and searches for weapons and explosives,” Afnan says.

Her mother, the children’s art teacher, Raja, shows me another child’s display called “Baghdad Today.”

“This is a wedding,” Raja explains. “Despite the terrorism, our celebrations still go ahead. This is a park, families enjoying time. And this is a market where people go shopping without fear of bombings. This is a mosque where people can pray with no fear.”

In the middle is a black mound that looks like a body bag. Policemen and Interior Ministry forces surround it. “This is terrorism,” she tells me. “We killed it and destroyed it, and our lives went back to normal.”

A Christmas tale perhaps, I think, but one that many Iraqis hope will come true.