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Churches offer ways to keep ‘holy’ in holidays

Dec. 8, 2006

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A Web-only image courtesy of First United Methodist Church

The Alternative Christmas Market at First United Methodist Church, Santa Monica, Calif., allows members to write a check to support a mission project as a gift for a friend or loved one.

An Interpreter/UMNS Feature
By Ray Waddle*

Here they come again, the traditions of the late-year holidays — sumptuous party food, families reuniting, brightly wrapped gifts, soaring carols — and head-pounding stress, frayed nerves and overheated spending.

This year, take a breath, and take heart. Within reach is a world of alternative ways to buy gifts and to focus on the multilayered spirituality of Advent, leading to a meaningful Christmas.

At First United Methodist Church in Santa Monica, Calif., members are setting up a marketplace of charity — and taking a stand against thoughtless holiday materialism.

The Alternative Christmas Market at First Church is open each weekend during Advent, allowing members to write a check to support a mission project in the name of a friend or loved one, who then receives notification of the donation.

"It's a breath of fresh air," says Nikki Edwards, a member of the church. "People want to do more than spend money on items that aren't necessary."

The Santa Monica church has been doing this for nearly two decades. In 2005, it raised $20,000 for a dozen charities, local and international.

Edwards uses the Alternative Market in shopping for her three boys, ages 10, 14 and 17. Besides conventional Christmas gifts, each boy receives a card saying his parents have given money to a charity in his name. The practice usually stirs the youngsters' interest in the project, she says.

"It's a way to balance gift-giving," she says. "People in the stores talk about Christmas earlier and earlier. A lot of kids miss the whole point of the holiday: they think it's about gifts, especially receiving gifts."

Other tips for alternatives

In recent years, many churches have made alternative markets an Advent tradition.

They're doing other things, too, as a counterweight to frenzied commercialism:

  • Sponsoring workshops to help families construct Advent wreaths for home use, and distributing booklets with devotions and prayers for weekly candle-lighting times.
  • Erecting Angel Trees to provide toys for neighborhood children in need.
  • Sharing Web sites, such as (Alternatives for Simple Living), that give tips and ideas.
  • Teaching Advent's countercultural themes of hope and justice.

More churches realize that believers are dissatisfied with aggressive commercialism and holiday stress. They want guidance to reorient their holiday rhythms around the biblical story.

At Resurrection United Methodist Church in Durham, N.C., worship leaders use royal blue as an Advent liturgical color to drive home a biblical idea of the sunrise hope of the coming King.

"If you step outside in December before sunrise, that's the color blue you'll see," says the Rev. Larry Bowden.

Beyond Dec. 25

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Maile Bradfield

This simple Nativity set, made of banana tree leaves, is a reminder to focus on the spiritual aspect of Advent and Christmas during the hectic holiday season.
The word "Advent" itself looms larger as a solution to the stress. Pastors and other church leaders plead with people to enrich their notion of Christmas — and take pressure off the one big day of Dec. 25 — by embracing the December-long Advent season, and the 12 days of Christmas, which end with Epiphany Jan. 6.

"One thing we can learn is to quit thinking it's all over Dec. 26," says writer/educator Blair Meeks, author of Expecting the Unexpected: An Advent Devotional Guide (Upper Room Books, 800-972-0433).

In previous centuries, she notes, the season didn't really end until Feb. 2, called Candlemas, which honors the presentation of Jesus in the temple 40 days after his birth.

"Get lay people involved. Encourage home devotions," she urges. "Have celebrations that aren't simply cocktail parties."

One suggestion: Do home prayers around the seven stanzas of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" (The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 211), using each verse to ponder the nature of Jesus.

Important themes

Another layer of Advent deserves attention, say Meeks and others: the themes of justice and mercy. The coming of Christ means the coming Kingdom of God, as Jesus proclaimed when he read from Isaiah.

"Advent is not just about us and our devotions but releasing the captive, feeding the hungry and all those things we should take seriously, and not just the warm and fuzzy side of the holiday," Meeks says.

The simple gospel eloquence of the incarnation story — the news that God took on human form, in a specific small-town Judean scenario — is the great antidote to the overbearing complications of the season, says the Rev. Leicester Longden, who teaches at University of Dubuque Seminary in Iowa. He urges churchgoers to focus on the holiday's themes of simplicity rather than anti-capitalist agendas behind some alternative Christmas campaigns.

"The culture wants us to believe we can have it all," he says. "But the biblical story has associations with suffering, Jesus as a refugee. God doesn't really go out of his way to advertise the nativity.

"It's off to the side, rather hidden. God presented the good news in the small, the simple."

*Waddle is a religion writer and columnist in Nashville, Tenn. This feature originally appeared in Interpreter magazine, published by United Methodist Communications.

News media contact: Kathy Noble, (615) 742-5470 or

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