According to Google (and who would ever argue with them…it?), thrift reached its zenith sometime just before the Great Depression and has been in decline ever since. As a word, I mean. (And a strange word ‘thrift’ is, conjuring, as it does, images of cartoon Scottish ducks and penny-wise value stores.) Seems the usage took a dive with the economy.
I’ve always given short shrift to thrift. I’m big on the symbolic gesture (no cable for five years!), but weak on the impulse control (did I really need this leather cell phone cover?). Even so, I find myself returning to it Advent after Advent as I mount the pulpit stairs once more to rail against the coming season of excess.
I’ve always considered it one of my jobs as a preacher to extol the virtues of Advent thrift. They trained us well at seminary to be Christmas killjoys and to subvert the expectations of unsuspecting C&Eers—that is, Christmas & Easter worship attenders—who might show up after Thanksgiving hankering for a little “Silent Night” long before the carol was ready to release. (For those holding down the liturgical fort, that one drops on December 24 and not a moment before).
Lectionary texts in the early days of Advent tend toward the spare, the shocking, and the simple: scattered leaves and rags, a thief in the night who comes to take all the stuff away, and axes laid to the roots of trees (might they be Christmas trees?). Too often I saw these texts as an invitation to play a gleeful Grinch, only I wasn’t going to give the stuff back to all the Whos in Whoville until they learned a thing or two about how much closer to God they were without it.
Yet, more and more I feel that the war with the Santa Claus industrial complex is a distraction from the search for a different sort of thrift. We are, after all, living in a material world as the latter-day Madonna tells us. And God’s entry into the realm of materiality is kind of the point of the incarnation. What I want to shepherd is not a grave asceticism that denies the world, but a mindfulness that helps us love it more.
So there I am beneath the Christmas tree, all of the age of 10, hooking up the colored lights as my mother whistles along, inappropriately early no doubt, with the music on the stereo. I am mesmerized by her joy, by the transformation of the living room into a place of wonder, and I linger beneath the boughs to cache myself in the soft-lit mystery. Is this excess or some greater stewardship of sacral time that refuses to let the mundane be unadorned without its true dress?
Of course, the excess will come in maxed-out credit cards and groaning boards of food and drink. And I will lament, as always, the mad rush to Christmas that makes of it more achievement than celebration. But perhaps I will also spare a thought for the ways some of the madness opens up space for transcendence to be welcomed. After all, the moonlight falls the same on the front porch steps each night, but never more spectacularly than when there are garland ropes on the rail.
On the door of the kitchen each year my mother placed a green felt Advent calendar with pockets to contain a daily treat. It was not beautiful and it really had no connection to the seasons of the church. Its glitter Christmas tree was unremarkable. But it parceled out the days of December and rendered them, even with their dying light and bitter cold, as seasons of expectation. I want such thrift to help me claim each day as gift.