Alternative Christmas Celebration

Alternative Christmas Celebration


Many of us are in the habit of buying and receiving expensive gifts for Christmas. This is an American cultural tradition; it is not consistent with historical Christian tradition, however. The Christ whose birthday we celebrate, was born in a stable; his family then became fugitives in Egypt for a while; and although he learned his father's trade of carpentry, when he began his public ministry, evidently his only possessions were the clothes on his back. He frequently spoke about God's concern for poor, oppressed, and dishartened people (Happy are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Luke 6:20. I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me ... Matthew 25:35)

In Christian tradition Christmas is a time, not for self-indulgence, but for sharing in ways that promise renewal for ourselves and others.

The purpose of this commentary is to encourage individuals, families and church congregations to look for creative ways of celebrating Christmas that are consistent with Christian tradition-- including gifts of love, friendship, and service that cost no money at all.

Christmas Gifts

Simple gifts for family and friends are appropriate any time of year when they are genuinely an expression of friendship or recognition of the other's need. But "gifts" are all too often used as a substitute for friendship or affection; or simply as expression of the giver's self-indulgence in shopping. Beyond the basic necessities of life (food, clothing, shelter, love), the best gifts are those with little monetary value: a few minutes to listen, read or tell stories together, or lend a helping hand. For many people the joy of Christmas becomes ceaseless bustle as they are consumed in doing, spending, and getting, all at a frantic pace. Even if one feels constrained by family tradition to participate in an annual gift exchange, the gifts need not be self-indulgent, extravagant, or wasteful; nor does one need to spend hours at the Mall or with mail-order catalogs. Does Uncle George really need another red and green polka-dot tie to clutter his closet? Does Aunt Martha need a new electric cookie cutter to clutter her kitchen? Would it not be more sensible and more honorable to both Uncle George (or Aunt Martha or ...) and to the Christ Child, to give a gift of life in his (or her) honor to someone truly in need?

Emergency Relief

Food, clothing and other forms of emergency assistance are always needed, and often giving such gifts gives us the immediate satisfaction of fulfilling an urgent need. Nearly all communities in America have social service agencies whose clients have unmet needs for food, clothing, and shelter. There are also national and international agencies which specialize in providing relief to the poorest of the poor, including denominational church agencies such as the American Friends Service Committee, Catholic Charities, Lutheran World Relief, Mennonite Central Committee, and the United Methodist Committee on Relief, and Church World Service/CROP.

Economic Assistance

Also needed are gifts which lift people out of the cycle of poverty and dependence. Most families are capable of taking care of themselves if they have reasonable access to education, resources and job opportunities. Most of the agencies mentioned above provide economic development assistance as well as emergency relief, to allow people to become self-reliant.

For many families around the world caught in the backwash of war, natural disaster, or chronic poverty, a basic need is income-producing activity. Many persons have marketable handcraft skills, and need only the chance to sell their products in order to become self-supporting. These are persons at the lower end of the economic scale who are not reached by the benefits of "development".

SERRV(Sales Exchange for Refugee Rehabilitation Vocations) is a major self-help effort to fight chronic poverty, started originally in response to the post-World War II refugee situation, but now involving thousands of artisans in 60 countries, mainly in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. A high percentage of the retail price of the handicrafts goes to the producers, since exploitative middlemen are eliminated, and because SERRV (a program of Church World Service) is operated on a not-for-profit basis. Another excellent program, Ten Thousand Villages (formerly SELF-HELP Crafts), which markets third-world crafts in North America is operated by the Mennonite Central Committee. Many other small agencies operate similar programs (see references at the end of this page.)

International Micro-Enterprise Loans

Micro-Enterprise loan funds provide very small loans to help get small businesses started. In Bangladesh, the Grameen Bank was founded in 1976 by an economics professor Muhammed Yunus who was concerned about the exploitation of poor women in a male-dominated Muslim culture. Women who work infactories or on plantations receive significantly less than men for equivalent work, but the capital required to buy raw materials and basic tools to establish their own enterprises is expensive -- moneylenders often charge up to 10% per day, and local enterprises are not big enough to qualify for bank loans.

The Grameen Bank has now made hundreds of thousands of loans, averaging less than $100 each, to landless poor men and women for a variety of crafts and trades: book-binding, rope braiding, sewing, fishing, peanut frying, rice milling and selling flowers, bananas, mirrors, and pottery. Borrowers pay interest rates comparable to local commercial bank rates.

ACCION International, founded in 1961, is a private, non-profit organization which provides small loans and basic business training to the self-employed poor throughout the Americas. Through affiliates in fourteen Latin American countries and the United States, ACCION provides loans and training which enable mechanics, vendors, carpenters, seamstresses and cobblers to expand their businesses.

As micro-businesses grow, their owners are able to earn a better living, providing improved nutrition, housing, education and clothing for their families. In addition, the provision of credit and training often allows small-scale entrepreneurs to create new jobs in low-income communities. ACCION is not a bank, but an intermediary between banks and borrowers; the majority of its operating costs are paid for by donations. In 1995 ACCION loaned a total of $331 million for 277,000 clients, and had an astonishing pay-back rate of 98 percent.

ACCION also accepts loans from American depositors and pays interest to lenders comparable to bank savings account rates..

Charity and Justice

"He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8) Sometimes justice is mistakenly equated to "charity" or "service". Charity entails giving as an act of generosity; we are often inclined to charity at Christmas and Easter or other occasions when we hear of natural disasters that affect many people. Doing justice, however, reflects a lifestyle that acknowledges God's ownership of all creation and exercises social, economic, and political power for the benefit of all people, and, in fact, all creation.

In our times, poverty and hunger are primarily the consequences of political decisions and practices. The world (in fact nearly every nation) produces substantially more food than necessary to feed its people; yet half a billion people suffer severe malnutrition because of wars, ethnic confilcts, and economic policies which maintain the dicotomy between rich and poor. Consider, for example, the ethnic conflicts in Bosnia, Israel, Ireland, and Rwanda--to name a few.

Because of our Biblical tradition of concern for justice, the church is actively involved in the political process which defines how our community, state, and nation will use their power. (If church members remain silent, we are by default reinforcing the status quo or those in power.) There are a number of church-related organizations which monitor legislation and encourage members to exercise Christian stewardship through the political process, such as Bread for the World (based near Washington, D.C.), and Pennsylvania IMPACT (based in Harrisburg, PA).


Most of what one needs to be able to celebrate Christmas in true Christian tradition is simply to decide to do so. Individuals or congregations who want both inspiration and practical ideas to make the transistion from American cultural Christmas to Christmas in the Christian tradition, many helpful resources are available. Most are now in electronic form. A free catalog of alternative celebration ideas and resources is available from Alternatives for Simple Living, P.O. Box 340, Sergeant Bluff, IA 51054. (712) 943-6153 or (800) 821-6153. or visit Include your name, address, city, state, and zip code.

Various church congregations hold annual "Alternative Christmas" markets. Except in very small congregations, at least several months of planning is required to begin an "Alternative Christmas" market. Requests for further information may be addressed to

Alternatives to Mall Shopping

  • National Green Pages (Co-op America), 202 872-5307.
  • Shopping for a Better World, 800 729-4237.
  • SERRV International, a Church of the brethern program, markets hand-crafts from developing regions that pay a fair price to artisans. 800 723-3712.
  • Ten Thousand Villages is a non-profit Mennonite- related alternative trading organzation that also markets hand-crafts from developing regions paying a fair price to artisans. 717 859-8100.

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    Originated: 11/30/96
    Last Updated: 1/8/05