Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Crunchy Christmas

From Rod's blog...

A Family Christmas, Crunchy Con Style
By Cary McMullen

For all you bleary-eyed shoppers out there, here's a story from author and blogger Rod Dreher. Before he was married, Dreher told me by phone from Dallas that he spent a Christmas in Holland visiting a family with three adult daughters, the Jeurissens.

"The family celebrated in a typically Dutch way. They got together on Christmas Eve and cooked a meal. We ate together and told stories. At midnight, they brought out gifts they had made for each other. Then we put on our coats and went to Mass, even though they were not especially religious. As an American, I was waiting for the big payoff, but that was it.

"It made a big impression on me. It was so stripped down. What mattered to them was family, and faith, too," he said.

I called Dreher because I recently read his book, "Crunchy Cons." (The book's subtitle would take up the rest of this column, but the title refers to countercultural conservatives, with emphasis on the countercultural.) Dreher, himself a conservative, has written a literate and much-needed critique of how America in general and a rabidly pro-big-business Republican Party in particular reduces its citizens to nothing more than consumers or potential consumers - "the sum of our desires," as Dreher puts it.

"We believe that modern conservatism has become too focused on material conditions, and insufficiently concerned with the character of society. The point of life is not to become a more satisfied shopper," he writes in point two of his 10-point "Crunchy Con Manifesto." Instead of blindly acquiescing to being regarded as walking pocketbooks, Dreher wants us to fight back. He argues for a way of life that stresses family, community, faith, simplicity, beauty and humility.

Although I didn't agree with Dreher on some of his political and lifestyle arguments, much of what he had to say struck me as healthy skepticism and right on target. Dreher is married now and has three children under the age of 7, and I asked him how he and his wife manage to be countercultural during the holidays, the biggest assault of the year on our consumer sensibilities, with children as special targets of opportunity. He admitted it isn't easy.

"We have a family ritual. We light an Advent candle (and) read Scripture and pray together. We do have a Christmas tree. We also made a vow not to smother the kids with presents on Christmas Day. It's amazing to hear about people going into debt just so they can give things to their kids," he said.

Even if couples manage to set limits on gift-giving, they may have difficulty enforcing that rule on extended family members, especially grandparents, Dreher said. Limiting the number and price of gifts goes against the ethos. It's our culture's everyday math: Love equals things.

"We're told if you don't go all out, somehow your children will think you don't love them," Dreher commented.

The Drehers even allow their children to be visited by Santa Claus, because they felt "we didn't have the right" to deny their kids an experience both Rod and Julie Dreher had enjoyed themselves when young. But they play down Santa's role in Christmas in favor of emphasizing the role of Christ, he said.

The decision to have a countercultural Christmas requires work, he went on, not just in constantly saying no but also in constructing positive alternatives.

"It's not just joyless and grim. There's a lot of light and color in the Christian tradition. The trick is to find a balance," he said.

The thing that intrigues me about Dreher's philosophy is that although he's a former staffer for the National Review, often he doesn't sound much like what passes for contemporary conservatism, and he describes in his book how ideological conservatives have attacked him as a closet leftist. For instance, because consumerism is driven by capitalism, Dreher is not a fan of one of capitalism's biggest engines, advertising. Television is limited in the Dreher household.

"The media - by which I mean entertainment and advertising - are designed to separate you from your values. That makes it easier to sell to us. It's not a grand conspiracy, but it's true," he said.

What Dreher commendably embraces is traditionalism. Recalling his Christmas in Holland, Dreher still expresses wonder over the gifts the Jeurissen family gave to each other. One daughter wrote a poem. Another sewed an article of clothing.

"They poured love and affection for their family into them. They took time and thought," he said. "It was tremendously affecting to me, coming from a country where Christmas meant more, more, more."

Cary McMullen is religion editor for The Ledger. He can be reached at cary.mcmullen@theledger.com or 863-802-7509.

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