I always knew Christmas and money go together; it took a melancholy cartoon character to help me learn how.
I love A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Of course I love Christmas, period. I'm not one to dread a store wreath sighting in August. When I spy that twinkling, it makes me a little giddy. Christmas is coming, sings a little voice, as visions of trees, turkeys and sugar cookies dance in my head.
Still I'm ready to admit Christmastime has its drawbacks. I'm not big on crowded parking lots, crowded schedules or the fact that my "to do" list fills my entire hard disc space.
But beyond all that — sitting in my living room with fire crackling, tree twinkling and hot chocolate steaming — I'm happy. Put A Charlie Brown Christmas into my DVD player and I'm on holiday happiness overload.
I love almost all Christmas movies: Miracle on 34th Street talks about "believing"; It's a Wonderful Life teaches us the value of life; A Christmas Story warns us not to stick our tongues onto frozen flagpoles and Ernest Saves Christmas ... well, I did say almost. But none of them can match Charlie Brown. He just gets it — the good, the bad and the ugly of Christmas.
After all, it stinks to face an empty mailbox at the height of card-sending season; no one wants to be called a "blockhead;" and we all get frustrated when the group we're trying to choral continually breaks out in dance.
But one big thing Charlie does get right is the link between money and commercialism — and to a "debtaphobe" like me, that's huge.
Poor Charlie is inundated with commercialism. Sally wants $10s and $20s from Santa. Snoopy wants to win money in the neighborhood "super colossal lights and display contest." Lucy wants real estate.
Everyone is "get, get, get." As Sally says, "I only want what's coming to me. I only want my fair share."
Things haven't changed much since A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired in 1965. If anything, it's still commercial, just more so. More channels for commercials. More ways — like e-mail and the internet — to reach you. More credit cards with higher limits.
Today's kids aren't that much different from Sally either. When we're young we see Christmas as our ticket to more stuff. Even in college I was hopeful I'd cash in at Christmas. Barely making it financially, I all but hang a sign around my neck that read, "No Christmas List. Please send cash."
Every year Charlie Brown helped me remember that money and gifts weren't the true meaning of Christmas.
Then I graduated and the money started rolling in by way of salary — rather than out by way of tuition — and I thought I was cured. Instead of looking for what I'd get every year, I started getting joy from what I would give. A new robe for Mom, fancy golf balls for Dad and spoiling galore for my younger sister.
In my enthusiasm, I tended to go just a little off the deep end. Did my nieces and nephew really need the entire Veggie Tales collection? Probably not. But this was Christmas, the season for giving, and giving big.
Madison Avenue was certainly willing to play along, finessing their message to appeal to my generosity. Give because they need it. Give because they deserve it. Give because you love them.
Happily, I agreed. And since I wasn't piling up credit card debt — a poor family financial past made me leery of that — I didn't feel like I was doing anything wrong. In fact, wouldn't God be proud to see me giving like I did?
Then one year Charlie Brown struck a different chord. I watched him pick his beautiful, wimpy little tree, just like I had every December since I could remember. But that year, Linus' words echoed longer:
Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you the true meaning of Christmas.
"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the Angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the Angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord...."
I was moving beyond childhood "get, get, get." But then maybe the "get, get, get" had just morphed into something else ... something called "give, give, give."
I enjoyed giving. But I had to admit I enjoyed the feelings it gave me most of all. I loved the smiles, the hugs and the thank yous. I loved seeing the joy on someone else's face because it made me happy too.
When I gave, I realized, I still got.
A verse popped into my head, "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that" (Luke 6:32).
Wasn't that exactly what I was doing? Wasn't I patting myself on the back, when it was absolutely no credit to me because I was only giving to those who loved me?
Even the Salvation Army bell ringer gave me a little smile that warmed my heart. If he hadn't been out there ringing, if that red tub had been unmanned, would I have given anyway? The little extra I gave to my church's food basket was pretty insignificant compared to the amount I spent at amazon.com.
So I made two changes — both in my giving.
First I got serious about my Christmas gift list. Like Santa, I checked it twice. There's nothing wrong with giving to friends and family. But there were other things I could do that would please God.
So I said good-bye to overboard and hello to moderation. I knew it wouldn't be as fun, but it was important. I went through my list and set limits — serious limits that I wrote on an index card, carried in my wallet and held to. I pledged that if I went over on one, I'd spend less on another.
It sounded a little Scrooge-like at first, but I reminded myself that my bank account, though much jollier than in college days, still held only a set amount. If I nickeled and dimed myself while shopping for family and friends (it's only five dollars over budget, that won't hurt me!) then I'd spend all the money I had planned for step number two.
Step number two involved giving, too. But this was for God's Christmas presents. I prayed for guidance and listened. Some money went to national organizations, some to local ones. Some dollars slipped into anonymous envelopes with simple notes reading, "I was talking to God today and your name came up. Merry Christmas."
Whatever He said went. And it was only possible because of step number one. If I hadn't gotten control of my "give, give, give" — or if I'd become an indentured servant to VISA — I wouldn't have had any money to listen with.
Turns out, it was the best Christmas ever. No one seemed to notice their gift budgets were trimmed; if they did, their smiles weren't any smaller. And somewhere people were smiling smiles I would never see.
Like Charlie Brown I had finally decided, "I'm not going to let commercialism ruin my Christmas." And Charlie was right. It didn't.
Copyright 2004 Heather Koerner. All rights reserved.