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Have you noticed how Christians get frustrated by the way shops show Christmas? I mean, look at Advent calendars. What have The Avengers to do with Christ’s coming? There is tension between the meaning of the season and its glitter. Streets are decked with fairy-tale lights and ornaments; shops full of frippery.

Is that a problem? Children ooh over Christmas lights. Adults complain theyre too early. Yet, I love them - the sense of expectation, the magic of transformation. I would put up lights even earlier. And lights have become traditional.

It doesn’t take long for innovation to become tradition. Take the Christmas tree for instance. Legend says that decorating trees for Christmas was begun by Martin Luther. One Christmas Eve in the 1520s, he was walking through snow-covered woods and was struck by their beauty. So he took a tree indoors for his family, and decorated it with candles.

Yet, Christmas trees didn’t come to Britain until the 1850’s. Society magazines published a picture of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria and family around a small tree decorated with candles and ornaments. Then people wanted the same. The social climbers had to be seen in the right circles with the right decorations. So, Christmas trees are only 160 years old, but grew from snobbery.

What about Santa? He has a distinctive red and white outfit. But Santa changed. In Charles Dickens' day, Santa wore dark green and holly. But, in the 1930s, a Coca-Cola executive - whose logo was red on a white background - decided a jolly white-bearded man in a red suit would help with advertising. So their ads showed Santa in red and white. Now Santa dresses like that all the time.

But Coca Cola were not first. You may have seen Christmas cards using pictures of old Italian Renaissance paintings. In those, the Virgin Mary is always dressed in blue? Why?

Well, Renaissance works of art were also adverts, painted to advertise the power and wealth of the person who commissioned them. So a vast picture would shout, Look how important the person is who commissioned me!

And, in the 15th-century, some paints were incredibly expensive. So a large expanse of expensive pigment would say, How rich I am!An important figure would be coloured with costly paint, to draw the onlooker's eye; because they knew that cost a fortune.

The most expensive was ultramarine blue: made by grinding lapis lazuli and soaking the powder several times to draw off the colour. The first soaking produced the most intense blue and was most expensive. If the Virgin Mary's robe was painted with ultramarine worth two florins to the ounce, then one florin to the ounce ultramarine was for the saints. No blue for everyone else.

Ghirlandaio’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’ was completed in 1488. The contract specified: "The blue must be ultramarine to the value of four florins an ounce.” So, Mary, with baby son in her left arm, is enveloped in folds of vivid blue. It shouts, Look how important and rich the people are who paid for this.

Yet, that painting was commissioned by the Spedale degli Innocenti: the world’s oldest charity for the welfare of children. It opened in 1445: "to increase the alms and devotions of those who have compassion for the boys and girls called ‘throwaways."

To its supporters, there was no contradiction in spending lavishly on the building and art. They thought that, by commissioning magnificent items, they would demonstrate not only their wealth, but their compassion. Charity could go hand in hand with ostentation.

Our consumer culture has always had tension between generosity and extravagance. Yet we have Christmas traditions and methods which came out of this extravagant, show-off atmosphere. How do we live with that? Do we denounce and reject the crass commercialism of Avengers on Advent Calendars?

I suggest we thank God for the joy of children when they see lights and hear of Santa. Thank God for those who put aside some profit for the good of others, even if their motive is advertising for more profit. Thank God for signs of Christmas cheer. Use your buying power to buy fairly - what you know is good, wholesome, not exploitative. Share what you can. Give generously to those in need. Praise the Lord.

Christmas declares there there is much to celebrate in the coming of Jesus to set us free and deal with our sin. As you enjoy the buzz, keep in mind what is true and good and worth celebrating.

 

Duncan


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