It's the day after Thanksgiving, and the shopping frenzy has begun. Actually, some stores opened late in the evening on Thanksgiving Day, and many others opened at midnight or 1 a.m. today.
Those who create economic indices will be watching carefully to see what kind of money was spent today and the rest of the weekend.
By Monday, the business sections will be full of comparisons and prognostications. Was this year better or worse than last year? Will retailers end in the black? How much will the recent hurricanes and general world instability affect consumer willingness to spend during this holiday season?
Many churches, on the other hand, will be imploring people, "Don't forget what Christmas is all about! Remember, 'Jesus is the reason for the season.'"
We'll be saying, "Slow down, this is a time of preparation for the birth of the Savior."
We'll also be saying, "And if you really feel the need to spend a lot of money, for goodness sake, don't forget to give some to the church. Or at the very least, remember the homeless and hungry in the process of filling our already overfilled houses with even more things we really don't need."
This tension between church and society over this holiday is not new. When Oliver Cromwell and the Puritan Party came to power in England in the middle of the 17th century, all Christmas celebrations were outlawed. I also understand that anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit in Boston in the mid- to late 1600s was fined.
All this came from their Puritan heritage. The motive was good. They wanted the people to remember the entrance of the Savior to the world with reverence and awe. But the means were awful — legislation that tells people they can't celebrate will never, ever work.
Personally, I think we need to honor the two different Christmases, both religious and economic.
It's the church's job to encourage us to recognize that the world does indeed need a Savior and to use this time to prepare for it. That is why we call this season "Advent." It simply means "coming." The Sent One is soon to arrive.
It's a time to decorate with greens, for the evergreen is a sign of life and hope. The wreath that many hang on their doors is the circle that represents the eternality of God. Just as the circle has no beginning or end, in God there is no beginning and no end.
The Advent Candles, three violet ones and one rose-colored, will be progressively lit, adding one each Sunday. These remind us that the Light of the World is indeed coming and we need to get ready for that.
Advent music — and these are not holly, jolly Christmas carols but songs full of theological depths generally sung in a minor key — call us to reflection. The scripture readings implore us to make a way, to smooth the road, to welcome the unthinkable.
We get to ask some good questions during these preparatory times.
Where have we stood on the side of injustice? When have we ignored the poor, the hopeless, the oppressed?
More, when have we helped people get even poorer, to lose more hope, to land in stickier oppression?
And yet deeper: In what ways have we been complicit in supporting rank injustice and destructive practices because it is easier to stay silent and dangerous to speak out?
All these questions help us to understand the religious Christmas better.
The other, the economic Christmas, asks us to support the merchants, the creators of arts and crafts, the developers of fascinating consumer products.
In the U.S., a lot of businesses live and die by their Christmas sales. We do well to shop enthusiastically but wisely — planning to not carry Christmas debt past January. Indeed let us open our wallets and indulge our loved ones.
Let's let loose with parties and joy and giving and relaxation and vacations. We can consider others and fill food pantries and go into a baking frenzy and enjoy multiple sports activities and take a break from work and school.
We do well to play, to plan surprises, to express our hope for the future.
One suggestion: Set aside 10 percent of the monies for gift purchases and offer it to worthy and responsible charitable organizations. Those gifts may get someone off the street and into more stable life or help someone who feels lost and hopeless find spiritual grounding and hope again.
Let's celebrate both, and do so with enthusiasm.
So, let the party begin. Shop well, have fun with the preparations, and come to church each week in Advent. Take a couple of hours each Sunday to open your hearts anew to the Savior. Plan on attending a Christmas Eve worship service.
Prepare your homes and prepare your hearts. You can do both and I hope you will.
Email questions to the Rev. Christy Thomas to firstname.lastname@example.org, "like" her Facebook page at Christy Thomas or message her on Twitter at @christythomas, or by mail to: The Thoughtful Pastor, 3555 Duchess Drive, Denton, TX 76205.
FEATURED PHOTO: A man takes a rest from shopping at the Viewmont Mall in Dickson City, Pa., on Friday. (Butch Comegys, The Times & Tribune/AP)