Austerity for Christmas

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.: The Reason for the Season
December 18, 2017
Founder’s Quote
December 19, 2017

By Julie Machado, Catholic Stand,  December 6, AD2017

I recently realized how I naturally put on the classical, jazz or fado (traditional Portuguese music) radio stations in my car, without any sacrifice at all. This might seem like an inconsequential detail of my life, but for the fact that it reveals a huge change in my musical taste and in myself. Before having kids, I remember wanting to put on classical or jazz music, but feeling like something more entertaining, which is why I would always choose the pop or hip-hop stations instead. Sometimes I knew a song was completely obnoxious in lyrics and poor quality in music, but I couldn’t discipline myself to listen to higher quality music instead. Somewhere along the way, I became worried about my kids’ exposure to good music and gradually never put on a pop or hip-hop song, and instead only put on classical or jazz. The other day I noticed with some surprise how I can no longer sing along or think the type of music I used to listen to before constitutes good music.

Austerity From Privation

So I realize with all my good and bad habits: when there is some privation and poverty involved, we are more likely to focus on the essential. Having kids has helped a great deal with that in my life, but of course, anything can if you let it and nothing can if you don’t let it. With my first child, I experienced a huge privation of time and never again have I lived without the limitations of nap time, bedtime and an early rising time. With my second child, the little free time I had felt like it was cut in half. With this privation comes a great opportunity to constantly reevaluate priorities and get rid of time-wasting habits such as watching TV or reading my facebook feed instead of sleeping (guilty!).

My preferences for classical music instead of pop might have to do with simply listening to more high-quality music more often and training my ear toward that, which naturally puts me off to lesser quality music. However, I also think it has to do with a new busyness in life that helps me make better choices. I no longer mindlessly drive home from work alone and put on whatever music I feel like. If I’m at home, I very conscientiously pick what music we will listen to on Spotify, guard the speaker against being attacked by small children, and turn it off if everyone gets stressed out or too loud. If I am driving, am usually passing cookies to the back seat, answering incessant questions from a very talkative three-year-old or trying to figure out what the yelling or crying one-year-old wants. If they happen to be calm and I put on music, it has better be good music. It has better be good for their development and education, good for our general well-being and mood as a family.

Austerity in Consumption

I read a few blogs about homeschooling and the upbringing of children and sometimes get uneasy about the lack of things we have. We don’t have a lot of toys or educational materials. We don’t have a lot of comfort or material resources, especially compared to the average American. Our two (soon to be three) kids share a room with tiny closet space, we live in a relatively small apartment also with little storage space for the superfluous, we have a small refrigerator and pantry, we have a washing machine but no drier (which is typical in Portugal) and hang clothes up to dry inside, where it takes two days to dry.

This means I make lots of decisions about which material things are important to store and try to live minimalism as much as possible, especially with clothes, food reserves, and laundry. It puts me in constant contact with what we have and I realize, “We don’t really use and enjoy this board game regularly or at all”; “That kite was cheap when I bought it but ripped and they lost interest in it right away, so it probably wasn’t worth it”; I bought too much fruit this week and now it’s all rotten and that was a waste”; “These Christmas decorations aren’t really that nice, so I won’t save them for next year.”. Trying to live minimalism in a small house with a growing number of people and trying to save money naturally lowers consumption and materialism. This is freeing, especially in the consumerist and materialistic world we live in, because it helps you focus on what is really important and have a vision for what you want in life.

So if we have a new musical instrument for my dream of a future family band, we had better make good use of it. If we buy some fancy, new art supplies, we better use them regularly. If I buy a new blanket or throw pillow, they had better be beautiful, comfortable and make our home a better place. I would like every detail of our home to be thought out, personal and well-used. I would like every detail of our schedule to be planned and valued. And I would like every detail of our lives to be precious and well accounted for.

Oh Holy Night

Jesus came to our world in poverty, in anonymity, and in silence. So also Jesus comes to our life if we are able to embrace poverty and privation, emptying our hands, so that He can bring us a more fullness of life. My examples of poor quality music and a buying fewer things at the grocery store due to a small pantry are very physical. Yet the physical manifests the spiritual, so also if we are willing to rid ourselves of bad habits, grasping hands and sin, we will be surprised to find that Christ comes in the most unexpected circumstances.

“Jesus comes to this earth during a peaceful and silent night, while mankind is sleeping. Only the shepherds remain awake (Lk 2:8). His birth is surrounded by solitude and silence. For thirty years, no one hears him. Christ lives in Nazareth in great simplicity, buried in the silence and the humble workshop of Joseph the carpenter (Mt 13:55). It is certain that he already lives sin prayer, penance, and interior recollection. This hidden life of Jesus is in the silent shadow of God. The Son of Mary lives constantly in the Beatific Vision, in profound communion, inseparably united to the Father.” (The Power of Silence by Robert Cardinal Sarah, n. 193)

Let us have a more minimalistic Advent and Christmas, both materially speaking (fewer presents, fewer decorations, fewer activities) and spiritually (more prayer, more reading, more silence, more sacraments). It is surprising to find that the barer we get, the closer we get to God. Job says, “Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I go back there” (Job 1:21). We won’t have the conditions in life we wish we had and we won’t have the time we wish we had this Christmas. However, if we are willing to embrace a little more of our own poverty, incapacity, and austerity, we will be surprised at how richly our newborn King will reward us.


About the Author: 

Julie Machado is a 30-year-old Portuguese-American who grew up in California, but moved to Portugal to study theology. She now lives there, along with the rest of her family, her husband and her children. She believes the greatest things in life are small and hidden and that the extraordinary is in the ordinary. She blogs at Marta, Julie e Maria.