I was out for a run early Sunday morning, savoring the quiet streets and letting my thoughts dwell on the pleasure of movement, the fun music I was listening to, and – above all – Advent and Christmas.  This is by far my favorite time of year.  I love the weak winter sun that shines through the bare trees, the early dark in the evenings and the comfort of the fire to get us through it, the anticipation of seeing or at least talking to family, my children’s Christmas performances, Christmas morning service…you get the picture.  Given that my husband is German, our family has the double enjoyment of keeping two Christmas traditions.  One of the German traditions I’ve come to love is lighting the Advent wreath.  Every Sunday afternoon in Advent, we gather at the table and light a new candle on the wreath, until, just before Christmas, all four blaze.  We eat the German Lebkucken and Stollen that my mother-in-law sends from Germany every year, and if the children aren’t too wriggly, we read a Christmas story they like, such as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.

Given that it was Sunday, I was thinking particularly about lighting the next Advent candle as I ran, both keenly looking forward to it and wondering if the children would fight over the cookies or if we’d pull the whole thing off calmly.  With my thoughts thus pleasantly occupied, I ran on to Broadview Street, whereupon I was stopped in my tracks by an advertisement hanging in the window of the Toronto Dominion Bank.  “This season, celebrate convenience!” the ad said brightly;  beneath these words, a relaxed woman beamed joy and contentment.

This was the most depressing rendering of the seasonal spirit that I had ever seen.  Poof went all my happy Christmas thoughts, replaced with something akin to outrage.

I took a deep breath and started running again, leaving the sign behind me.  As I jogged past the quiet shops with their merry window displays, I tried to figure out why “celebrate convenience” bothered me so much.  After all, convenience is sort of the TD bank’s “thing”, the way they distinguish their big-Canadian-bank-brand from all the other big Canadian banks.  And convenience is nice, no doubt about that.  It makes life easy and…convenient.

As I rounded towards home, it dawned on me that my irritation went beyond the fact that the ad trivialized and commercialized the season.  We’re all used to that.  Rather, my reaction centered on the bank’s use of the word “celebrate”.  Celebrate is a big word, an important word.  In my understanding of it, it doesn’t just mean “be mildly happy about”, it means marking something with rites and ceremonies, to praise it publicly, to honour it.  Celebrations are profound parts of human existence:  they tell us what matters to us personally and communally.  The philosopher Albert Borgmann has argued that to live human lives rich with depth and meaning, we need to understand celebration as “centered on some concrete thing…a joyful engagement with the physical presence and radiance of that thing”, be it a space, a gathering of people, an event, an Advent wreath, or some other thing that is powerful enough to collect us with its presence.  Celebration by its nature requires engagement.

Whereas…convenience?  Seriously?  If convenience matters to us in more than a fleeting way, we’re in pretty bad shape as a society.  Is this what really matters to us?  While you could try to make a case that convenience is important precisely because it frees us to focus on more important things than our banking, you just can’t get all the way to “celebrating” it.  Convenience doesn’t collect us together in an enriching common life, in fact, it arguably does the opposite.  It permits us to be passive, disengaged, focused on ease.  At a macro-level a culture that worships convenience can even be poison to feeling engaged and alive, because it facilitates consumption without connection that’s emotionally and spiritually enriching.  Thus, in an important respect, convenience is antithetical to celebrating the Christmas season.  Christmas calls on us to be engaged, connected, mindful, generous and willing to work on things that matter.  It’s a time to feel alive to the world and its spiritual, moral and material possibilities.

Here’s another thing that happened over the weekend.  I was just a couple of blocks from home when one of my front tires gave out and the car lurched sickeningly to the right with a horrible crunch.  I coaxed the car into the parking lot of a nearby grocery store and got out to inspect the damage.  Flat as a pancake.  I don’t have a mobile phone, so I went into the store to ask if someone could help me call the Automobile Association.  Instead, the manager of the store came out to help me.  He took a good look at the tire, opened the trunk to confirm there was a spare, shooed me and my children inside where it was warm and changed the tire himself in fifteen minutes flat.  To thank him, I bought him a bottle of wine and a box of biscuits – small tokens of appreciation, not just for his help, but for the fact that he was willing to help in the first place.  Not only did his generosity delight me, it has delighted everyone I’ve told this story to.

Getting the flat tire was inconvenient – it scuppered our day’s plans.  But through that inconvenience, some delightful things happened.  A generous act.  A gift of thanks.  A story.  This is hardly a Christmas miracle the likes of the divine intervention of It’s a Wonderful Life, but it illustrates the potential of human kindness, which, as reflected in the season, is worth celebrating.  Let’s hold those things dear, and keep convenience in its place.

From the TD Bank's "Celebrate Convenience" campaign, December 2011

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