Years ago Phoenix and I opted out of Christmas. It wasn’t the money. We simply wanted release from the stress, crowds, and mindless consumerism associated with the most intensely crass and secular of all American holidays. Spare us the Babe in the Manger speeches; Christmas in America has more to do with Adam Smith than Baby Jesus.
We decided to spend December dining with friends, making contact with family, and consuming fun rather than getting caught up in rituals of reciprocity and gluttony. The breaking point came about ten years ago when our nieces were literally swamped under a mound of gifts. They no sooner opened one present than another was thrust in front of them so that every relative under the sun could snap a photo of the bewildered lasses. Soon, they were dazed and numb. As clichéd as it sounds, by the afternoon they were having more fun with the wrapping paper and boxes than with the content. And here’s the worst part: the wreckage represented expenditures of hundreds of dollars, a lot of it from folks who could have used the cash for much better purposes.
It’s our seasonal prayer that none of you are in that sinking boat. But even if you have plenty of dough, there’s simply no reason to put up with the stress and the madness. Just say no. It may already be too late for this year, but it’s not too late to prepare for next. Here’s our how-to-guide for opting out.
1. Step One: The Power of Guilt. We must ask ourselves how Christmas got to be such a mess in the first place. The answer is simple: We’ve been sold a bill of literal and metaphorical goods on what a “perfect” Christmas is supposed to be like. Don’t underestimated how powerful that imagery is. To counter it, you need to present an equally powerful counter image.
As you gather this Christmas, subtly drop remarks such as “We have so much and there are others who have so little. What do you think about scaling way back and making some donations to charity instead?” My guess is that about three-quarters of your friends and relatives will breathe a sigh of relief and get on board immediately. Your job is to follow up on this and start dropping reminders in late summer and again several weeks before Thanksgiving. Don’t call and say, “We’re not giving presents this year, right?” Instead remind them that they said they wanted to give to charity. Tell them you plan to make a donation in their name and ask which charity they’d like you to support.
3. Step Three: Be True to Your Principles. It’s not enough to say you want to spend time with friends and family instead of gift buying; you need to do it! Make sure you schedule dinners out (or potlucks in) with close friends and family. The goal is to make the holidays joyous, not to become the Grinch.
7. Step Seven: Replace Old Rituals with New Ones. Okay, I admit it: If I hear “Silent Night” at a mall one more time I may spew. I loathe Christmas carols, plastic reindeer, and blow-up lawn displays. But I’d be the last to say that rituals are bad. If you dislike the old ones, make some new ones. We buy a new tree ornament every year and label it. We also have some invented holidays, such as Moosemas on December 16, which is celebrated by eating clam chowder and drinking Scotch. A small ritual is walking amidst the downtown lights on Christmas Eve after the stores have closed. Another is a short walk in the woods behind the house on late Christmas morning. Still another is playing CDs of English and Scottish carols that we’ve not heard a billion times. Our most cherished is an annual pre-Christmas dinner at a restaurant with our dearest friends.