Here’s our annual Black Friday “How to Opt Out of Christmas” piece.
We opted out of Christmas years ago. 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 reinvent December as a month of 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 12 years ago, when our nieces were still children. One Christmas morning they were literally swamped under a mound of gifts. (Seriously! The wrapping paper debris was piled to twice the height of the youngest.) Our nieces 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 mid-afternoon they were having more fun with the wrapping paper and boxes than with the presents. (The boxes made a nice makeshift fort.) And here’s the worst part: the wreckage represented expenditures of hundreds of dollars, much of it from folks that could have used the cash for much better purposes.
Christmas was even more crass when we bought for adults. It had degenerated into a zero sum game–you buy me the item on page 72 of the L.L. Bean catalog and I’ll buy you one from page 104. Christmas shopping sucks in two types of adults: those who can afford to buy things and have all they need (but nonetheless invent things to want “in the spirit of the season”); and those who shouldn’t engage in consumer frenzy, yet are pressured into doing so. If you fall into the second category, for heaven’s sake stop! Consider this sobering statistic–if you rack up $6,000 on your credit card and try to pay it off by making the minimum payment, it will take roughly 54 years to do so even if you never use the card again! Fa, la, la, indeed! In trying to conform to manufactured images of seasonal jollity you have placed yourself in economic thralldom akin to that of 19th-century sharecroppers.
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. Here’s a 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 Christmas approaches, subtly drop remarks to loved ones such as “We have so much and there are others who have so little. What do you think about scaling way back and making 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 by continuing to drop reminders. Don’t call a week before Christmas and say, “We’re no giving presents this year, right?” Instead, make a plan in the next few days, and follow up in a week by reminding down with the plan that they said they wanted to give to charity. Tell them you are writing a check for a donation in their name and ask which charity they’d like you to support.
2. Step Two: Phasing In the Plan. There will be some people on your list who won’t buy in immediately. One or two may even feel hurt and assume you don’t care enough to buy them something. You need to go gentle with these folks. Start by scaling back instead of going cold turkey. Appeal to their soft side. Do they love animals? In addition to a modest gift, get a really nice card and insert a Heifer International brochure with a note that you’ve given a donation in their name. It may take a few years before these folks stop the gift cycle altogether, but they will.
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.
4. Step Four: Replace Consumer Goods with Thoughtful Ones. What people really want during the holidays is a reminder that you care. A plate of home-baked cookies can say this louder than an item plucked from a catalog. So too can cleaning someone’s gutters, fixing a squeaky door, or taking their car for an oil change. Are you craft-oriented? Phoenix makes earrings that cost next to nothing to make, but resonate with friends more than those $50 mass-produced “holiday” earrings you see all over the country. I’ve written a few stories and songs that I’ve shared. Want to do something really simple? Rent “It’s a Wonderful Life” and watch it with someone you care about. Provide the buttered popcorn. The biggest gift you can give is your time!
5. Step Five: Buy Your Kids a Pen Pal. If you have little ones, it’s hard to eliminate gifts totally, but the U.N. and other agencies have programs that allow you to sponsor a child abroad. Do this for your kids and spend part of Christmas with books, pictures, and maps that illustrate where their pen pal lives. Help your kids write a letter to that child. Follow it up in the weeks to come with language lessons, food, and other such items. I had pen pals as a kid and it made me think about the world. I remember a correspondent from Peru way more than I remember most of my toys.
6. Step Six: Remember the Box Rule. Overindulge children and you run the risk of overwhelming them (or having them grow up to be pampered brats!). Kids need to exercise their imaginations more than they need some toy from China that will be broken by Easter. Buy and make things in which they can participate, not merely consume. The box fort was fun. So too are time-tested things that last: Lincoln logs, blocks, Legos, Slinky, bikes, fantasy dolls, train sets, interactive books, musical instruments…. Google “top ten toys of all time” and you’ll find none of the glitzy über-expensive “hot” toys of this or any other Christmas. Those things are just ads-of-the-moment that will fade from consciousness as soon as the latest “next big thing” comes along (and proves not to be the next big thing!)
7. Step Seven: Treat Yourself in December. Take some of the dough you’re not spending on prezzies and go out. Take in a concert or a show. Fun is always a good antidote for stress!
8. Step into the Light: If you live in the North, the stretch between Thanksgiving and Ground Hog’s Day is filled with (way too much) darkness. Turn this time into something pagan: festivals of light. Go for hikes in the daylight and gather pinecones, bittersweet, pine boughs, and other such things to make into Christmas decorations. We made an “Electric Forest” one year–an unsightly welter of pine boughs through which we strung dollar-store lights. It was as ugly a hound dog’s fanny, but it’s a memory over which we laugh years later. Other light-themed events include taking short drives to see electric displays, after-sunset window shopping, bonfires, and hitting an after-hours spot (ice cream shop for kids, cafes and bars for adults) in which the darkness is tempered by holiday or atmospheric lights).
9. Step Nine: Replace Old Rituals with New Ones. Okay, I admit that 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, label it, and try to recall when we bought it when it comes out of storage. 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.
10. Step Ten: Make a Wish. Some families may find it impossible to eliminate Christmas presents altogether. Fair enough. But let’s not confuse quantity with quality. Even if you have kids, there’s nothing wrong with limiting their desires. Break out The Rolling Stones and listen to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” until it sinks in. Instead of buying everything under the sun, ask people in your lives to set priorities. If you could only get one thing, what would you really like? (If you have kids, ask for a list of three or four and tell them you’ll ask Santa to bring one of them so that he doesn’t run out of gifts for other children.)
11. Socks are not Stinky! Everyone loves to open presents. It’s horribly environmentally unsound, but a certain degree of debris is part of Christmas. So who says the stuff inside has to cost an arm, a leg, and a kidney? Sock gifts are a lot of fun–dollar store Etch-a-Sketches, crayons, and wind-up toys for kids, inexpensive foodstuffs for adults, card games to share…. You can get very creative about sock gifts; you can also fill one for a fraction of what it costs to provide gifts that will soon be forgotten.
12. Step Twelve: Make Christmas all about the Food. When you ask most people to name their favorite holiday, it’s usually Thanksgiving. Why not? It’s about food, family, and a relaxed pace. So make Christmas into a second Thanksgiving. Prepare foods that take a long time to make. Buy a really, really good bottle of wine. Have a multi-course meal that unfolds over several hours. And, above all, share it with friends and family. Don’t forget to mention how lucky you are to have so much when others have so little.