How to Opt Out of Christmas

Our annual Black Friday message for avoiding Christmas craziness.

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 clich├ęd 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.

Christmas is even more crass when we buy for adults. In our families the holiday 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. For adults Christmas involves two types of people: those who can afford to buy things and thus already have what they need and want; 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. 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.

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 in for an oil change. 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: 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!

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.

8. Step Eight: 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.


Liz Frame's Music for Grown-ups




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True story. I was walking down a Newburyport street last summer, spied an arts market, and then heard a voice that froze me in my tracks. It belonged to Liz Frame, who was providing some street entertainment with her band The Kickers. Check out her new CD and I sincerely doubt you’ll get much done until the last of its ten taut tracks has finished.

In an age of saccharine sentimentality and little girl whispers, Frame offers a mature alternative, both in her real life-marinated song themes and in her powerful far-ranging voice, which she ornaments with tasteful catches at appropriate moments. The music lies in that ineffable intersection between country, rock, folk, and blues. Call it country chutzpah if you have to call it anything. Don’t expect any of those lame “Baby, baby, you light up my world” kind of lyrics; a Frame sampler–all originals–includes: “Don’t take more than you can handle/Don’t chase what you can’t outrun/Don’t love nobody so much that you can’t watch them walk away/Don’t play with guns” and “I want to feel your love in my hands/I want to feel the sweat in my pores.” Oh yeah. Put some edgy electric guitar to that, add some sexy bass lines from Lynne Taylor, and it’s get-on-board or get-the-hell-out-of-the-way. The Kickers is an apt name for Frame’s band–like she, they are brassy, bold, and rootsy. This is music that dances on the razor’s edge between danger and ecstasy. You know–just like the deal really goes down outside of Fantasy Land.

So pay attention the next time you walk past an arts fair; you never know what diamond in the rough might lie amidst the spangled crocheted dolls.

You can sample Frame’s music on her Website: http://www.reverbnation.com/artist/song_details/10884169 Please go to www.lizframeandthekickers.com to buy her music and to keep abreast of her performances.


Old Town School Sampler Leaves You Wanting More

Dipping the toes into a very deep well.


Live from the Old Town School

Old Town School Recordings

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To call Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music a venerable institution is akin to calling the Mona Lisa a fairly well known painting. Formed in 1957 at the height of the folk revival, the OTS has hosted pretty much every major figure on the folk scene. True to its name, it’s also a teaching institution for around 6,000 erstwhile musicians as well as a concert venue. The OTS has mined its considerable archives and has made available to the public 127 tracks featuring 85 separate artists. The recording featured in this review is a whet-your-whistle 21-track sampler. My-oh-my, what an assemblage of talent!

The sampler dips mostly into performances since 1982. There’s Donovan leading a group sing of “Mellow Yellow,” Joan Baez performing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” Doc Watson ripping up the strings on “Blue Eyed Jane,” and John Hammond giving up the “Walkin’ Blues.” There are early performances from now famed musicians–Steve Earle singing “Goodbye,” Martin Carthy on “John Barleycorn,” Jeff Tweedy singing the catchy “Three is the Magic Number,” and a young Claudia Schmidt singing “Wild Mountain Thyme. More poignant still are tracks from those no longer with us, a list that includes Dave Van Ronk, John Hartford, the great Mahalia Jackson, and the one I miss the most: Steve Goodman. What comes through in each performance is the consummate professionalism of the artist, the intimacy of the venue, and the joy of sharing fabulous music with an appreciate audience.

Check out the entire collection at www.oldtownschool.org/liverecordings