It’s that special time of year: chestnuts roasting on an open fire, festive lights, family and friends ... plus shop-’til-you drop stress, billions in credit-card debt and 4 million tons of wrapping paper and shopping bags sent to the dump.
Ugh. How did the holiday season go from being a time of celebration and renewal to the nadir of frenzied commercialism and consumption? Between Black Friday – once simply known as the day after Thanksgiving – and Christmas, weekly updates of retail sales figures are reported as breathlessly as football scores and analyzed as the most important indicators of the health of the U.S. economy. In 2011, Americans spent $471 billion during the holiday season – one fifth of retail sales for the entire year. Christmas is the Super Bowl of Stuff. Christmas has been adopted by those of various faiths and the non-religious to be a time of family, friends and giving. But advertisers have adopted Christmas, too, as their holiday, but with more sinister results.
It’s a deplorable situation, but not that surprising. This is the end result of an entire economic system based on the making, branding, selling and trashing of consumer goods. Advertising has created such a strong association between brands and holiday symbols that we sometimes have trouble distinguishing between authentic traditions and commercial hype.
Eight in 10 Americans report that the holidays are a time of increased stress. That’s the bad news. The good news, according to the Center for a New American Dream, is more than 3 in 4 Americans wish that holidays were less materialistic. Nearly 9 in 10 believe that holidays should be more about family and caring for others, not giving and receiving gifts.
The even better news is that this is one change we can make on our own. We don’t have to write a letter, sign a petition or join a movement to Take Back the Holidays™. Nor do we have to search for the perfect organic, nontoxic, recyclable, cruelty-free, fair-trade gift to show our loved ones how committed we are to sustainability. Whether we are religious believers or secular citizens, we can just opt out of the madness and look for more meaningful ways to celebrate the season.
“Christmas should be something to enjoy rather than endure,” writes author and activist Bill McKibben. “Instead of an island of bustle, it should be an island of peace amid a busy life. We want so much more out of Christmas: more music, more companionship, more contemplation, more time outdoors, more love.” In Hundred Dollar Holiday, McKibben, a church-going Christian, describes what it’s like to set a $100 limit on holiday spending – gifts, decorations, even the holiday feast. Some of us might find that level of simplicity a challenge, at least to start, but surveys bear out that those are the things people want most.
Time – especially time with friends – is one of the most valuable gifts we can give. We have more and cooler stuff than our parents and grandparents could have ever imagined, but we pay dearly. We spend more time working and shopping than they did and we spend much less time in leisure, on vacation and with friends. Giving time together reduces the amount of stress-inducing, useless stuff in everyone’s life, builds community and creates a catalog of memories to look back on. Give your kids a day at the beach for all their friends. Exchange lunch-dates with a friend. Babysit your best friends’ kids – maybe even overnight! Share a talent: give surfing lessons, tax prep or bike repair.
My family opted out of the gift giving frenzy a decade ago, and nothing could inspire us to go back! On Thanksgiving, we put all family members’ names in a bowl and everyone pulls one. (Family members who aren’t there get their assignment later.) Then we each buy just one gift. No waiting in lengthy lines. No buying stuff that isn’t quite right to avoid showing up empty handed. This allows everyone to give and still receive, but without the stress, clutter or post-holiday credit card bills. An occasional new spouse in the family was skeptical at first, but once they taste the stress-free holidays, they want to spread it to their own relatives too.
If you celebrate Hanukkah, the Center for a New American Dream suggests you shift the focus to avoid giving gifts for eight consecutive evenings: “Consider having a theme for each night: hosting a family party, working on a charity project together, making homemade presents or baked goods for others, playing games, etc. – with gift-giving as only one night’s focus.”
And one final thought: cultivating new traditions and cultural norms takes time. And giving and receiving can be fun. I’m certainly not saying we should become Scrooge and ban all gifts overnight. Or repay gifts with lectures on impending ecological collapse or feelings of guilt. I’m suggesting we rethink how we celebrate the holidays to make sure that we’re living our values and thinking for ourselves – not just responding to marketing hype.
How you choose to take back the holidays is up to you – that’s what it’s all about, creating and nurturing your own traditions. As with any gift, it’s the thought that counts. So this year, think hard about what really matters to you and your family and put that at the top of your holiday gift list.