How to Have a Non-Consumerist Christmas
Christmas is big business in America. If you walk through Wal-Mart or Target in August, you'll feel like you need to put on a sweater and sip some hot chocolate. Santa faces are leering at you from the shelves, along with boxes and bows and reindeer and elves. Where I live, it's still 100 degrees in August and it's all a bit wierd. But, merchandisers need to start early to cash in on the shopping frenzy that is Christmas in America.
Not all of us wish to participate in this rabid, hysterical consumerism. If you're like me, you want to get back to a Christmas holiday that includes more than stressful trips to the mall to guess at what sort of present is wanted or appropriate. Some people are religiously motivated and resent the focus of Christmas being removed from the birth of Jesus. Others, like myself, simply want to get back to a less hurried, more meaningful Christmas holiday. I can offer some tips on how to do this.
First, when it comes to gifts, figure out how much of a rebellion you want to stage. What I mean is, will you still participate in gift-giving but maybe cut back? Will you forego gift-giving all together? Will you give an "alternative" gift, such as a donation to charity, or a homemade gift instead of something store-bought? Is your goal to save money or to participate in gift-giving that circumvents the usual "buy more and bigger" mentality?
In the past my family has tried many forms of gift-giving. One year we didn't do any gifts at all, to anyone. At the time, our kids were too little to protest. I did not enjoy this option. I found that while I saved a pile of money, I missed out on the joy of giving. For many with severe economic hardships, it is completely appropriate to say, "Sorry guys, we're just not doing it this year."
One year my family did charity gifts. I chose different charities that supported causes I thought appropriate for various family members. For example, my in-laws have a rescued Golden Retriever that they adore and so we made a donation to the rescue organization responsible for bringing that dog into their lives. While we spent the same amount of money that we would have on store-bought gifts, we felt much better about making the donations. We had fun researching the charities and choosing one for each recipient. There are hundreds of reputable, worthy charities that will do immeasurable good with even a small donation.
Tell people early about your alternative gift-giving plans. You could send around an email in October saying that your family is foregoing regular gifts this year and will be donating to charity instead. This allows people to choose whether to buy for your family or not. It would be a bit tacky to inform someone that you have no intention of buying them a gift when they have just spent hundreds of dollars on you and your family. I have found that many times people are actually relieved to hear that you won't be buying for them or that you'll be cutting back on gift-giving. It takes the pressure off them to find a gift for you. People put a lot of unnecessary pressure on themselves to buy cost-equivalent gifts for people who are buying for them. They feel obligated to buy a gift if they anticipate receiving one. How nice for people to say, "Whew, that's one person I can cross off my list!"
Do be prepared for some grumbling if you decide to cut back on gifts. If in the past you spent an arm on a leg on Christmas presents, there may be some people disappointed to hear that they won't be getting their usual loot. I advise telling these people the truth, whatever it is. If you're financially strapped, let people know. People are often very guarded about their financial situation, especially when it's less than ideal, and a little honesty is refreshing. Simply saying, "Sorry, we can't afford to do what we used to do" takes the pressure off others to do more than they can reasonably afford. You could also explain that you reject the commercialization of Christmas. Make it a point to tell people that you're celebrating the holiday with traditions other than gift-giving. They may think you're a wierdo, or they may think you've got the right idea and choose to emulate you. You won't know until you tell them the truth.
Now that we've covered gift-giving, let's move on to some other ideas for simplifying Christmas. Think back to your childhood. What are your favorite memories of Christmas? Which memories give you the "warm fuzzies"? Maybe it was baking with your mom or hanging lights with your dad. Maybe it was visiting family in the country or annoying your little brother on the 10 hour road trip to Grandma's. People, you can't put a price on this stuff! The best Christmas memories have nothing to do with presents!
Now think about what kind of memories you want to give your kids. If your kids are little, you can decide early on what kind of family traditions you'd like to start. If your kids are older, you can still make changes in the way you celebrate Christmas. It's never too late to change for the better! You can continue traditions passed on from your parents or you can start new ones. Either way, decide which traditions to incorporate and do them every year. Here are a few ideas I've practiced or heard from other families:
- Take a family portrait every year. It can be professional or taken with the automatic setting on your own camera at your own house. Do it in the same place every year and include the whole family, even the pets. As you look back over the years, you'll see how your family changed and grew.
- Read the same book every year. I read Dr. Seuss' "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" to my kids on Christmas Eve every year and I started before they could even understand. I love this book and I want my kids to have it firmly ingrained in their memories!
- Give each child an ornament each year. By the time they move out, their first Christmas tree in their first apartment won't look so shabby because they'll have all their childhood ornaments to put on it.
- Give away baked goods or homemade cards every year. This teaches kids the value of making something with their own hands and lets them feel the satisfaction that comes from putting time and effort into a gift, rather than walking into a store and slapping some money on the counter.
- Write a Christmas letter. Give the highlights of your family's year and send it out with or instead of a Christmas card. A pretty picture on a card is nice, but most people would rather hear what's new with your family, especially people who live far away or don't communicate with you regularly.
- Decorate your house (and your tree, and your car, and your yard). This is especially fun if your kids are little. Who cares if it's tacky? Letting your kids go bananas with the Christmas lights or the tinsel helps them get into the spirit of Christmas without spending a dime. It also teaches them that their involvement is more important to you than a perfect, sophisticated result.
- Volunteer or give to charity. It's nice to do this all year, but it seems like there are more opportunities at Christmas. One of my favorites is the "Angel Tree" that many churches do. You are given the age and gender of a child in need and you buy presents for them. I would suggest looking for children close to the age of your own children and letting them pick out the gifts. It may be hard for them to buy a toy they want to keep and then give it away, but what a great way to teach generosity.
There are as many ways to celebrate Christmas as there are families. Whichever traditions you begin with your families, rest assured that your children will remember them much more than they will remember what presents they found under the tree. Please remember that you have the power to choose what type of Christmas celebration your family will have. You can either cave in to the pressure to buy and consume, or you can reclaim Christmas as a restful, peaceful season full of generosity and love. You CAN teach your children a new way of doing Christmas!