Each year I envision a simpler Christmas. Less running. Less buying. More time with people who matter to us. More Renewal. Maybe even more time preparing food together. These good ideas seem to fade as the season encroaches as the focus narrows to getting “the list” completed. I get sucked into it – finding the best deals is a game that is quite addicting. But it only goes so far. I’m not sure it brings more joy. Thus, I was very much intrigued by Bill McKibben’s “Hundred Dollar Holiday.” This isn’t something that can happen cold turkey. I’ll probably buy the book after Christmas to see if if has hints for cool ideas to replace the gift-giving treadmill so as to not take something away, but to add something else more meaningful. Below are some of Bill McKibben’s thoughts on the holiday that get to the essence of the rant.
I’ve been called my share of names, but the only one that ever really stung was “grinch.” The year that a few friends and I started the Hundred Dollar Holiday program through our rural Methodist churches, several business page columnists in the local papers leveled the G-word we were dour do-gooders, they said, bent on taking the joy out of Christmas. And, frankly, their charges sounded plausible enough. After all, we were asking our families, our friends, and our church brethren to try and limit the amount of money they spend on the holiday to a hundred dollars “ to celebrate the holiday with a seventh or an eighth of the normal American materialism. There’s no question that would mean fewer “Pop guns! And bicycles! Roller skates! Drums! Checkerboards! Tricycles! Popcorn! And plums!” Not to mention Playstations, Camcorders, Five Irons, and various Obsessions. Perhaps my heart was two sizes too small.
So it was with some trepidation that I carefully reread my daughter’s well-worn copy of the Seuss classic, neatly shelved with Green Eggs and Ham, Horton Hears a Who and all the other secular parables. There on the cover was the Grinch himself, red eyes gleaming malevolently as he plotted the sack of Whoville. He hated the noise of the kids with their toys, and he hated the feast of rare Who-roast-beast, and most of all he hated the singing. “Why,for fifty-three years I’ve put up with it now! I MUST stop this Christmas from coming! But HOW?” Simple enough, of course. All he had to do was loot the town of its packages, tinsel, trees, food, even the logs in the fireplace. Even the crumbs for the mice disappeared back up the chimney. But of course it didn’t work. That Christmas morning, listening from his aerie for the wailing from Whoville below, the Grinch heard instead the sound of singing. Christmas had come. “It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes or bags!” After puzzling three hours till his puzzler was sore, the Grinch was forced to conclude that Christmas came from no store.
And so I breathed a sigh of real relief. Not only was I not a grinch trying to wreck the meaning of Christmas, it was abundantly clear who the grinches of our culture really are: those relentless commercial forces who have spent more than a century trying to convince us that Christmas does come from a store, or a catalogue, or a virtual mall on the Internet. Every day, but especially in the fall, they try their hardest to turn each Cindy Lou Who into a proper American consumer “ try their best to make sure her Christmas revolves around Sony or Sega, Barbie or Elmo. But Dr. Suess’s message went deeper for me. You see, when we’d begun thinking about Hundred Dollar Holidays, it was mostly out of concern for the environment or for poor people. Think of all that wrapping paper, we said, all those batteries, all that plastic. Think of all those needy people who could be helped if we donated our money to them instead. Think of all those families who went deep into debt trying to have a “proper” Christmas.
All those issues are important. But the more we worked on our little campaign, traveling around our region having evening meetings at small rural churches like the one I attend, the more we came to understand why people were responding â€“ indeed, why we had responded to the idea. It wasn’t because we wanted a simpler Christmas at all. It was because we wanted a more joyous Christmas.
We were feeling cheated “as if the season didn’t bring with it the happiness we wanted. Christmas had become something to endure at least as much as it had become something to enjoy “ something to dread at least as much as something to look forward to. Instead of an island of peace amid a busy life, it was an island of bustle. The people we were talking to wanted so much more out of Christmas: more music, more companionship, more contemplation, more time outdoors, more love. And they realized that to get it, they needed less of some other things: not so many gifts, not so many obligatory parties, not so much hustle. The Real Reason to Change This is not an exercise in nostalgia. What are the problems peculiar to the moment that we might help ease by changing some of the ways we celebrate this greatest of national festivals? Problems?
Well, the environment, surely that’s one. Our enormously increased populations and levels of consumption are filling the air with carbon dioxide, changing the very climate. I’ve spent my career dealing with these issues, and they are vital, urgent, critical, alarming. Name your adjective. But these issues aren’t fundamental. The damage we’re doing to our atmosphere, our water, our forests, stems from deeper dilemmas, I think “ and so does the damage we’re doing to the poorest people in our nation and around the world. So the reason to change Christmas is not because it damages the earth around us, though surely it does. (Visit a landfill the week after Christmas.)
The reason to change Christmas is not because it represents shameful excess in a world of poverty, though perhaps it does. The reason to change Christmas “ the reason it might be useful to change Christmas “ is because it might help us to get at some of the underlying discontent in our lives. Because it might help us see how to change every other day of the year, in ways that really would make our whole lives, and maybe our entire 365-days-a-year culture, healthier in the long run.