Declining to feed the holiday frenzy

I first participated in “Buy Nothing Day” on Black Friday when my children were little. It became my tradition. A friend, who had braved the shopping chaos, said that the local outlet mall (“Virginia’s Number One Tourist Attraction!”) was so packed with gift-seekers that parking overflowed to outlying lots, and that it was “a zoo out there!” 

Instead of wending my way through ravenous throngs and standing in interminable lines that day, I enjoyed the lovely seventy-degree weather, hanging laundry on the line, and going on an extra-long bicycle ride. I relished the feel of sun and breeze, knowing it will not be long before winter’s glum visage stares us down for seemingly endless months. These moments of satisfaction are a hallmark of having successfully “unplugged” the “Christmas Machine.”

I began lobbying my family to turn down the holiday volume in 2000 when the number of grandchildren and gifts given had turned Christmas Eve at my father’s house into an hours-long materialistic feeding frenzy. Like a friend once noted about her family’s celebration, we “could not see the Christmas tree for the trash around it.”

At first, my children and I were only able to identify what we did not like about the holiday madness, but we were not sure exactly what we wanted to keep. As a first step toward a more satisfying holiday season, I purchased copies of “Unplug the Christmas Machine” and “New Traditions,” books that helped my family define how we do want to celebrate. We noted that the number one thing that makes the season special for us is spending time with loved ones. Also scoring high was feeling relaxed in a calm atmosphere. We also like doing a few simple and meaningful things together, like baking one or two kinds of heirloom cookies to give to friends and neighbors, taking walks to see the lights at night, and decorating simply, with candles, evergreen branches, and a small tree. We might also donate some goodies to the animal shelter bake sale, learn a new song, or go to a friend’s sing-along.

Gift-giving did not disappear, but we downplayed the focus on material things. The children found stocking stuffers and candy in their stockings, and a few gifts under our little tree. When we opened gifts, we did it over a long course, so we could take time to fully appreciate each one.

These changes were initially not well received among the extended family, but after a few years, the aunts, uncles, and grandparents stopped insisting on giving my children Pound Puppies—or whatever was “in”—regardless of my daughters’ interests. The “reciprocity guilt” bothered me at first, but eased as I saw the effects of standing my ground, watching the material tide ebb. Indeed, one of the best things about unplugging the holidays is being emancipated from standing in the department store’s return line on December 26th. I still remember how free I felt the first time I was able to stay home with my family instead of going through the cattle chute with other grumpy post-Christmas reverse shoppers.

By the time my children were 16 and 13 they had repeatedly expressed pleasure at our having opted out of perpetuating the cycle of insatiable material gluttony that defines the holiday season for numerous Americans. They appreciated that the holiday season no longer brought stress and strain to our home, right through to the gift aftermath and emotional letdown. Instead, we were serenely enjoying *not* mall hopping, *not* lining up with the unhappy multitudes, *not* being constantly barraged with the same music ad nauseum, *not* worrying about finding “just the right gift” for the person who already has more than enough, *not* worrying about how much to spend on whom, *not* wondering if the children’s concept of the reason for the season is a glut of new stuff, *not* worrying how we will find room for a flood of new belongings, *not* stressing over how to pay for it all, and *not* planning to get up early the day after Christmas to stand in line with packs of other people who are glumly returning the junk they didn’t want or need. 

My family’s holiday activities became low-key. We kept our observances simple and meaningful. We spent little, stressed none, and found great satisfaction. Stepping back from the holiday feeding frenzy is one of the most subversive actions a family can take. After our move toward sanity, we saw our steps repeated by others. This built a small circle of friends and family members who had also chosen to back away from a stressful, harried, and cheapened holiday season. One never knows what small act may plant the seeds of a revolution.

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