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How You’re Ruining Christmas – And What You Can Do to Save It

How You’re Ruining Christmas – And What You Can Do to Save It

How You're Ruining Christmas - And What You Can Do to Save It

    You’re ruining Christmas.

    Not for me – how could you ruin it for me? No, you’re ruining it for yourself, for your family and friends, for everyone who loves you and who you love in return.

    You started in August, when you saw the first little corner of the Mega-Mart decked out with Christmas bows and dancing Santas. It was just a few little grumbles then, but by Halloween it had grown into a roar. Every Christmas decoration, every carol, every artificial tree display you took as a personal affront.

    “Can you believe it? Greedy bastards!”

    “Ugh, Christmas is so commercial now. Wake me up for New Years!”

    “Look at those people fighting over toys like animals. They’re disgusting.”

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    And on and on and on and on and on. We get it. You HATE Christmas!

    What’s that? You don’t hate Christmas? You say you just hate the materialism of it, the way it’s turned from a wonderful tradition into a buying frenzy, the forced gift-giving, the greedy little children waiting to open the latest whiz-bang-o on Christmas morning?

    I see. You hate that everyone else just doesn’t get it. Not like you do.

    OK, so: what are you going to do about it? Because nobody can ruin your Christmas but you. Not a thousand Grinches, not a million Scrooges, not a googol saccharine greeting card ads.

    How to save Christmas

    1. Give gifts.

    I know this whole “mandatory gift-giving” thing is a drag. Why can’t you just give gifts when you feel like, instead of when society tells you to?

    Here’s the thing: in every society in the world, gift-giving is an obligation. One of the highest obligations, actually. It is the fundamental basis of all human economic behavior. Here’s why: giving gifts ties us together in a profound way. It creates a web of reciprocity that binds us, one to the other.

    Consider what a student told me about his family’s gift-giving tradition some years ago. He has 4 brothers, all scattered around the nation, reuniting in the family home in Queens, NY, every Christmas. On Christmas morning, they meet around the tree, and each gives the other $100. Cash.

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    There’s a practical reason: they don’t all want to fly home laden with bulky presents, then fly away laden with new ones – and they don’t want to get home just to find that the present they picked out is unwanted. But if you’re doing the math, you’re noticing something odd. Each gives the other $100. That’s $400 out ($100 to each of 4 brothers) and $400 back ($100 from each of four brothers). It’s a wash.

    And yet, something happened there. It’s clearer if you ask yourself: why $100? Why not $20, since nobody was coming out of the exchange ahead? Or why not $1000? Or a million? After all, nothing’s coming out of anyone’s pocket, right?

    They give each other $100 because they’re brothers, and because that feels right for a gift for a brother. You don’t give nothing, because that’s like saying your relationship isn’t worth anything. You don’t give a crazy amount, because that’s absurd.

    The point is, quite literally, that it’s the thought that counts. We say it all the time, but they actually mean it.

    So you’re going to give gifts. Because you think highly of the people around you.

    2. Embrace materialism.

    I know, you don’t mind giving gifts, it’s the materialism of it. Why do you have to go out, braving the maddened crowds, overflowing parking lots, and bitter winter cold to prove to your family and friends that you love them?

    Well, you can make gifts, and if you’re talented at making things, by all means go ahead and make to your heart’s content. But here’s the rub: most of us aren’t. Good at making stuff, that is. We spent years developing a set of skills that allow us to get along in life, and making things isn’t really on that list. You can market the heck out of just about anything, balance the yearly books, make a global distribution network sing, or serve up platters of pasta like nobody’s business – but those highly developed skills don’t really translate to Christmas morning goodies.

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    Here’s what you are good at: you’re good at shopping. You do it to survive, and you’re still alive, right? I know that seems cold and detached to you, but seriously: it’s humanity’s oldest skill. 100,000 years ago your great-great-great-great[…]-great-grandmother walked through the savannas, forests, deserts, and river bottoms of Africa, the Middle East, Indonesia looking for food and raw materials, and every now and again she grabbed a nice melon or a juicy turtle thinking “You know who would like this? Sally in accounting would just eat this up!”

    That’s what you’re doing out there in the malls, craft fairs, and boutiques of the Christmas season: putting your own survival needs on hold for a minute while you consider the needs and desires of the people you love. Putting your skills to the test as surely as your woodworking father or candle-making aunt is.

    3. Sing a carol. Decorate a tree.

    It’s amazing to me that people can decry the materialism of Christmas in the same breath as they complain about hearing “Silent Night” or “Little Drummer Boy” over the PA.

    I mean, we say we want to strip away the materialism so we can get at the “real meaning” of Christmas. Well, here’s the thing: those Christmas carols are the meaning of Christmas. They’re songs about love, joy, peace, and happiness – all things that we’ve been trained to see as stupid. That’s right – we are a cold, detached, ironic, cool-seeking people who hates songs that talk about being happy as if it were something people could do.

    Put that in your corn-cob pipe and smoke it.

    Christmas carols are our Christmas traditions. Some of them are hundreds of years old. They connect us with our parents, and their parents, and their parents parents, and so on – to people who wouldn’t know a Tickle-Me Elmo if it bit them on their bellies like bowls full of jelly.

    Take away the gift-giving, and what we have are the songs, the red-and-green tinsel, the soft glow of the tree. Kids laughing. Seriously, you’re gonna bah-humbug Christmas carols?

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    4. Go to church. Or don’t.

    For some of us, Christmas is a religious holiday. Not all of us. Maybe not even most of us. But if you’re one of the people for whom this day is important because it marks the birth of Our Lord and Savior, by all means, go to church. Celebrate. Pray. Give thanks. It’s a wondrous thing, to have a messiah.

    But for many of us, Christmas is a day off from work, a day full of tradition and a spirit of giving that lets us be with our families. That’s not nothing! We live scattered lives – even if we live in the same city as the rest of our family, which is pretty unlikely, there’s a pretty good chance we don’t see them as often as we’d like. We don’t celebrate them as often as we’d like. And certainly not all together, in one place, with gifts and feasting and songs.

    Let’s say you give up the gift-giving. No more materialism for you! And let’s say you give up the carols. And the tree. See, I get all that. I disagree, but I get it. It’s overwhelming. It’s too much. I understand.

    But there’s your family, all with the same day off. Who cares why – you all have the day off! That’s a rare and special thing. So what are you going to do?

    You could do what Jews have been doing for the last two millennia: catch a movie with your family and go out for Chinese. It’s great: the roads are practically empty, there’s always a great selection Christmas week (as studios rush to get their big Oscar contenders out before the year-end deadline), and Chinese food is delicious. What’s more, you’ll spend the whole day relaxing with your family, just enjoying each other’s company.

    Or create your own traditions. Go sledding or hiking or kite flying (for our readers in the Southern Hemisphere). Pull out the photo albums and play “What was I thinking?!” Play GiftTRAP or some other party game.

    4. Stop your whining and have a merry Christmas!

    The world is how it is. We’re consumers, and we live in a commercialized society. If that bothers you – and it should – by all means, devote yourself to changing the world. But start December 26th and keep at it until next November, when it’s needed. Everyone’s a critic from Thanksgiving to Christmas, and we do nothing about it.

    Becoming a revolutionary for the Christmas season isn’t helping. All it’s doing is ruining your holidays for you, and for everyone who cares about you. Instead of whining about how much Christmas sucks, how about applying some positive thinking to finding the special core that makes Christmas work for you, whether that’s the social relationships that Christmas gift-giving cements into something solid and enduring, the traditions that give us permission to imagine a world in which being good to one another isn’t an absurdity, or the time you get to  spend celebrating your family.

    It’s up to you. The stores are doing what they have to do to make money, which is their job. The mobs of shoppers are doing what they have to do to make their Christmas work for them. You’re the only one who can make Christmas special. You’ve got a week. Have at it!

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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