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.”
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.
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.
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?
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!