Avoiding Materialism For the Winter Holidays

Advent Wreath

One of the main themes that I have been hearing from both Christian and Jewish friends is that they don’t like materialism driving out the true meaning of Hanukkah and Christmas and also don’t like the effect that materialism has on their children.  I’m sure my pagan friends have similar issues around Yule.  Stores ramp up shopping right after Thanksgiving- and even on Thanksgiving itself.  The infamous pepper spray shopping incident illustrated how out of balance things have gotten.

To be fair, stores get their best merchandise in stock before the winter holidays, and most people like a meaningful present.  But there is no reason to fill up the tree with too much junk or to give eight meaningless presents instead of one or two that people really want.  On the other hand I know families that were so anti-materialism that they didn’t give any gifts at all and their children felt slighted and ashamed in front of their friends.  Instead there are other strategies.

  • Don’t assume that your children want tons of stuff.  I remember, at 5,  my family told me that  money was tight and there wouldn’t be much under the tree.  All I asked Santa for was some scotch tape, a magical substance which had recently caught my eye, and I meant it. Plus I felt good about helping my parents. There  is no shame in letting children know that times are tough- and even if your family is doing well, this can be a time for giving to others instead of receiving. Times are tough.
  • Discuss materialism with your children and cultivate a discerning view of commercials and store pressure.  They are not too young to learn your values and how television and commercials manipulate them.  Deconstruct it.
  • Consider a cost limit per person, either for requested or donated gifts, within which one can be creative.
  • If your children are at the Santa Clause stage, don’t make it seem as if Santa is the source of endless materialism. I told my children about the historical St. Nicholas of Smyrna who helped poor girls get a dowry when they started asking about Santa.    And when they compared their gifts to those of more affluent friends, I indicated that parents had a financial arrangement with Santa that wasn’t always the same.  Distract them with activities instead.

    A Christmas tradition in New York City is WPIX...
    Yule log
  • The winter solstice holidays seem to emphasize light for good reason.  Decorate your home with strands of lights, Advent wreaths, multiple menorahs in your windows, Yule logs.  Emphasize a celebratory atmosphere rather than gifts.
  • Similarly let your home be a place of music.  We no longer have my aunt around to play the piano while we sing, but the kids can put together a playlist on our iPad or computer to celebrate the holiday, sing with and play during dinner.  If someone plays an instrument, so much the better.
  • Remain in touch with the religious roots of the holiday, even if you tend to be secular and consider them legends .  Tell the stories, remember the history, share in the deep meanings.  It will add a sense of mindfulness and gratitude to your celebrations.
  • Limit commercial television which runs nonstop commercials for toys and clothing you don’t need. A few good DVDs, PBS or a Hallmark special can set the mood with minimal commercials.
  • Involve the family in preparing food- making cookies, shopping, bringing part of the food if they live out of the home.  Don’t let all the work fall on one person, and enjoy the time together rather than just the product of the work.

    Menorahs can be provided for each family member
  • Consider new herbal directions for favorite foods, especially if you find traditional foods stale:  turkey with tandoori spices, curried sweet potato latkes, pine needle spiced ham, bergamot seasoned lasagna.  Add color with new vegetables.  Go for flavor over quantity.
  • Invite people who are single or without family to join your celebrations, even if you don’t know them well.  Holidays can be times of despair for those who don’t have family or friends around. Share.
  • Get your shopping done before Thanksgiving when there is less pressure and emptier stores.  Patronize local stores and small craftspeople where possible.  Then spend December enjoying time with family.
  • Watch your own tendencies to purchase too much and to focus on gifts.  Instead schedule time for activities or spiritual growth.
  • If a family member has a specific gift in mind it is a good idea to discuss it to avoid crushed expectations.  Perhaps it is simply too expensive or inappropriate.  Maybe people can go together on it, make a donation or combine gifts for a birthday and holiday.  Better to hear a clear “no” or “that isn’t how we celebrate” than to hope and be disappointed.  (But don’t abuse this in the service of fetishizing surprise.)
  • Make at least some presents and most decor as a family project:  herbal salsa, hawthorn elixir, rosemary and shallot vinegar, bath salts with essential oils, candles, oil menorahs, ornaments.  Cranberry or popcorn garlands can be put out for the birds later.  Fir needles can be dried into spice blends or stuffed into pillows. Oven fired or salt clay can be used to make Nativity scenes.
  • Give presents that are donations.  For several years I have given cow shares or chickens or reforestation certificates through the Heifer Project.  Donations to the Hunger Siteor its rainforest, child health, literacy, autism, breast cancer  or animal welfare affiliates allow you to fund and get printable certificates to give for such things as a health garden in Rwanda ($15), a year of school lunches for an AIDS orphan ($18), high efficiency stoves in Dafur ($15), feed a US senior in need ($25), rescue an animal (from $1.00). or rescue a girl from indentured servitude ($50) .

    You can give geese through Heifer.org
  • My children presented me one year with $50 of certificates to fund loans through Kiva.org.  I was able to choose 4 recipients of microloans, and revisit the gift as the loans were repaid to lend again.  Those four certificates have turned into 41 loans which transform the lives of recipients around the world.  This would be a great family project where each Christmas you add to the family portfolio.  Children can learn about the areas where your recipients live, you can discuss the nature of the projects you wish to fund and how secure they seem, and you can know you are contributing to the dignity of the borrowers as they form new businesses or otherwise expand their skills.
  • Consider spearheading funding for a project you care about.  My son Nick raised over $5000 for Tibet for his 21st birthday using a Facebook application.  Of course this works best if you have lots of friends who care about the same project you are raising funds for. But you can join with your community at putting together a skills bank which could do everything from helping seniors with home repair to helping young couples learn how to budget. Or raise funds for the local food bank (but remember them after the holidays are past!)
  • If you can serve food at a local soup kitchen this may be a good celebration.  They usually need more help after the holidays, but now  may be a good time to get introduced.
  • Focus on what you are grateful for rather than what you might get.  Do this before the gift giving as well as after.
  • Don’t overdo.  This leads to burnout, disappointment and discontent, not to mention high bills in January.
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