Article by Leo Babauta. (Follow me on Twitter.)
The holidays are a time of celebration for many — good food, lots of parties, gift-giving, family and friends, — but they can also be a time of mass consumption and hyper-consumerism.
I think with all the stresses of this season, and the expectations of our society, we often feel that we must give expensive gifts and throw lavish parties and cook up incredible amounts of food and drink — let’s admit it — what can only be called an unhealthy amount of alcohol.
It’s easy, with all this going on, to forget the true spirit of this season.
Recently I had a talk with my kids about how we shouldn’t think the holidays are all about getting gifts. How we should try to find other ways to celebrate, and get more into the spirit of giving. I’ve been reflecting on this a lot recently, and while none of this is anything original, I thought I’d share a few of my thoughts in hopes that it can keep things a little more sane for some people — and a little more joyful as well.
A Time for Gratitude
For those of us in the U.S., this is Thanksgiving week. That often becomes a day of overeating more than anything else, but what I love about it is that I get to get together with my family. I see grandparents and parents, cousins and aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews and half-siblings — people I see only intermittently throughout the year, not enough to be honest.
We get together and catch up and share our joys and sorrows. Yes, we overeat. But who among us can resist homemade pumpkin pie? It’s my favorite all-time dessert, actually. :)
But what should Thanksgiving really be about, besides family and friends? It’s about giving thanks, and too often this fades into the background of the holiday.
So I’d like to take a moment to give my thanks, briefly:
- I am deeply grateful for my wife, Eva, and my kids (Chloe, Justin, Rain, Maia, Seth and Noelle) … I love them all, overwhelmingly. I am grateful for my mom, Shannon, my dad, Joe, my sisters Katrina, Ana, Tiara, my brothers Joe, Brandon, Austin, and everyone else I’m lucky enough to call family.
- I am truly, truly grateful to all of you, my readers, for your continual encouragement on this blog, for making my dreams of doing something I’m passionate about come true, for making this job an incredibly fun and gratifying job. I am blessed to have all of you.
- I am blessed to be healthy, to have a great job, to have all my needs and desires fulfilled, to live a simple and joyful life.
What are you grateful for? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments! Take time this week, and all through the holidays, to cultivate the gratitude habit. It can change your life.
A Time for Reflection
The holidays being at the end of the year, I also like to remember to take this time to reflect on my life, the year so far, and the direction I’m headed in. It’s a great time to take assessment, to adjust as needed, to figure out what you want to do in the upcoming year.
I like to use this time, also, to simplify my life. To remember what’s essential, to eliminate the non-essential.
It’s also a great time, as you’re simplifying, to get rid of clutter. I like to get rid of stuff that’s accumulated throughout the year — and even the best declutterers among us have this happen — and Eva and I also help the kids go through their closets to make room for the crazy amounts of stuff they’ll be getting in December.
A Time for Celebration
While I know many of you are not Christian, for those of us who celebrate Christmas this season is really about celebrating Christ, as well as all that he stands for. The rest of you, I know, have other reasons for celebrating, religious or not.
I think this act of celebration is important, because it helps us to remember what’s important, and brings joy into our lives. It spices up life, and who doesn’t need a little merry-making in their life?
I love the traditions that come along with this season. Yours may be different, of course, but these traditions become important, no matter how small. My mom always invites me and my sisters, for example, to come over to make Christmas cookies. The kids get involved and it’s so much fun!
There are lots of little traditions like this, from decorating the Christmas tree to kissing under the mistletoe to exchanging gifts that are a lot of fun. What are your traditions?
I think it’s important to find ways to celebrate without having to spend tons of money. Christmas and the other holidays you might celebrate are not about getting deeply into debt. And it doesn’t have to be that way — if your family usually spends a lot of money to celebrate the holidays, it might be a good time to have a talk and see if there are other ways that you can be merry without Visa or Mastercard.
- Exchange home-made gifts or consummables.
- Go caroling.
- Volunteer for charity (see next section for more).
- Have a party with singing and dancing and games and food, but no gifts required.
- Get together to do a community project.
I’m sure you can think of many others.
A Time for Giving
Receiving gifts is always fun, of course, as is giving lots of gifts. But this season of giving doesn’t have to be about buying in order to give. You can make things, for example … or better yet, you can give in other ways:
- Volunteer for charity. We do this with our kids, from Salvation Army bell ringing (lots of fun because you sing carols and give people candy) to cooking and serving food for the homeless. It teaches the kids a lot about giving, and warms your heart to help others.
- Do something nice for people you love. Wash their car, do chores or errands for them, babysit so they can go on a date, cook them their favorite dish or treat, help them with a project.
- If you have a lot of money to burn (as it seems with all the spending we do!), give it to someone who needs it more. Donate to a good cause.
On Consumerism and All That Jazz
I’ve mentioned consumerism a few times now and I think I should say a few words about it. First, let me start by saying I am in no way immune from consumerism — I am a part of it just as much as anyone else, and so I criticize it from within the system, not from without.
What’s consumerism? Basically, equating happiness with material goods. Buying in order to bring happiness and solve problems. Spending more and more — and earning more and more to support the spending — in order to realize the dreams given to us by advertising and a consumerist society.
It’s good for the economy but bad for the individual. We end up in an endless cycle of spending and debt and working more and more, and end up with lives filled with goods but empty of meaning and happiness.
It gets to its worst point during the holidays — we become engaged in a consumerist frenzy that frankly scares me sometimes. Debt becomes a huge problem for a lot of people, and for what? So that people can end up with a mass of stuff they don’t need and often don’t really want. Even kids, who love getting gifts more than anyone else, don’t have time to play with all their new toys. They rip through the carefully-wrapped packages, take a quick look at their gift, and then move on to the next present. And here’s the kicker: they already have enough toys and gadgets! My kids have more than any kid should ever have (I didn’t buy all of it, in my shoddy defense), and they’re at the point when they’re really having to dig deep to think of things they want this Christmas. It’s too much.
So what’s the solution? Well the simple solution is to stop spending, to find other ways to give and to celebrate. But often that requires some changing of deeply-held traditions, and some uncomfortable discussions among families and friends. It means agreeing to do things differently, and perhaps being seen as a weirdo for doing so.
It can be done. We just need to realize that this season is not about buying stuff. It’s about celebrating, giving, spending time with family, reflecting, and gratitude.