Note from Sara: Grant is the jolliest elf I know. He loves Christmas like no one else I know, so when he kept talking about this book, I asked him to share his thoughts in case you could use a little simpler Christmas too. Also, we used this book for a Project Eden workshop on simplifying the holidays. Check out the Project Eden website for more practical ideas to simplify this Christmas.
As life around us is engulfed in the materialism mayhem that continues to blast full throttle leading up to Christmas day, I was in need of some solace and found the perfect anecdote in Bill McKibben’s Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case For A More Joyful Christmas. Coming in at just under 100 small-sized pages, this book can easily be perused in one sitting and takes the reader through the evolution of Christmas and how various aspects of history, sociology, art, war, and, yes, capitalism have drastically changed the holiday to fit the “needs” of current times. If you are like me and feel a little cheated how consumerism and busyness have robbed the joy of the most wonderful time of the year, if you want to be enlightened about the history of this special day, or if you are looking for fun and practical ways to add more joy and less stress around the Christmas season, this book is for you.
Though the majority of Americans see opponents to Christmas commercialism and abundant shopping and gift giving as we know it as “Grinches,” McKibben addresses the naysayers in the Introduction by highlighting who the real Grinches truly are: “those relentless commercial forces who have spent more than a century trying to convince us that Christmas does come from a store, or a catalogue, or a virtual mall on the Internet.” And before you swear off this non-traditional concept, consider the impact our dollars would have on needy people or organizations that could better use the funds, or the impact to the environment through a drastic reduction of the overflowing amounts of plastic, wrapping paper, batteries, etc. that come with all those presents.
Chapter one describes how Christmas started and how various aspects of society have impacted its evolution. From discussing its supposed date(s) of origin and boisterous beginnings, to the concept of wassailing, up through how religions, literary stories, tv, and movies have impacted how the world responds to the holiday, you are in for an easy to understand rollercoaster of background information. McKibben discusses that the point is not to NOT give gifts to others for Christmas, rather the goal is to maximize the fun of the season. Readers are challenged with a central question: “Whose birthday is it anyway?”
This is a birthday party for a small child born to poor parents in an out-of-the-way place attended by cows and sheep. We know how to behave at birthday parties; we know someone else is the center of attention, and that the pleasure comes from putting the spotlight on them. And yes, you get to eat cake, too, and ice cream, and maybe there’s a little bag of treats to take home. But you’re celebrating someone else. That’s what the fun is all about.
For those choosing to frame Christmas this way, McKibben points out the difficulty in being counter-cultural and offers suggestions for how to share this view with family and friends who may not share the same opinion.
Chapter two describes life for our ancestors on the prairie days and how our drastically-changed current lifestyle has impacted our view of Christmas. McKibben does a fantastic job of never idealizing nostalgia, but rather gleans useful aspects from all walks of life and times. As to our greatly enhanced standard of living, he writes,
Here’s the bottom line: we have so much stuff that a pile of presents is no longer exciting, no longer novel…When you have a lot of stuff, getting more of it is less exciting than when you have very little…We’ve been so carefully trained to buy more that we find ourselves shopping when we’re bored or depressed, but the lift from the new thing hardly lasts the drive home.
He continues to discuss how we are no longer excited by excitement, and suggests that peace and quiet can fill the void that consumerism cannot. Other solutions to break the cycle of consumerism include spending time outdoors, engaging with community (Christmas makes this easier to break the ice), and restoring or celebrating your relationship with the divine.
Chapter three highlights many different fun and engaging ways to give your loved ones a commodity they value higher than money – time. As the title suggest a $100 limit, McKibben discusses that the point is not to put yourself in a box to hem you in, but rather to give you a guide to spur creativity and to encourage people to intentionally spend time together whether that be making gifts or doing activities together as the end gift.
So the point is not to stop giving; the point is to give things that matter. Give things that are rare – time, attention, memories, whimsy. We run short on these things in our lives, even as we have an endless supply of software, hardware, ready-to-wear.
I particularly enjoyed McKibben’s response to opponents that see this “content with less” lifestyle as harmful to the economy through decreased consumer spending. He also ties in the importance of shopping local and how that further enhances your sense of community. And as I always become sad after Christmas is over, one of my favorite parts of the book is the wonderful suggestions for how to extend the joy of Christmas throughout the Advent season beyond just the confines of December 25th.
Hundred Dollar Holiday will entertain you with the background and evolution of Christmas, challenge you to respond differently this year, and give you plenty of ideas for years to come so that you remember, “The point is to squeeze out all the pleasure and meaning, and to avoid as much of the exhaustion, as you can.”