De-Grinchification: Enjoying the Hoilidays

The truth about great holiday festivities is that they're usually ignited and sustained by one person. You can probably name the friend or family member who really considers the holidays a happy time of year--and who makes you feel happy, too. The force of this leader's influence grows most apparent when he or she is absent. I've been separated from my great holiday leaders--by death or distance--for half a dozen years now. I do nothing special for the holidays, seeing everywhere commercialism, consumerism, and overpriced, overpackaged goods. I resist all the build up during the early stages of the season, then max my credit card buying presents at the last minute. These ill-considered gifts are so hot and so dangerously expensive that I fling them at my loved ones as though they were hand grenades. By Christmas Day, the pinnacle of America's celebration, I'm exhausted. I find another kindred soul and go off to a dark movie house, where the popcorn's always stale because the crowd's not big enough to justify a fresh batch. People are animals of ritual, and this stale-popcorn-empty-movie-theater experience has been an act of replacing one ritual with another. And it really doesn't convey my feelings very well. I really do like sitting around on a dark night, candles burning, sharing drinks and talk with other people. So I recently called one of the great holiday merry-makers of all time, a friend of mine from Baltimore named Christine. A busy college professor, Christine had a stack of papers to grade when I called, but was happy to push them aside for a few moments when I mentioned holidays. "I really feel like a minority,'' she said. "So many people hate the holidays. I think the reason I enjoy them is because I promise myself that it won't be pressure. I think of the things that will be pressure and eliminate them.'' Time and money are the two serious pressures, and Christine's first step is to liberate herself from both. Taking a cue from Hanukkah's eight day celebration, she extends her celebrations over a series of days so that no one day is expected to be everything and all. For this reason, she's a great fan of Advent calendars, which offer a small pictorial (or actual) gift each day of the month of December. "Give your holidays a time frame,'' she said. "Decide when they're going to start and when they're going to end.'' Even Christine the pro felt threatened this year when Christmas decorations started appearing in stores right after Labor Day. She doesn't worry about cards in December. If time is getting tight, she waits until January. "Don't worry,'' she said. "January's cold, people are bored, they'll love to get your card then.'' Christine gets the mood going with a constant stream of decorations, special foods, and get-togethers. These are only possible because she's worked so hard to break the habit of spending all of her money on presents. "People overextend themselves at holiday time and resent it,'' she said. "Don't spend a lot of money!'' Like many people, Christine's large family has a tendency to buy expensive presents (and compare price tags), and it took her years to wriggle out of the fold. "I think I finally sort of worked it out,'' she said. She holds a Christmas party for her friends and family, and considers the party her real present to them. "Then I buy one $5 gift for everyone: something like a mug, a baseball cap, a tree ornament, a cassette tape. When I go into a store, I'm very directed. And I don't have to settle for something mediocre; I can pick out the prettiest mug in the store.'' She wraps each present beautifully and individually, but she keeps her costs low by using inexpensive tissue paper as a base. Then she glues on glitter and sparkle, bows, stickers, and candy canes. Christine admits that it's hard to break the pattern of expensive gift-giving when it runs in the family. "The first year,'' she said, "it's an inequity. But the second year it's liberating for both of us. My family is free to get me anything they want. Sometimes people will torture you,'' she added. "They say, 'Oh, I got you the best present.''' She paused. "That's hard. But I try to stick to my guns.'' Keeping tabs on her time and checkbook leaves her with enough energy to celebrate the real meaning of the season. She sees lots of people; she shares her home, her food, and her time. She bakes muffins and brings them to homeless shelters; through schools and neighborhood centers she arranges to sponsor one family for Christmas. Expenses aside, she knows how much fun gift-giving can be, and each year she heads off on one relatively extravagant shopping trip to find a present for one orphaned or homeless child. She takes a friend along, for company and to share costs, and they go hog-wild, picking out the best-looking baby doll or fire truck in the store. "It is so exciting,'' Christine said. "I highly recommend it. It gives me a feeling of what Christmas is supposed to be about.'' Her home brims with decorations. Once she declares the start of the season, she adds new items day by day; she doesn't force herself to decorate the entire house in a single day. When she gets together with friends, they'll put on music and share simple cooking and decorating projects together. She aims for things that will fill her home with distinctly different textures, smells and colors. Christine's rule for homemade projects: "Three ingredients or less.'' Last year she made pomanders; they required oranges and cloves--period. Her cooking experiment was a set of tree-shaped marzipan cookies; the ingredient/utensil list was marzipan, food coloring, and cookie cutters. "I love to look in those magazines for holiday ideas,'' she said. "But I always pick the simplest thing. "The great thing about holiday decorations is that you can do most of your shopping at Woolworth's,'' she explained. "Something like gold garland costs so little, and it's such a joyful thing.'' Christine stocks up on glue, glitter, sparkles, garlands, candles and gold spray paint. She puts sprayed-gold pine cones in the bathroom; she puts candles everywhere. When she doesn't have a tree, she hangs her collected ornaments from lamp shades, or fills a bowl with ornaments and sets in one a prominent table. She hangs cards in the shape of a tree or wreath and sticks a real bow on them. While she's a great connoisseur of holiday kitsch, Christine knows it's an acquired taste. She recommends that the truly bitter and unpracticed try staging a kind of winter-solstice celebration their first time around, honoring the uncommercial aspects of the holiday season. She suggests candles, pine boughs, fresh flowers, and a squirrel's den of dried fruits, nuts, and sweet delicacies. House plants can be pushed together in a heap by the window and strung with simple white lights or French wire ribbon. Snowflakes can be hung from the ceiling or pasted on the windows. Christine likes to cut birds from brightly colored felt squares and hang them on the windows as well.Once her house is dressed up a bit, she starts throwing all kinds of get-togethers, not just sit-down dinners. "If making a whole meal is a pressure,'' she said, "skip it.'' She holds parties from 8 until 10 in the evening, or 2 to 5 on Sunday afternoon; they're rarely held on Christmas Day itself. "You don't have to be Martha Stewart and set four tables with roast beef and ham,'' Christine said. "You can have people over anytime. Then you've done something that wasn't just running around shopping.'' Last year she had family and friends over two days before Christmas, starting at 8 pm. She served mulled wine, homemade eggnog, holiday cookies, and dates stuffed with peanut butter. As part of the evening festivities, she led everyone off on a walk to look at decorations on other people's houses. She thinks its important to take journeys. "If you aren't attending church or synagogue,'' she explained, "pick another journey that takes you away from the house--something celebratory, communal, and ritual. Sing songs in the car.'' She likes to go off with friends to museums and historic homes and look at holiday decorations there. Last year, friends gathered at her house for Brandy Alexanders and Christmas cookies, then went to hear the Messiah. (Everyone paid for their own ticket; Christine just set out the food.) "Pick a tradition you liked from your family,'' she said. "In my house, my mother used to have us set out our shoes on December 6, St. Nicholas' Day. In the morning, we'd find candy there.'' Christine's words began to jog my memory. I remembered, as a kid, that the holidays meant we didn't have to eat salad. My mother filled that dire wood bowl with walnuts instead, and it was the only time all year that we used a nutcracker. I remembered the sight of the Christmas tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: A hundred feet of pine, decorated with white lights and tiny red bows. But I also remembered the year when the cats pulled over our tree and all my reindeer ornaments shattered on the floor. "I'm already excited,'' she said. "This summer I bought a homemade ceramic holly-leaf candy dish at a yard sale for 25 cents. I think I'm going to stick little M&Ms in it.'' "I'm beginning to remember what a real Christmas was like,'' I told her. I think I'll give the holiday season another try.

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