Unplugging the Christmas Machine

Yes, Virginia, there is a better way to celebrate Christmas. If you've ever had mixed, confused, or disappointed feelings about Christmas, here's a book -- Unplug The Christmas Machine by Jo Robinson & Jean Coppock Stacheli (Quill/William Morrow, 207 pages, $9) -- that lets you know you're not alone. This book isn't an attack on Christmas but an indictment of the American preoccupation with material goods. Whether you're religious or not doesn't matter: this book offers ways to put some magic back into our beloved yet beleaguered holiday. Best of all, unlike the many touchy-feely, impractical self-help books popular today, this one is a practical, down-to-earth guide. The lists in the appendix alone are worth the price of the book. Unplug the Christmas Machine grew out of a series of workshops conducted by Robinson and Stacheli in the early 1980s. Robinson reported they did the workshops for three years and "that's where we got the information to write the book. The book is really a compilation of everything we learned from talking to thousands of people in our workshops." Even the title touches a nerve. Robinson said, "Actually there's a real mixed response to it. There's a minority of people who really like it and immediately know what it means. Then there's a larger group of people who feel kind of threatened by it because they feel they're part of the machine or feel that if you unplug the commercialism, there'd be nothing left." Robinson also observed that there has been a value shift since they wrote the first edition of the book in the early 80s. "I think people aren't just out there looking for bargains, they're searching for value and meaning." Unplug The Christmas Machine is written in an easy-to-follow anecdotal style with exercises and the most often asked questions at the end of each chapter. The authors are also realistic enough to know that every person's individual Christmas problems are different. They've managed to walk the line very well -- citing general situations with enough specific aspects and giving very specific solutions and suggestions. Part of the book emphasizes maintaining traditions and rituals and the special importance of such traditions to children. But it also deals with not being afraid of having to change those traditions because of other life changes -- death, divorce, moving, economics. "It really depends on your individual situation," Robinson said. "It can be that you can make dramatic changes in a celebration and hold on to some key traditions. And especially if you are going to make dramatic changes or if your life has changed a lot, we found that kids really value those tiny little details that remain the same." And you have to accept that there will be a period of transition; sometimes it takes two or three years before new traditions start to feel solid. One of the suggestions in the book is to go through a period of reflection and create your "fantasy" Christmas. Robinson continued, "Christmas is so complicated and commercialism has co-opted it so completely that you need to really get inside yourself before you know what you want to do. But one thing people can do is ask themselves, 'What am I celebrating?' I think it's the one thing people don't do. Is it a family holiday? Is it a religious holiday? Is it a time to be this tremendous homemaker? Is it a time to help the less fortunate? You've got to choose. And we suggest you write it down somewhere where you will see it every day of the holiday season. Because it's the small decisions you make every day that can really determine the quality of the celebration." Most of us have had, if we'll admit it, mixed feelings about the holidays. That disillusionment cuts across all aspects of American life from the richest to the poorest. As Robinson put it, "Christmas is just a metaphor, it's like a distillation of all that's right and wrong with our culture. That's why we like to work with it because if you've fixed Christmas, you've fixed a lot of problems." SIDEBAR: Unplugged Exercises: Getting Started* The authors separate two of the most valuable exercises as being either for women or for men. But both of these exercises can be valuable for anyone. 1. Make a Lifestyle Inventory: write down all your normal responsibilities (work, home, civic organizations, etc.), to determine how much free time you have in the course of a day. Then you can develop a sense of how much time you can devote to the added activities of Christmas. 2. Rate Your Enjoyment of Last Year's Christmas Activities. This can help you decide what traditions you may want to keep and what activities could be changed to be more enjoyable or dropped if the enjoyment has faded. * The authors also discuss that what children really want for Christmas is enjoyable time with their families. They also suggest talking with your children about what they've enjoyed in past holidays. Single parents may have to be more imaginative in creating holiday activities and in the case of divorce, helping children deal with changes inherent in those situations. * Gift giving is another aspect of Christmas that can give you nightmares, whether it's finding the money or just deciding what to give people. The authors suggest that you: 1. Make a gift inventory listing all the people you gave gifts to last year, marking the ones you spent more than $10 on. 2. Explore gift giving options by thinking about your gift memories; that is, what kind of gifts do you feel the best about giving and receiving? 3. Explore gift giving options by considering things like drawing names within certain circles (the office? your cousins? the whole family?) or sticking to an agreed upon spending limit. 4. Look at alternative gifts such as making a charitable donation in someone's name or consider a family gift rather than one gift for each member. * What are you celebrating? The authors devote an entire chapter to this broad subject because they report many people observe a "feeling of emptiness" during this time of year. In the book they give you a list of value statements to rate. * Create a fantasy Christmas. Then ask yourself: 1. Of the ways your fantasy was different from your usual celebration, what was the most satisfying? 2. Which parts of the fantasy would be most feasible to actually incorporate into your next celebration? * Make a Christmas budget to help control spending. The best way to start is to make an honest list of what you've been spending in the past, including not only gifts, cards, decorations, etc, but incidentals like special foods for guests, travel, cleaning costs, new clothes and related expenses. Then set a spending ceiling and keep an expense log. * Don't forget, if something works for you continue doing it! If you enjoy sending out Christmas cards or writing a Christmas newsletter, keep doing it. If you enjoy baking cookies by the dozens to give away, keep doing it. * Once you've analyzed your situation, make a plan -- this plan can be an elaborate overall plan but the authors point out that you'll probably be more successful if you focus on smaller, more specific goals. They also observe that it may take several holidays to implement all the changes you may want to make, successfully.

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