Monday, December 1, 2008

De-Militarizing Christmas

It's Time We De-Militarized Christmas!

In the spirit of the Holiday season, I feel it is important to address how Christmas has evolved from a spiritual holiday into yet another excuse for Corporate America to induce you to rack up your credit cards so you'll be in debt another year.

Yea, I already know what you are going to say, "Oh great, another Scrooge, trying to destroy the spirit of Christmas with his bah, humbug!"

But that is not the case. Corporate interests, aided by the media (who live off their advertising dollars) have ratcheted up the pressure on Christmas over the years until it has become something of a long-running joke. Not only does this disrespect the religious nature of the holidays, it can cause serious financial burdens on families, which can lead to psychological stress and difficulties.

Nearly everyone I know has mixed memories about Christmas. Except for those few people who do actually seem to lead the Norman Rockwell kind of life, most folks approach the Christmas holiday with reservations and also bad memories of the ghosts of Christmas past.

For me, it was my Mother. She bought into the whole militarized Christmas theory, lock, stock, and barrel. She felt it was her place to insure that every Christmas was a series of events, which needed to be performed with military precision, in order to pull off the "Perfect Christmas." In addition to cookie baking, carol singing, home decorating, holiday parties, family meals, and a host of other tasks, she also felt that she needed to go out and buy, buy, buy her way to the "Perfect Christmas." Since she could rarely live up to her own expectations, Christmas became a time of concentrated guilt and self-loathing. I see this still happen today in many suburban households.

As a child and often the recipient of this largess, I didn't complain much at first. But over the years, I began to realize that I would have been much happier with a truly "Merry" Christmas rather than one laden with booty - and one structured so tightly that it became more of a guilt-laden ritual than a celebration of the birth of Christ or a time for true family harmony.

I would have been happier if my family could have been happy at Christmas, particularly my Mother. That would have been a greater gift than all the shiny bikes and train sets in the world.

The media starts cranking up the Christmas Angst earlier and earlier every year. If you have a TeeVee, the messages are relentlessly pounded into your head day after day. (See my article, Shoot your Television, in this blog). Even on the radio and in the newspapers, the hype is present.

Today it is all about "Black Friday" - will the shoppers shop? How much was sold? Where did YOU shop? What is the "hot gift" that is so hard to find this year? Christmas won't be "prefect" without a Cabbage-Patch doll or a Tickle-Me Elmo. And people buy into this crap, too.

It is all hype, of course. The day after Thanksgiving is NOT the busiest shopping day of the year (that occurs a week before Christmas). But the entire thing misses the point. Christmas is not about buying things, or at least it shouldn't be.

It's time to de-militarize Christmas. To slow it down, to put an end to the endless preparations and decorations and overdone hoopla and fake "traditions". But moreover, from an economic standpoint, it's time to put an end to destructive over-spending on junk that you and your friends don't want or need - and the accompanying debt it creates.

The messages in the media are not very subtle. Advertisements for "Big Box" stores show a woman shopping with a shopping list. A Big Screen TeeVee for Grandpa! A surround sound system for Uncle Joe! A new video game console for the Nephew!

Whoa! Wait a minute. Excuse me? Am I getting this right that these retailers think we are going to drop several hundred dollars apiece for gifts for people who are not even in our immediate family? (and by immediate family, I mean your spouse and kids).

Yup. That's what they want you to think. And of course, it is exactly what works in their favor. They want to play upon your sense of guilt - that somehow you are not doing Christmas properly. Perhaps if you spend more, it will all be better.

And so, the Christmas war escalates. Every year, many folks (women seem particularly targeted) worry about what to get as a gift for their family, friends, long-lost relatives, neighbors, even the mailman. And then they obsess with the "Did they give me a gift of equal value or not?" angst. If a gift exchanger gave a gift of lesser value, then they can gloat about it and even regale their friends about how they gave Joe Blow a nice gift -and look at this piece of shit he gave me in return! I've seen this firsthand, and more than once. Merry Freakin' Christmas, Right? How tacky.

Of course, if they gave Joe Blow a gift and Joe gives back something of greater value, they then obsess about it. They can't let Joe get away with that! They gave a year's membership in the lint-of-the-month club and Joe gave them a Rolex watch! Embarrassed, they run out at the last minute to get Joe a second "makeup present" that "they were going to give all along" and try to even the playing field. Sick, sick, sick!

The problem with this type of competitive gift-giving is that no matter how you play that sick game, you never come out "Even Steven". Once in a great while, you might come up with the "perfect gift" that is reasonably priced and thoughtful and exactly what the other person wants. But it rarely happens, so you end up disappointed (and they do too) and all you've done is squander a ton of money. And when it does, it just instills feelings of guilt in the other person, if they are playing the militarized Christmas game.

The retail business preys upon these feelings of insecurity. Go to the malls right now and you'll find stacks of pre-approved "gifts" for giving. Some of them are nice, others are just things that a person really doesn't need. Others are just plain junk. Ronco owes its existence to Christmas, offering those all-important "last minute gifts" like the ChiaPet or Pocket Fisherman. They serve as a talisman for gift-giving, as if to say, "Look, I spend the prerequisite $25-$50 range gift that a person of your relationship status qualifies for and for which I expect a similar price-range gift in return."

Garages and attics are full of such gifts.

In addition to the emotional stress and damage caused by all of this, as well as the sheer wastefulness of it all, overdoing Christmas can lead to financial stress as well. Many folks, in "the spirit of the season" end up racking up major credit card debt trying to keep up with the arms race that Christmas has become.

There are, however, other ways to live.

To begin with, stop taking your social cues from the television. What they say on the evening news, or worse yet, advertisements, is not very often sound advice on how to live productively and happily. The average American watches 6-8 hours of TeeVee a day. This bad for your physical and metal health and a waste of time. But in addition, it means that many Americans are getting all their societal cues - what they think are "norms" from the TeeVee. Often these cues are twisted and distorted.

One Christmas advertisement from a few years back shows Joe Husband handing the wife a box on Christmas morning that has a set of car keys in it. Out front is parked a brand new honkin' gas-hog SUV with a giant bow on it. The wife goes ecstatic! Gee honey, I love you! This is sick.

A major purchase like a car is something that should not be a "surprise" to your spouse, but rather carefully discussed and researched together. It also is somewhat a sexist premise. Even if you have millions to spend, wouldn't the wife like to have some say in the make, model, or even COLOR of the car she drives?

Again, it is all about selling the fantasy of Christmas, not the reality. And if people can be conned into believing they will be heroes or their wife will love them more if they buy the wife a car for Christmas, then you might sell a lot more cars. Frankly, though, I think the real subtext of this retail fantasy is that the husband will enjoy the perceived envy of his neighbors if he can make it look like he can afford to give a car as a present.

And that is what drives a lot of people. Human beings will spend ENORMOUS amounts of money trying to impress people they don't even know. And oftentimes, it is the people with the least amount of money who spend the most.

Think about it. Every Christmas, we used to drive around and look at Christmas lights. Where were the best displays? Not in the wealthy neighborhoods, No. Rather, some of the poorest or lower-middle-class neighborhoods would have the most fantastic displays of lights. People who could barely afford to make their car payments were spending hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on lighting displays. It is fun to look at, but why exactly are they doing this? They want and need acceptance and status is my guess - or at least that is a partial explanation.

It is possible to celebrate Christmas and ratchet down the hype. Not only that, it is much easier to truly ENJOY Christmas when you de-militarize it. It is hard to do at first - like quitting a highly addictive drug. And like drug use, what makes it hard is that all your friends and family are "users" too. They will pressure you to stay high and tempt you to fall off the wagon. Just say No!

The way to start, which more and more people are doing these days, is to limit gift giving to immediate family members. By immediate family, I mean the people living in your home. Your spouse, your children. Maybe a live-in relative. Leave it at that. Tell everyone else that you are not going to exchange gifts. Use whatever excuse you want to - the present economy is a good one.

You'd be surprised at the reaction. Some folks, of course, will accuse you of being a "Scrooge," as they are so tightly wound-up in the Christmas hype and playing the Christmas game that they will view you as an apostate (ironically, as those sort of people are the least likely to find spirituality in the celebration of the birth of Christ). But you'd be surprised at how many folks will breath a sigh of relief that they can cross one more name off their "Christmas gift list". You have depressurized their Christmas somewhat.

If they insist on giving a gift, ask them to donate something to a charity in your name or whatever. If they still insist on giving you a gift, accept it graciously, but don't feel obligated to reciprocate.

You see, that is the whole point of gift-giving, or at least the way it should be. A gift should be freely given, from the heart, with no expectation of something in return. A gift given with the expectation of something in return, with the exchange carefully and critically evaluated in terms of relative values - that is not a gift at all. That is bartering.

Yet the retailers love to use the phrase "exchanging gifts at Christmas" to reinforce the idea that it is a quid pro quo exchange process, not a spontaneous act of love and generosity.

The retail industry also would like you to believe that giving a gift can only be done at Christmas, or on a birthday or special occasion. The quid pro quo of the gift giving process must be tallied up every holiday. If you give someone a gift in November, that doesn't count toward the Christmas exchange ledger!

Once you've gotten away from the "I have to give everyone a gift because society says so" mentality, you'll find that you may be inspired to give someone a gift anyway, not because you have to, but because you have or see something that you truly want to give them, with no expectation of anything in return. And if you are not inspired, you don't have to give them a gift.

Let's face it, once you are past your eighth birthday and you get the shiny new bicycle for Christmas, you really don't need anything for Christmas. So why do we keep throwing merchandise at each other? It's time to call it quits. It's time to put an end to the war of gifts.

Home decorating was another area my Mother would obsess about during Christmas. Unlike the Norman Rockwell paintings where a merry family comes together to light the star at the top of the tree, the reality of Christmas in our house (and many others, from what I can see) was a stressful evening of "where's the freakin' box of ornaments?" along with the joyful task of trying to get those damn lights to work (followed by a late night run to buy a new string).

For my Mother (and a lot of women) the tree (and house decorations in general) was yet another source of angst. She felt that she was being judged on the aesthetics of the design. It was not a celebration of Christmas and the solstice or whatever, but an artistic statement that no matter how carefully prepared, came up short when compared to the decorations of others.

And it is not surprising this happens, either. In many suburban communities, decorating has become fiercely competitive. You can even hire professional tree designers to come to your house to do your tree for you. Ouch!

Decorating a Christmas tree should be fun, not a chore. If it has turned into a chore, ask yourself why and what you are doing wrong. Scaling back a bit on decorations is one option. Many folks feel that in addition to a tree, they need outdoor lighting, a wreath, a gingerbread house, etc., etc., etc. This is what I call the "Martha Stewart" syndrome. That woman has done more to damage the psyche of women everywhere when it comes to Christmas. Because, let's face it, there is no way you can live up to the expectations and standards of Martha Stewart. But look on the bright side - chances are, you don't have a felony conviction record, either.

Christmas decorations tend to accumulate over time. Many folks will give ornaments as gifts, so over time, you will end up with more and more decorations. Christmas ornaments, by the way, can be a thoughtful and inexpensive gift that someone might actually use. So there is little point in going out and buying a ton of Christmas stuff when you are just starting out. Trust me, you'll end up with an attic full in no time.

Like anything else, the key is to work out a budget based on what you can spend in cash. The idea of financing Christmas with a credit card is a really bad idea. When February rolls around, the sky is gray and the snow is a foot deep, the idea of making monthly installments to pay for your eggnog will really depress you.

Another suggestion is to take a holiday at Christmas. Get out of town. Fly down to Florida or some warm Caribbean island and really enjoy yourself rather than stress out about decorations and family. I suggested this to a friend of mine once, and it worked out well emotionally and financially.
He was moaning about "having to go see his dysfunctional parents" for Christmas and how miserable he would be, staying at their house (in his old room) and how his Father would inevitably get drunk and abusive. Once back in the family home, he was the child again, and his abusive Father took advantage of it. Ten days stuck in a house with your family with nothing to do but eat, watch TV, and relive your childhood is a recipe for disaster. My friend's wife was none too happy about the whole deal. He felt trapped by convention (reinforced by the TeeVee) that one must "go home for Christmas" every year.

If you are in college, going home for Christmas might be in order. But once you leave the family unit, your goal in life is to start your own family. At that point, Christmas is something that you can (and should) celebrate in your own home, with your own immediate family. Going back to Mon and Dad's house every year at Christmas, when you are over 30, is just embarrassing. Grow up! This is not to say that you can't go back ever. Just that you are not obligated to.

So my friend flew down to a warm Caribbean island and enjoyed 10 days with his spouse. I can tell you that she enjoyed it much more than the fun abusive Christmases she had in the past at his folk's place. Once the chain of dependency was broken, there was no going back.

Naturally, his parents and even siblings accused him of being a Christmas traitor, for not respecting "family traditions." But at some point, you have to start living your own life, not your parents. You have to grow up and start your own traditions. Sadly, for many, this never occurs until their parents pass away, at which point they look back on a life wasted trying to fulfill their parent's expectations and always coming up short.

Many of my Christian friends are way ahead of the curve on this whole thing, of course. They look, in horror, at how Christmas has been subverted from one of the two great Christian religious celebrations of the year (Easter arguably being much more important) into a crass commercial secular celebration.

Part of this is because people feel the need to "include" non-Christians and non-observant Christians in the celebration, making Christmas larger and larger and more secular. The larger Christmas becomes, the greater the need to make it secular and more inclusive to non-Christians (and non-observant Christians). The more people who are included in this secular Christmas celebration, the larger it becomes. It is a vicious cycle.

The manger scene gets moved off the town square, only to be replaced by candy canes, a Christmas tree, and a frosty the snowman. While the separation of Church and State dictate that a manger scene is not permissible, the commercial interests of any municipality dictate that secular decorations are required.

Why this is so, eludes me. Jews and Muslims feel no pressing need to create secular icons to allow Christians to participate in their holidays. Why have Christian holidays in particular been secularized? Yes, Mr. Easter Bunny, I'm talking about you!

So one aspect of demilitarizing Christmas might be to get back to the more spiritual side of the holiday. Rather than look at Christmas as a series of chores and purchases upon which you will be judged and evaluated, take a good hard look at what the holiday really means.

Sure, we talk about the "True Meaning of Christmas" a lot. But it has become nothing more than a trite phrase in the litany of Christmas paraphernalia. Even Christmas stories like "A Christmas Carol" have been subverted in this regard. Scrooge discovers the "True Meaning of Christmas" is to spend money lavishing Bob Cratchet and his family with gifts - the only error in his previous ways was in his penny-pinching. Generosity is a fine and wonderful thing, but it hardly is the "True Meaning of Christmas".

The Grinch takes away all the decorations and toys from Who-ville, only to discover the Whos still celebrate "The True Meaning of Christmas" (the presence of a Who-Jesus noticeably lacking). Tellingly, the Grinch becomes a hero, not for getting back to the "True Meaning of Christmas" but for bringing back all the loot for everyone to enjoy. Which they do, in grand fashion.

Thus, even the societal messages decrying the commercialization of Christmas end up celebrating it. Jesus merits no mention in such stories. It's all about gifting.

There is an excellent "Far Side" comic in that regard. The disciples are gathered together with a "Happy Birthday Jesus" cake, and as an angry Christ entered the doorway, someone says, "You know he HATES it when people make a big deal out of his birthday!"

And I suspect that he does. Christ would be appalled at how Christmas has turned out. I suspect if he returned to earth, he would lay waste to several malls and damn to hell those who write Christmas songs.

If you are a recording artist, one way to insure a secure retirement is to write a Christmas song. The royalties will pour in every year, as they play your song over, and over, and over, and over for a month before Christmas. Even if the song is trite, it will get played. The radio stations are desperate for anything Christmas-related.

Can't think of something to write about? Make something up! Sure, we know about the wise men and the shepherds who tended their flocks by night. That's been done. Heck, throw a "little drummer boy" into the mix. It ain't in the Bible, but who cares?. Pa-rup-a-pup-bum! Or maybe three ships can come sailing in - into landlocked Bethlehem. Or maybe the Pizza delivery guy can show up bearing cheesy sticks. Whatever. With all the "made up" additions to our Christmas traditions, that manger is getting quite crowded.

Don't want to write about Jesus? Well, make something ELSE up! Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, even "Dominic the Christmas Donkey!" It's all been done! Perhaps there is some small Christmas rodent or insect that has not been sung about yet. Sammy, the Christmas Cockroach. It writes itself!

Yea, I know, I sound like "a Scrooge." And that is part of the Christmas marketing strategy, thank you very much, Charles Dickens. If anyone DARES to criticize how stupid and commercial Christmas has become, they are shouted down as a "Scrooge" which is akin to calling someone a Communist - or worse.

But it is not Scrooge-like to insist that Christmas have some other meaning than a retail orgy serenaded by 30 days of really bad music. It is not Scrooge-like to insist that December be a month enjoyed for things other than a month-long holiday. It is not Scrooge-like to reclaim our lives from this orgy of spending and low-self-esteem and utter manipulation.

Christmas should not leave you depressed and broke. Christmas should not be a set of unrealistic expectations that are never met. Christmas should be a time for real joy and cheer.
And it can be.

The power to make it that way rests in your hands.