2008 -- Year Without Holiday Cheer?
Is 2008 the year that Scrooge won out?
I'm not even Christian. Why should it matter whether I look down the street and see no colored lights, not one, on any of the nice suburban houses in our nice neighborhood that I know has a lot of families -- kids and dogs and cats and parents. It's not like that's my holiday.
Except that it is. There is a midwinter holiday for everyone. If you're a complete atheist Santa Claus and the idea of being nice to people on the rotten short cold nastiest night of the year is something basic and human. The idea of having a feast to warm up the cold deep winter and have something to look forward to when every day is shorter and colder and tougher is so basic that it happens all over.
It's an agricultural rhythm, but it survived industry because you still wind up lacking Vitamin D and getting Seasonal Affective Disorder (depressed and grouchy and often sick) from shorter days and not enough sunlight. It's a bigger problem if you live and work in urban areas where you don't get outside much. So since this is America, let's call it Christmas and look at the mainstream even though Ramadan and Chanukkah and Yule and Kwanzaa are all going to take place around the same time.
I looked down the street last night and saw no houses lit for the holidays. None. The street could have been a street in February when even the last procrastinator has taken down all the annual decorations. It's easy to see where most people cut back to survive the recession.
What I wonder is why they cut back on digging last year's decorations out of the attic and putting them up even without lights. I don't see any wreaths up either or any paper chains wrapped around trees. I don't see child-constructed snowmen and wreaths and Santas taped into windows.
It's one thing to cut back by not spending the electricity to light up the entire neighborhood into a happy fantasy wonderland. That makes some ecological sense -- and people did celebrate long before the invention of those little Italian lights that go on sale cheap every year on December 26th.
But something grim has happened if there are no construction paper wreaths, no last-year's garlands or ornaments carefully unpacked. Reflectors like those shiny old ornaments don't cost anything but some attention. They create a sparkle by reflecting the sunlight.
Why isn't anyone folding and cutting snowflakes out of tinfoil?
A little cheer for you
Now, maybe people are just putting off when they start decorating because they're not happy about all the work of shopping and cooking and preparing the annual feast or the budget bite of buying gifts for everyone in the family, various people at work and friends. All my life, many adults do nothing but complain about The Holidays because all they can think of is the work and expense. One way to cut back is just to procrastinate and do it a few days later.
Every year, all my life, I've heard ministers and editors opine that Christmas Is Too Commercial, people should get back to the Real Meaning of the Season and pay attention to Christ and go to church more. This always annoyed me because a guilt trip about the happy things on the season is a wet blanket on it. This leaves out one of the main reasons for the Midwinter Holiday -- so that there is something happy to look forward to in the nastiest part of the year when the days are shortest and everyone's at their most crabby.
The important things about The Holidays are the things money can't buy. They're the shared moments of intimacy and the connections with people you love as well as the religious celebration for Christians. The season always fills the airwaves with stories of generosity and kindness, of helping out people in need. In fact, more attention gets paid to poverty over The Holidays than any other time of year. It's the one day the homeless can be sure of getting a good meal.
So where does this All or Nothing reaction come from?
With decades of movies about Christmas in the Depression, with Dickens and A Christmas Carol as possibly the most-remade story Hollywood's ever done, why are there no Cratchetts looking at tightening their belts but cutting out tinfoil stars and spending time playing with the kids out in the snow? There are these big cultural examples of how to have a Merry Christmas when Money's Tight all over the place -- and Bob Cratchett is the clearest example but that type of holiday celebration, short on money, long on attention and love, is legendary.
Why aren't people reaching for that?
All it takes to create it is a little imagination and taking the time out from worrying and fussing and cussing to do so. Strings of popcorn are not as expensive as strings of Italian lights. Construction paper is ludicrously cheap. So are crayons or oil pastels. Couldn't the theme of Christmas 2008 be "Handmade and Heartfelt?"
What happened to the sorts of ornaments made by cutting up magazines and newspapers and collaging holiday images to bits of cardboard? There's all that packaging available from anything anyone buys, even if it's necessity -- cardboard is not in short supply. Glitter itself is cheap at the dimestore... and yet I would lay odds that many of the people who aren't bothering to spend a day with glitter and cardboard and glue with their kids are still spending a lot on everyday luxuries like eating out or business casual clothing or various impulse electronics.
Is this a violent reaction against commercialism? Do people really think Commercialism IS the Season and the point of it?
I'll be honest. I don't know how children are taking it. I don't know if today's television-Internet trained kids even think about Christmas in any Dickensian sense or care about anything but the child scale version of the commercialism status game -- who got the best game machine? Who got the coolest new toy, whatever that is?
Has something quietly died under too many years of hard sell, something beautiful that should be flourishing right now? That idea that during The Holidays people ought to be a bit nicer to each other and a bit more considerate, gentler with other people, happier with what they have and more into giving than receiving is the central idea of Christmas, The Legend.
It's about looking on the bright side and remembering that the cheer is something you make by acting friendly and considerate, not about how much money you can spend on a status display. Maybe no one is doing it because all at once everyone else is looking down the street seeing that their neighbors didn't put up any display either -- and sighing in relief because even though they're late, they're not standing out as stingy.
Someone please spread this idea. Revive the legend. Maybe get a copy of A Christmas Carol out of the library for free and sit around stringing popcorn with your kids reading the story aloud the way they did the year the old chestnut got published.
One of the best free treats of the season was always driving around looking at house displays or going downtown to the business district to look at all the shop window displays. I remember this from my childhood -- it was beautiful and it was not the actual shopping trip for presents. That took place early on and some of it went on year round, hiding presents bought early was a game within the house.
It is economical to fix a big turkey dinner and it means no need to cook for days after. It's a special thing that doesn't really cost more in money. But it costs something in changing attitude and looking at the whole thing as good and happy instead of being disappointed that there isn't as much pointless commercial luxury involved.
I know that the people who have done the best in rough individual situations are those who manage to create luxury out of a stretched budget. Who pay attention first to the things they really enjoy in life and make an effort to seek happiness even when things are hard.
There is a point to the homemade pleasures. There is a difference in life when you add color and glitter and you pay attention to the people around you and get more considerate. There are ten thousand ways to have a holiday on a shoestring -- but just cutting it off is the lazy easy answer of a greed mentality. It's the snotty reaction of a spoiled kid who didn't get the best thing in the shop and doesn't get it that the Season isn't about showing off and beating other people.
Or maybe that's really what it's about and only a few weirdos like me read Dickens and actually enjoy it and get into it without caring about the commercialism. Maybe the hard sell has pounded it so many years that no one can hear those songs without them being a grating reminder to Buy, Buy, Buy and go into debt so that spoiled-brat relations can gripe and take it back because it didn't fit and wasn't as good as they expected.
Perceived deprivation is what hurts, until it gets down to bare survival perceived deprivation bites a lot deeper than real deprivation.
It's the absence of glitter and glue that concerns me, strung popcorn and tinfoil snowflakes. I hope someone reads this and decides to create a holiday anyway with what's at hand rather than just buying junk. You're so much more than a passive consumer. You're a human being capable of creativity and imagination, who can do something special for someone just by making choices in your routine grocery trip that reflect paying attention to their real likes and dislikes.
Bargain hunting is a wonderful hobby. But "all or nothing" budgeting is the Pinch before the Binge -- and if you're cutting out the holiday in order to save money, the deprivation of no holiday when you've expected it all your life might hurt a lot and lead to binge spending later on without actually filling the emotional need.
This isn't just putting the cart before the horse, it's shooting the horse because you put the cart in front of it and it couldn't go anywhere. The news is full of Dire Bad News because Spending is Down Over Christmas and the annual harvest of gullibility has dried up. But since when did you want to get ripped off in order to support a lot of large companies under bad management anyway?
And why should you do without a happy holiday because for the first time in decades the hype is falling flat on its face and commercialism isn't working? Reread Dickens or rent the old movies that do variations on it and wow, you could be looking at the best individual Christmas of your life if you do some homemade cheer, pay attention to what apple cider really tastes like and maybe heat it stirred with a cinnamon stick.
If you want to do it on a shoestring, think of kindergarten projects and read The Tightwad Gazette. There are thousands of holiday and gift ideas in it that are free or cheap or actually earn some money on the side by eliminating other expenses. Start putting its ideas into practice and you won't be hurting nearly as bad in the recession.
You do have something to celebrate. It's real. On the 22nd, the day will be a little bit longer and the light will come back a little more every day. The sun will come up and the weather will go nasty for a while but spring will come -- the worst cold short day is over after the solstice. Out beyond the human social world of news and worries and economic waves, the real world is still there and the seasons march on year after year.
You're alive. You need to eat every day and food tastes good. It tastes better prepared with love. If you want to save money and create cheer, start making pancakes every morning for the family for breakfast. The amount saved just by not buying boxed cereal is enough to pay for a lot of popcorn, construction paper, glitter, ribbon and glue. If you can't draw, just cut out all the pictures from ads in magazines and newspapers, the number of holiday images that can be pieced together in collage is endless.
Change your Perceptions
The biggest, toughest part of turning this bitter non-Christmas into a happy holiday is changing your perceptions. It's half there if you read Dickens and watch most of the old movies -- they are all about human values, warmth and real consideration over greed. You can probably get them from the library for free, along with books on the same theme.
Perceived deprivation is what hurts. If you are expecting a traditional middle-class round of expensive parties with a lot of stuffy people wearing fancy clothes, circulating and drinking down an ocean of your expensive booze as a status game, this will be a disappointing year. Why not just do something smaller but more fun?
I successfully talked myself into setting aside a good chunk of savings every month by deliberately rewarding myself every time I do with a cheap paperback from Terry Pratchett. He has a lot of them in print. I love his books but I was in the habit of skimping on buying fiction because I was always trying to squeeze out more on an art supply order. This self-reward trick worked because I put off buying Pratchett books for way too long compared to the joy I get out of reading one -- and rereading it and rereading it. The bigger my library, the easier it is to go down the reread cycle without being too annoyed.
"Smaller but more fun" could mean inviting just the people you really want to spend time with and then doing something offbeat, fun and cheap. Like going out to a park and throwing snowballs, or otherwise playing like a kid. Children in the mainstream are sometimes cynics about this sort of thing, it depends on their social context.
Overworked adults are not, and need a little looniness once in a while to let go of the stress from a vicious pace of life. Kids may learn to enjoy it if you're spending time with them and paying attention to who they are and what they really enjoy. Get them involved in the whole process of "cheaper and more fun" by helping them sort out what they really want, care most about and enjoy doing most.
Some things are priceless to a child. Time off to socialize or play without any major imposed responsibilities is a reward to any kid who's in school. Especially if it means being able to have some of their friends over for an activity. You may become the parents who have the happy house if you make some hot cocoa from scratch and set them all loose with glitter, construction paper and glue to make decorations and sing old songs badly.. or make fun of them with the kind of lyrics Weird Al comes up with.
If Christmas is for the Children, get their ideas of what would make a good cheap Christmas. Find out what they like doing and not. Let them actually help with the budgeting on it. Wow. Introducing children to reality at an early age is a shocking concept, but it teaches something great.
It takes work to disbelieve the hype. It takes work to reject the idea pounded by every commercial out there that you can't have a happy holiday without buying the latest-biggest-fanciest everything and showing off to make others jealous.
One good way to subvert the demoralizing effects of the hype is to quit watching television live. Edit out all the ads. Rent or buy the shows so that you get versions without advertising. It is pretty funny to see the segue-into-ad on a program like Meercat Manor without ads in between, but that is much less annoying than the pitch for something no one in the house likes anyway.
Start lists of everything people like about the holidays. Presents are high on children's lists and those of self-honest adults -- but the ones that mean the most are not always the most expensive. They are the ones that people actually like best and use most. Sometimes even expensive gifts are cost effective if they eliminate other expenses down the road.
Don't bother giving kids clothes unless they are fashion conscious teens who have prompted you about that specific item, color and brand for months. Most children are deeply disappointed by clothes and shoes. Instead pay attention to their real likes and dislikes, their real hobbies and interests. Keep in mind that "I wish I could DO that" presents -- kits and supplies for making things or doing things -- are a lot more cost effective in terms of teaching skills and keeping them occupied for months.
A book on origami and a pack of colored paper can be a great gift for a kid -- and it can result in a lot of decorations very fast if you take the time to go through it with them. It's also pretty classy. I remember that as the most cost effective Christmas present I ever got as a kid. I didn't want to run out of the paper that came with it, so a lot of the wrapping paper from packages got cut into squares and folded into more cranes and cats and boxes.
If you are looking at the holidays in terms of origami and homemade cookies and hot chocolate while most of the people around are Scrooging and don't have a holiday, then your house becomes the warm one. But it has to be real. It has to be done with heart.
It's also easy to get so bound up in worries and overwork that there isn't time to stop and enjoy life. Time and money both get subjected to the same cruel equations and a lot of time gets wasted pursuing the impossible. You probably can't wind up clearing all debt and get ahead during the holiday season while cutting back. That "All or Nothing" mentality is a killer -- and it has ruined lives every time it's applied to anything.
What do you personally enjoy most in the holidays? What does your spouse like most? What do each of the kids like most? Discuss those things -- not with the deprivation idea that some of the list has to be cut back or dropped, but more with an eye to making happy choices between equally pleasurable alternatives. The solutions are different for every household.
Break the expectation of entitlement -- that you're not only supposed to get your favorite things over the holidays but also anything that gets hyped as privelege or luxury or status, that the kid with the most toys is the happiest. He's not. He can't get into his room or sleep on his bed because it's piled with too many toys and hasn't got time to play.
So looking at how you spend your time and eliminating the time wasters that don't bring pleasure or any benefit to anyone is important too. Don't try to soak up every bit of everyone's free time. The idea of studying how time gets wasted is to MAKE some free time and give everyone in the family some unscheduled free time that they don't have to account to anyone else for. To have extra in the time budget as well as the money budget.
Bankruptcy and finance counselors always do say to keep an entertainment budget in a plan for reducing debt. The same goes for any plan to cut down on time wasters -- eliminate only the ones that really are time wasters. Don't step on a kid or spouse for "wasting time" doing something they love that you're not into, otherwise it turns into tyranny and the control freak doesn't even get what he or she wants -- there's resentment instead of gratitude and home turns into a bad office situation.
But taking a little time to discuss these things toward having more money and more fun in life can start at the holidays and create a good holiday instead of a deprived one.
The cardinals in your yard will appreciate those strings of popcorn, and you can fold green or red origami balls to put on them to liven them up. Tinfoil snowflakes are pretty easy to make. You can do this if you do it in the right spirit -- the spirit of appreciating it and appreciating the people you love.
Let's get back to Dickens and let the economists worry about a lack of gullible consumers this year. You don't need to be one to have a good time.