At 6:00pm on Christmas Eve 2013, my wife and I started an eight-hour drive to my sister’s house in North Carolina. We told my parents that work commitments simply would not allow us to join the family for Christmas, but we resolved to make the trek even if we could only stay for a few days. Just shy of 2am on Christmas morning, we arrived exhausted but content for the surprise ahead. Around 8am, I heard bustling outside our bedroom as my father prepared for the Christmas festivities. For more than 30 years now, my father has been following the same Christmas routine: build a fire, turn on Christmas music, light the Christmas tree, and finally come to the stairs and yell “Something’s happened” to signal that it is time to get up. Us kids would crawl out of bed and congregate at the top of the stairs waiting expectantly until my father signaled that we could come downstairs. This year was different. Elaine and I waited in bed until we heard everyone move downstairs. Once the coast was clear, we facetimed (video-chatted) my father to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. Of course, at this point they believed we were still in New Jersey. I faked like we were having technical difficulties while Elaine and I snuck down the stairs to surprise everyone in person. For about 15min my parents sat in utter shock by the fact that we were all together on Christmas.
Christmas in October
I love Christmas as I imagine do many of you. I have countless memories of special family moments, singing in a darkened church by candlelight, and eating holiday delicacies. But Christmas is December 25th, right? Apparently not. This past week, I found myself in several stores and was shocked to find Christmas decorations out and Christmas carols blaring even before Halloween. We all know when Christmas is, so there can only be one logical conclusion for all the tinsel and tunes: retailers are trying to persuade us to open our pockets even more so than in the past. According to a recent Gallup poll, Americans are planning to spend an average of $781 on presents this Christmas. The National Retail Federation estimates that 2013 Thanksgiving weekend shoppers spent almost $415 in only four days. Black Friday is not enough. Now we have the “Countdown to Black Friday.”
In the 1965 Christmas classic, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Lucy remarks, “We all know Christmas is a big commercial racket.” Even back in 1850, in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s short story, “Christmas; or, the Good Fairy,” we learn about the nineteenth century commercialization of Christmas. The protagonist, Ellen Stuart, starts off by saying, “Christmas is coming in a fortnight, and I have got to think up presents for everybody! Dear me, it’s so tedious!”
The Commercialization of
By no means is Christmas alone on the retail calendar. After New Years, last year’s Christmas decorations are quickly moved to Clearance, replaced by pink for Valentine’s Day. Pink fades to green for St. Patrick’s Day and then to yellow for Easter. Pastels mark the arrival of Mother’s Day while gadgets and ties issue in Father’s Day. American flags magically appear for Independence Day and pumpkins for Halloween. The Pilgrims disembark for Thanksgiving and the cycle repeats.
The spirit behind (almost) all of these holidays is actually quite noble. In an age of growing isolation, we should encourage opportunities to celebrate loved ones, remember our heritage and reflect on our freedoms. The problem arises when we ride along on a never-ending treadmill of shallow purchases paying little attention to the meaning behind the holidays. The word “Holiday” is derived from the Old English word hāligdæg, which meant “Holy Day.” Holidays were set apart for a special purpose to help us remember something significant, yet all too often, we ignore the meaning and simply go through the motions. In the spirit of “giving,” shoppers battle one another for the best deals. In 2008, an anxious crowd of shoppers broke through a Wal-Mart door and trampled to death a 34-year old employee. That same year, two people were fatally shot in a Toys-R-Us. In 2011, a woman used pepper spray on other shoppers waiting in line, while in 2012, a dispute over a parking space resulted in two people being shot outside a Florida store.
Turning Christmas into an Unholiday
This year, I vow to look on Christmas differently. I want to enjoy the holiday season and not be sucked into the marketing frenzy surrounding Christmas. I want Christmas to be an unholiday.
1) Slow Down
It seems life in this digital age travels at light speed, especially around the holidays. We bounce around Christmas parties, muscle our way through shopping malls, and travel near and far to be with family and friends. I want to relish the moments of the season instead of powering through them.
2) Remember the Significance
For Christians, Christmas is an opportunity to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. For Jews, Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Whether you are religious or not, there is a deeper significance to the Christmas season than the plastic Santas, fake snow and colorful presents in department store windows. This year, I plan to reflect on a daily basis on the importance of the holiday.
3) Focus on Experiences
When I think back to all the holidays I’ve enjoyed over my lifetime, there are very few presents that really stick in my mind. In contrast, a collage of memories detail the special experiences I’ve enjoyed. This year, I am going to focus on how I can build more experiences with my family and friends instead of what stuff I can give them.
4) Give From the Heart
Just like little Ellen from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s short story, I all too often find gift giving to be tedious. Maybe this tediousness is the reason why the gift card industry topped over $100B last year. A good gift doesn’t have to cost much. The best gifts show that you know someone intimately and have considered their unique interests. I believe the best gift ideas occur while deep in thought and not by walking aimlessly through the mall. This year’s unholiday will see me considering the uniqueness of each of the special people around me. I’ll have to start much earlier, too.
5) Serve Others
I enjoy volunteering, but I don’t do so as much as I would like. This holiday season, I want to focus less on myself and more on others. For this reason, I plan to seek out opportunities to serve those around me.
Join me in turning Christmas 2014 into an Unholiday.
Photo Credit: Caden Crawford