Hundred Dollar Holiday

I picked up Bill McKibben's Hundred Dollar Holiday after fruitlessly searching the library shelves for another book from his extensive list of titles. A majority of his written work focuses on simplifying our lives, fighting our materialist inclinations, and remaining conscious and critical of our changing consumer culture. Hundred Dollar Holiday is really no different, but McKibben makes the case that simplifying and cheapening our Christmastime celebrations can infuse more joy and cheer into the most wonderful time of year in addition to all the other 364 days of it.

McKibben's challenge is to spend less than one hundred dollars on holiday expenses, including gifts and decorations. Though the hundred dollar amount is rather arbitrary, the goal of utilizing a limit to holiday spending is to challenge our notions that Christmas is a time for buying. In creatively skirting the inclination to spend countless hours scouring the mall for gifts that our intended recipients don't need, and maybe don't even want, McKibben believes that we will be better able to retain, if not rediscover, what Christmas should be all about.

His book starts off with a brief history of Christmas, its past as a time of drunken revelry, and then the transformation of this holiday into the family-centric feast it has become today. The stories and traditions that have become commonplace to Christmas are clarified in meaning and origin - in fact, some were created right out of thin air with the intent of altering the dangers of Christmas culture, a culture that has now gone quite awry.

Though the holidays are a time of high stress, hustle, and bustle, McKibben argues that this isn't too drastically different from our day to day lives throughout the rest of the year. And this is part of the trouble with the current state of Christmas. We live in a culture where we are assaulted with things, with the notion that we need things to make us happy, and with the ability to acquire these things in less time than ever. This immediacy and materialism are so commonplace that the joy of giving and receiving gifts come Christmastime has severely diminished. We feel stressed for time and, in an effort to make up for what we lack in hours and minutes, we spend all our money, often on things we truly don't need. We focus so solely upon the requisite gift-giving that we miss out on valuable traditions that provide a little more meaning and substance to this time of year.

While midway through Hundred Dollar Holiday, I was thinking about some of these issues and predicted what McKibben later revealed - that most people actually don't like to receive gifts because of the associated hassle. Where to put one more kitchen appliance, where to store one more sweater, how to incorporate a new piece into the current living room design? I prefer to give gifts rather than receive them as I've become increasingly less thrilled with material goods, and I love making gifts by hand whenever I can. But even I sometimes worry that my homemade treats and novelties will quickly find their way to the trash or will be felt as more of a burden than a present. Gift exchange has become a part of the hassle that so many people hate about the holiday season, but Christmas should not be the time to stress and worry. McKibben argues, and I strongly agree, that the holidays should be a time of peace, togetherness, and relaxation. We need to reconfigure the way that we think about the holidays in order to maximize the joy of the season.

This book doesn't completely revile holiday traditions or gift-giving. In fact, McKibben upholds a majority of the most sacred and age-old conventions associated with Christmas. But he makes sure to elucidate the meaning of these traditions to his family and community, to infuse the season with the original spirit in which it was founded. By associating the holiday with its real beginnings, rather than toy store sales and shopping malls, McKibben hopes to regain a sense of Christmas cheer that can't be bought or sold.

Though there is definitely a religious strain to McKibben's grand idea, there is plenty of value to be found in this holiday challenge for even the most secular celebrator. I think we all can appreciate time over money and that is an essential aspect of McKibben's success in meeting this challenge. Rather than buying things that hold minimal significance, he suggests making things by hand or offering coupons to be exchanged for time spent with a loved one. Homemade goodies demonstrate a lot of effort and kindness, more so than a store-bought scarf. And coupons for a movie date or simply time out of a busy schedule to spend with the recipient are thoughtful and likely more lasting gifts than anything that could be purchased.

Hundred Dollar Holiday advocates a new kind of Christmas and, holiday lover that I am, I like the challenge of regaining a sense of why we celebrate at this time of year. I take a more secular view of the whole holiday, remaining cognizant of its religious origins while more actively applying the messages and meanings that it has come to represent. But McKibben's book offers a strategic plan for remaining true to the core of Christmas no matter where you lie along the religiosity spectrum. His ultimate goal is to create a movement to reverse the trends toward a consumer Christmas that have found their way out of the holidays and into our daily lives. His book is all about lifestyle changes that can start at Christmas but don't necessarily have to end there. And though I have definitely exceeded his $100 limit given that I came to his book a little late in the holiday shopping season, his essential message still rings strong and true and I can't wait to suggest its initiatives to my friends and families during this and many more holiday seasons.

***If you want to learn more methods to reduce your holiday consumption or if you'd like to pledge to do so, check out The Center for the New American Dream's 2011 Simplify the Holidays Challenge!

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