Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, December 14, 1998


Have yourself
a merry

little christmas

It is possible to find soul
amidst the chaos of the most
commercial season of year

By Nancy Wilcox
Special to the Star-Bulletin


WARM and fuzzy memories of Christmas bring us back for more of the same year after year. But feelings of excitement and fulfillment are muddied with ones of obligation and guilt. Budget restraints are suspended as we go for the commercial bait thrown at us by businesses dependent on the end-of-the-year spending frenzy.

If that sounds all too familiar, then it may be time to simplify holiday traditions.

Even magazines which once promoted lavish Christmas celebrations are getting on the simplicity wagon.

Gale Steves, Home magazine's editor-in-chief, this month told readers that she's decided "not to be burdened by the expectations of others or my own pesky ideas of perfection, but to partake in only those holiday preparations that give me real pleasure."

Is this heresy? Hasn't Home always crafted its December pages around holiday decor, gift ideas and the seasonal food of professional chefs? Or do they see the signs of their reader's shifting priorities?

The holiday that has come to mean excess in food, spending, giving, shopping, singing, and partying, seems to be meeting a dead end with the generation who believes less is more.

"You're not alone in your quest for a simpler holiday season," writes Elaine St. James, author of "Simplify your Christmas."

A recent poll by the Center for a New American Dream found that 70 percent of Americans would welcome lower holiday spending and less emphasis on gift giving. Not only are Americans spending less, but the trend is toward giving items that increase personal growth, education, and have lasting meaning, St. James said.

But as Christmas sales decline, advertisers are becoming more relentless than ever, having once again jumped the season with huge pre-Christmas offerings, then thrown in free parking, valet service, foot massages and designer coffees.

St. James, who also writes the nationally syndicated column, "Simplify Your Life," offers ways for families to reform seasonal habits, reduce stress and recapture the joy of Christmas. (The ideas also translate to Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice or whatever your centerpiece holiday is.)

For starters, simplifying is not about celebrating Christmas the frenetic way, St. James said. It means shifting your approach so holidays are about ease, togetherness and giving from the heart rather than from the pocketbook.

And don't think that just staying away from the mall will save you. Retail has invaded the home through catalogs and the Internet.

Crate and Barrel's front page has a simple five sugar cookie stars and moons glazed in red and green on one decorated glass plate. "New traditions," shouts the J. Jill holiday catalog. The accompanying photo shows an evergreen, decorated in a few small lights, perched in a small dinghy anchored on a glacial lake. "Start your own tradition ... simply for the wonder of it all," urges the sub-heading.

Don't be fooled. Inside the catalog is a plethora of goodies and gimmicks to tempt you into spending money. And although it's more comfortable ordering from your armchair, costs spiral with handling, shipping and expensive wrapping. You may end up spending more than you planned.

Making a change starts with reexamining the way you do things. "You may discover that the only true and enduring traditions are those that add meaning to your family, community, and spiritual lives," St. James says.

Here are some tips:

Bullet Discuss holiday reform with your family, asking everyone to remember what they once loved about the holidays. The most cherished memories usually are of simple pleasures.

Bullet List things you don't like about the season, like the office Christmas party, the bills that come due in January, that sinking feeling on Dec. 26 when you wake up thinking that, in spite of all you did, it still wasn't enough.

Bullet Simplify an old tradition. Instead of seeing "The Nutcracker Suite" again go to a community theater production. The tickets probably will even be cheaper.

Bullet If Christmas is for the kids, then ONLY do it for the kids, the ones who are young enough to still believe in Santa Claus. Remember: kids have no expectations but the ones we establish for them.

Bullet Create a retreat. Go on a trip where you're away from all the old requirements. Or make your home into its own retreat from the excesses of the season.

Bullet Return Christmas to its humble beginnings. Christmas is more than lavish celebrations, overflowing tables, or a dazzling array of lights, music and presents. Remember that the first Christmas took place in a stable.

Bullet And what about -- Gulp! -- not sending Christmas cards at all? (Each year Americans spend $800 million in stamps to send $4 billion in holiday greeting cards. That's a lot of money and a lot of trees.) "How much guilt have you experienced over the years because you couldn't write anything more personal than 'Merry Christmas' "? St. James said. Use e-mail, either the same letter for everyone, or tailor your message for a few special people; send cards only in the even years; assign the task of sending cards to a different family member each year; or select a couple of people who really made a difference to your life this year and write them about their contribution.

Lori Salkin and Rob Sperry in their book "A Simple Christmas" urge ignoring magazines during the holidays because the people in them "either have too much time on their hands or they're getting paid to create these wonderful Christmases."

If you can't resist, pick and choose one special idea that fits your more simple celebration, but don't get caught up in someone else's homemade holiday, the authors say.

"Our expectations have become so unreasonably high," adds Jane Luhrs in her "Simple Living Guide." "Our gifts have to be more exotic, our houses more perfect, our celebrations more intense and our families in perfect harmony."

So lower your expectations, she says. A little clutter around the holidays is expected. Create balance, a celebration that's not too much and not too little, Luhrs said.

Remember: only you and your family can make these changes if everyone agrees. And what you'll get in exchange, Luhrs said, is a holiday season that's "harmonious, peaceful and relaxing."

Isn't that the real meaning of Christmas?

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