Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Holiday joy, without commercialism

Holidays should be about time well spent, not money.

If spending the national average of $859 per person this year seems excessive to you, consider gifts of time and other intangible goods instead.


Creators Syndicate This holiday season offers Americans a chance to reclaim our holidays as times of joy and togetherness in place of crass commercialism. It seems as if after Thanksgiving, the major news in our country is shopping and whether retail sales will top last year's. Judging from our media, you would think that Americans made the holidays specifically for shopping.

Last year, the average American spent $859 on the holidays, according to the American Research Group. Most of those hard-earned dollars went straight to China because more than 70 percent of the goods on store shelves are from there. If you multiply that by the U.S. population, that's about $180 billion that went to China for the holidays! I was surprised that shopping wasn't an Olympic event this year, considering how skilled we have become at sending our money overseas.

If you shop for the good of the economy, keep in mind that buying products made outside of your community means that your money also leaves home for the holidays. Instead, feed your local economy by making your own gifts and buying what gifts you can't make from local independent stores and artisans.

A recent economic study conducted in Austin, Texas, found that if each household in Travis County (population 921,006) simply redirected $100 of planned holiday spending from chain stores (carrying cheap imports) to locally owned merchants, the local economic impact would reach approximately $10 million. Imagine how $10 million would boost your community's economy.

It used to be that time was less important than money in our culture, but we have become a nation of workaholics. A recent survey found that 70 percent of us (making more than $30,000 a year) gladly would give up a full day's pay to have that day off from work. If you are buying gifts or giving money, you are cheating your loved ones. Instead, give gifts of time. Offer to change your elderly parents' light bulbs to compact fluorescents, or give them a coupon good for a free day's worth of caulking and winterizing. That is something they could really use, and time spent together will benefit all of you.

On average, we spend between 20 and 40 hours shopping for holiday gifts and waiting on long lines. You easily could make most of your holiday gifts in that time and have the added bonus of time shared as a family. Climate writer Bill McKibben, in his excellent book "Hundred Dollar Holiday," says: "I can remember almost every present that someone's made for me since we started doing these Hundred Dollar Holidays. And that's testimony in itself -- I have no idea what gifts came in all those great piles under the tree in previous years. They didn't attach themselves to particular faces, particular memories."


Holidays should be about time well spent, not money. "Give things that are rare: time, attention, memory, whimsy," notes McKibben. In the land where we have plenty of food, noise, gizmos and stuff, those are the things we cherish.

Here are a few ideas for adding more joy to your household and community this holiday season:

--Spend less time shopping, and make gingerbread men with your children one afternoon. Put the gingerbread men on decorative plates, and drop in on each neighbor to spread cheer.

--Pump money into the local economy by making donations to the food bank. That money will help families in your neighborhood more surely than spending it at a national chain store.

--Ask young children to pick out toys to buy, and donate to one of the "toys for tots" programs.

--Have a family meeting to decide on a spending limit, and figure out what imaginative gifts you can make together.

--This time of year is craft fair season, and most churches and community groups offer at least one. Craft fairs are great opportunities to support local producers directly and keep your holiday spending local.

--On Christmas Day, once the gifts are opened, don't let it be anticlimactic. Instead, spread birdseed and crumbled cookies outside for the wild things. Take a plate of food to a neighborhood shut-in or someone who has to work.

--Do something wonderful for someone else -- anonymously.

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