To give Bill McKibben his due, let's admit the obvious. Christmas is too commercial. Depressingly so, in fact. A good number of us don't go to church on Christmas Day, and an even greater number of us are too lazy, too cheap or too estranged from our family members to buy, much less make, thoughtful presents for them. A lot of us just throw checks at each other to assuage our consciences. We're hopelessly hard-hearted, really, and McKibben is right to point it out, even though we, as a culture, know this too well already. But before we go giving McKibben too much credit, let's look a little closer at his self-trumpeting example.
If you know anything about McKibben's publisher, that paradigmatic corporate behemoth Simon & Schuster, you know that Hundred Dollar Holiday is the kind of leaflet -- at 96 pages, it can't rightly be called a book -- that their sales force positively cooed over. It's money for nothing, fluff in a brown paper bag. It's worldly wisdom whittled down to the size and scope of a Zagat's for Wilmington, Del. It's a cash grab Christmas "book" that, irony of all ironies, subtlety of all subtleties, tells you not to spend so much money on Christmas. Is this marketing cynicism at its worst and cleverest, or is this boardroom cupidity rising to new heights?
If McKibben really means what he says in Hundred Dollar Holiday -- that the real grinches of our culture are not well-meaning, cushy ascetics like him, but "those relentless commercial forces who have spent more than a century trying to convince us that Christmas does come from a store" -- then what is he doing publishing at Simon & Schuster, which, in the publishing world, at least, is surely one of the best examples of commercial force around? What's more, Simon & Schuster stays afloat largely by how much it sells at Christmas time. It subsists on the profits it makes on insipid Christmas gift books that nobody needs, books like Hundred Dollar Holiday. Yet McKibben remains willfully blind to this whopping contradiction. So much so that he even makes a euphemistic sales pitch for his non-book in the very pages of the thing itself: "So you may want to loan people your copy of this book as a way of trying to enlist them in your plans for a merrier Christmas."
Later, in a more direct attempt to justify himself, McKibben tries to preemptively answer his critics -- notable among them has become Margaret Talbot, who took him to task in the New Republic a few months ago for his shallow moralizing. Talbot reminded us that by advising consumers not to spend so much on Christmas, McKibben is tinkering with economic realities he either doesn't understand or fails to address. It sounds good to preach about the warm and fuzzy meaning of Christmas, but, as Talbot argues, spending less in December would leave a great many people out in the cold: "I would like to know ... what McKibben has to say about the jobs that would be lost -- starting with minimum wage retail positions -- if all of the privileged Americans at whom his exhortations are directed quit throwing their money around at Christmas." McKibben's response? "Change in Christmas traditions will come slowly enough that most retailers will be able to adapt." Is this McKibben the armchair economist speaking, or McKibben the happy-go-lucky social reformer? It's hard to know which is worse. The fact is, shops would founder if they lost their December income, and the economy would likewise falter, creating greater hardship for everyone, especially the poorest of the poor.
In Hundred Dollar Holiday, McKibben is selling us a ruse of rectitude, not the real thing. Consider his ultimate justification for not spending money at Christmas: "Perhaps you're simply squirreling [your unspent Christmas money] away in the bank -- which is precisely what economists are always telling us we need to do in order to boost productivity and reverse our lagging savings rate." Ah, so perhaps that $100 isn't being saved for a holier Christmas Day at the homeless shelter (as McKibben suggested it might be earlier in the book), but for a happier rainy day back at the family ranch. Maybe McKibben's book should have been called "Putting the 'No' Back in Noel: How to Stiff Your Relatives at Christmas and Convince Them You're a Better Person for it." Do yourself and the economy a big favor this Christmas. Take a leaf from McKibben's jeremiad, and don't buy his book. -- Salon
Yes, Christmas is too consumerist. And yes, the world might be better off if people had only one child. But did we really need Bill McKibben to tell us?. . . McKibben makes a book where a bumper sticker would do. . .[his] insistence that we not only agree with him, not only mimic him, but admire him, too, would test the patience of a saint. -- New York Magazine
Read an Excerpt
INTRODUCTION: Who Stole Christmas?
I've been called my share of names, but the only one that ever really stung was "grinch." The year that a few friends and I started the Hundred Dollar Holiday program through our rural Methodist churches, several business-page columnists in the local papers leveled the G-word we were dour do-gooders, they said, bent on taking the joy out of Christmas. And, frankly, their charges sounded plausible enough. After all, we were asking our families, our friends, and our church brethren to try and limit the amount of money they spend on the holiday to a hundred dollars to celebrate the holiday with a seventh or an eighth of the normal American materialism. There's no question that would mean fewer "Pop guns! And bicycles! Roller skates! Drums! Checkerboards! Tricycles! Popcorn! And plums!" Not to mention Playstations, Camcorders, Five Irons, and various Obsessions. Perhaps my heart was two sizes too small.
So it was with some trepidation that I carefully reread my daughter's well-worn copy of the Seuss classic, neatly shelved with Green Eggs and Ham, Horton Hears a Who, and all the other secular parables. There on the cover was the Grinch himself, red eyes gleaming malevolently as he plotted the sack of Whoville. He hated the noise of the kids with their toys, and he hated the feast of rare Who-roast-beast, and most of all he hated the singing. "Why, for fifty-three years I've put up with it now! I MUST stop this Christmas from coming!...But HOW?" Simple enough, of course. All he had to do was loot the town of its packages, tinsel, trees, food, even the logs in the fireplace. Even the crumbs for the mice disappeared back up the chimney.
But of course it didn't work. That Christmas morning, listening from his aerie for the wailing from Whoville below, the Grinch heard instead the sound of singing. Christmas had come. "It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes, or bags!" After puzzling three hours till his puzzler was sore, the Grinch was forced to conclude that Christmas came from no store.
And so I breathed a sigh of real relief. Not only was I not a grinch trying to wreck the meaning of Christmas, it was abundantly clear who the grinches of our culture really are: those relentless commercial forces who have spent more than a century trying to convince us that Christmas does come from a store, or a catalogue, or a virtual mall on the Internet. Every day, but especially in the fall, they try their hardest to turn each Cindy Lou Who into a proper American consumer try their best to make sure her Christmas revolves around Sony or Sega, Barbie or Elmo.
But Dr. Seuss's message went deeper for me. You see, when we'd begun thinking about Hundred Dollar Holidays, it was mostly out of concern for the environment or for poor people. Think of all that wrapping paper, we said, all those batteries, all that plastic. Think of all those needy people who could be helped if we donated our money to them instead. Think of all those families who went deep into debt trying to have a "proper" Christmas.
All those issues are important, and I've spent much of my life writing about and working on them. But the more we progressed on our little campaign, traveling around our region having evening meetings at small rural churches like the one I attend, the more we came to understand why people were responding indeed, why we had responded to the idea. It wasn't because we wanted a simpler Christmas at all. It was because we wanted a more joyous Christmas. We were feeling cheated as if the season didn't bring with it the happiness we wanted. We were Christians, and we felt that the story of the birth of this small baby who would become our Savior, a story that should be full of giddy joy, could hardly break through to our hearts amid all the rush and fuss of the season. And many of our friends, Christian or not, felt that too much of the chance for family togetherness was being robbed by the pressures of Christmas busyness and the tensions of gift-giving.
Christmas had become something to endure at least as much as it had become something to enjoy something to dread at least as much as something to look forward to. Instead of an island of peace amid a busy life, it was an island of bustle. The people we were talking to wanted so much more out of Christmas: more music, more companionship, more contemplation, more time outdoors, more love. And they realized that to get it, they needed less of some other things: not so many gifts, not so many obligatory parties, not so much hustle.
Once, after an evening program filled with carol-singing and kids' stories and general proselytizing for the idea of simpler Christmases, one woman said to me: "Thank you for giving me permission to celebrate Christmas the way I've always wanted to." What she meant, I decided, was that the message from the pulpit allowed her to stand up to the pressures of the advertisers, of the glossy magazines with their endless decorating tips to stand up to the voice that had been planted in the back of her head that told her what Christmas should be. What she meant, too, was that by giving her a target a hundred dollar Christmas our small campaign had provided her with an anchor to hold her fast amid the gale of holiday commercialism. There's nothing magic about a hundred dollars; truth be told, I chose the name because it sounded good with "holiday." And obviously big families may decide to spend more at Christmas, and small ones may be happier spending less. But the hundred dollar goal seems to work well as a kind of check, a way of saying that your commitment to a better Christmas goes beyond merely complaining or telling yourself that this year it will be different.
None of this means that changing your Christmas patterns will be simple. It may cause tensions with other members of your extended family, or with kids who have grown up thinking of Christmas morning as a lootfest. It may take you years to build down to a Hundred Dollar Holiday, years of talking and writing to your near and dear. In an obsessively commercial society, it will always seem a little odd to many.
But it will be worth it. I am writing this in April, and already I am looking forward to Christmas, secure in the knowledge that it really will be a time of calm and happiness, a season to linger in and not to "get through." A time to celebrate the birth of a Savior. This book offers plenty of practical ideas for new ways of celebrating. But it's as much a why to book as a how to book it's my stab at a way to think about Christmas in our place and time. Christmas, this burst of light at the darkest season of the year, is too precious to surrender to the various grinches; it's time to build Whovilles in our families, our communities, and our nation.
Copyright © 1998 by Bill McKibben