Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case For A More Joyful Christmas

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Overview

Too many people have come to dread the approach of the holidays, a season that should ? and can ? be the most relaxed, intimate, joyful, and spiritual time of the year. In this book, Bill McKibben offers some suggestions on how to rethink Christmastime, so that our current obsession with present-buying becomes less important than the dozens of other possible traditions and celebrations.
Working through their local churches, McKibben and his colleagues found that people were ...

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Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case For A More Joyful Christmas

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Overview

Too many people have come to dread the approach of the holidays, a season that should — and can — be the most relaxed, intimate, joyful, and spiritual time of the year. In this book, Bill McKibben offers some suggestions on how to rethink Christmastime, so that our current obsession with present-buying becomes less important than the dozens of other possible traditions and celebrations.
Working through their local churches, McKibben and his colleagues found that people were hungry for a more joyful Christmas season. For many, trying to limit the amount of money they spent at Christmas to about a hundred dollars per family, was a real spur to their creativity — and a real anchor against the relentless onslaught of commercials and catalogs that try to say Christmas is only Christmas if it comes from a store.
McKibben shows how the store-bought Christmas developed and how out of tune it is with our current lives, when we're really eager for family fellowship for community involvement, for contact with the natural world, and also for the blessed silence and peace that the season should offer. McKibben shows us how to return to a simpler and more enjoyable holiday.
Christmas is too wonderful a celebration to give up on, too precious a time simply to repeat the same empty gestures from year to year. This book will serve as a road map to a Christmas far more joyful than the ones you've known in the past.

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Editorial Reviews

Norah Vincent

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

Walter Kirn
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
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781476754796
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 6/29/2013
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 96
  • Sales rank: 709,663
  • Product dimensions: 4.10 (w) x 7.60 (h) x 0.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben is the bestselling author of The End of Nature, The Age of Missing Information, and The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job, and the Scale of Creation. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, he lives in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York.

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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 disappearedback 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

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First Chapter

Chapter One

CHRISTMAS
NEVER WAS
CHRISTMAS


    This book, and the church-based campaign it grows out of, is not an exercise in nostalgia, a search for some perfect and uncorrupted Christmas in the past to which we can return. Christmas has been, and always will be, a product of its time, shaped to fit the particular needs of people, society, and faith in particular moments of history. And nowhere is that clearer than at the very beginning.

    The Gospels offer no clues whatsoever to the date of Jesus' birth--not even to the season. And the earliest Christians worried little about such matters. Expecting an imminent Second Coming, they kept their hearts fixed firmly on the future. As the church aged and grew, however, some began to try and pinpoint the date of the Savior's birth. The guesses ranged all over the place, as Penne Restad points out in her Christmas in America. Clement, Bishop of Alexandra, chose November 18; Hippolytus declared that Christ must have been born on a Wednesday, the same day God created the sun. Other authorities picked March 28 or April 19 or May 20. It was only in the fourth century that December 25 emerged as the date for the Feast of the Nativity--a date that on the old Julian calendar marked the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. It happened not because church leaders had unearthed some new clue, but because they needed to compete with the pagan celebrations that marked that dark season. Wild Saturnalia began on December 17 and continued through the first of January; the Emperor Aurelian declared that December 25 would in particular be observed as the feast of the Invincible Sun, the solar god Mithras. A couple of decades later, when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, he built the Vatican atop the very hill where the Mithras cult worshipped the sun, and may himself have instituted the new holiday. In any event, veneration of the Sun was quite intentionally replaced by veneration of the Son.

    And the switch certainly worked. Christmas spread around the Roman world (and into Scandinavia, where it combined with the Norse Yule feast). By the end of the thirteenth century, Restad notes, all of Europe marked Jesus' birth. But success came at an ironic price. The old elements of the pagan midwinter rites never completely dropped away--the solemn celebration of the Nativity always overlay a foundation of revelry, abandon, blowout. And who could blame folk? The midwinter feast was a rational response to the lives they lived. As the preeminent Christmas historian Stephen Nissenbaum points out in The Battle for Christmas, December was a major "punctuation mark" in the agricultural calendar of the northern nations, the moment between gearing down from the harvest and gearing up for the planting. There was lots of meat from the just-slaughtered animals, and the wine and beer from that year's crop of grapes and grain had just fermented. In this life of extremely hard work and frugality, this season was the sole exception--there was no other time of year, for instance, to eat fresh beef and pork, since animals couldn't be killed till the weather was cold enough to keep the meat from rotting, and any meat that was going to be saved for later would have to be salted. "Little wonder, then," writes Nissenbaum, "that this was a time of celebratory excess."

    The rowdiness took many forms. Strong drink fueled every kind of merrymaking--using only the list provided by Puritan minister Cotton Mather, we find "Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and all Licentious Liberty." Men dressed as women and women as men; Christmas caroling often meant bawdy songs; as Nissenbaum points out, there were vast numbers of illegitimate births in September and October, clear evidence of the Christmas debauch of the year before. On these shores Christmas and rowdiness have been connected from the start. One eighteenth-century British traveler reported attending a ball in Alexandria, Virginia, where the elegant company stayed all night, "got drunk, and had a fight"; in the nineteenth century, great explosions and gunfire were popular frontier celebrations, with one Missouri lad remembering how he and his friends had saved all the hog bladders from the butchering, inflated them, and then "popped them with paddles" on Christmas Day. Even in the twentieth century we have the Christmas office party, perhaps our last link to those old celebrations (and appropriately enough, since the fast-paced and hierarchical life of the office is our last faint link to the brutally hard work of the medieval era).

    The wild abandon of Christmastime led the Puritans to try and ban the celebration. For a century in New England revelers faced a fine for "keeping Christmas" within the borders of the domain. But it wasn't just the boisterousness of Christmas celebrations that increasingly annoyed the "better class" of people throughout Christendom. As Nissenbaum points out, the revelry had a particular character: this was the one moment of the year when people who still lived in great poverty turned the tables on their feudal masters who usually dominated their lives. The various lords were expected to offer the fruits of the harvest to the peasants (i.e., to almost everyone), and the peasants were more than willing to show up and demand them. Thus began the tradition of wassailing --bands of boys and young men would walk into the halls of the rich to receive gifts of food, of drink, even of money It was a sort of wild trick-or-treat. One wassail song went like this:


We've come here to claim our right ...
And if you don't open up your door,
We'll lay you flat upon the floor
.


    But once the wassail bowl was safely in hand, the men and boys would drink to the health of their masters--in a way, the whole business helped legitimize the basically unfair life of a serf. It was, like the wild revelry, an understandable response to the life that people found themselves living--a chance for the powerless poor to blow off steam and for the rich to buy goodwill (and buy it cheaply). And if you make sure and leave the garbage man a Christmas tip, partly from sheer good cheer and partly so your cans won't be scattered across the lawn all year, then you hear a faint echo of this practice.

    That kind of Christmas, however, depended on that kind of world--stratified by class but bound by geography and tradition. And as the economy changed, that world vanished. As cities grew and factories replaced farms, the powerful people in society no longer knew the mass of poorer men and women who worked for them, and so the custom of Christmas revelry grew increasingly threatening. It was one thing for your tipsy serfs to knock on the door demanding a roast beef dinner; it was another, as Nissenbaum points out, to have "bands of roaming young street toughs ... traveling freely and menacing wherever they pleased." Instead of a pause in the agricultural cycle, these young men now often faced seasonal unemployment. Disguised, as in the old days of mumming, sometimes beating on drums and kettles, these gangs would invade the rich districts of American cities and then sometimes head on to the black neighborhoods where they would trash churches and beat up passersby The "beastly vice of drunkenness among the lower laboring classes is growing to a frightful excess," fretted an upper-class New Yorker in the early 1800s. "Thefts, incendiaries, and murders--which prevail--all arise from this source."

    And so, more or less self-consciously, a group of upper-class New Yorkers set out to reinvent the holiday, an effort that proved to be of far more long-lasting importance than the earlier Puritan effort to stamp out the celebrations entirely Washington Irving was one key figure; in 1820 he published to great acclaim his Sketch Book, which included Rip Van Winkle and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, but also five Christmas stories. Set in an English manor, Bracebridge Hall, they nostalgically recalled the earlier agricultural Christmases with their roaring fires and horse-drawn carriages and tables groaning under the feast, which "brought the peasant and the peer together, and blended all ranks in one warm generous flow of joy and kindness." Popular as the stories were, however, as Nissenbaum points out, "Washington Irving's vision did not exactly offer a practical model for anyone who was tempted--and many must have been--to celebrate Christmas in this fashion." The task of inventing a "traditional" Christmas more appropriate to modern lives was left to others, especially Clement Clark Moore.

    Moore, an extremely rich professor of Hebrew, grew up on a rural estate called Chelsea. Present-day New Yorkers will know the spot as ... Chelsea, the part of Manhattan that stretches from Nineteenth Street to Twenty-fourth Street and from Eighth Avenue to Tenth Avenue. Indeed, Ninth Avenue was dug smack through the middle of his estate in 1818, right about the time he was writing "A Visit from Saint Nicholas," which is the poem we know as "The Night Before Christmas." Moore did not take kindly to the changes going on around him; as Nissenbaum discovers, he believed that the city was being taken over by a conspiracy of "cartmen, carpenters, masons, pavers, and all their host of attendant laborers." And he feared that the mob would abolish all the old elite life of New York: "We know not the amount nor the extent of oppression which may yet be reserved for us." So it comes as no surprise that Moore didn't care for the character of urban Christmases. And in his beloved poem, he manages to offer an alternative--the figure of Santa Claus, of Saint Nick. Santa was distantly related, of course, to the Saint Nicholas born in third-century Turkey (a creature so pious that even as an infant he somehow knew to refrain from suckling his mother on fast days). By the Renaissance, says Restad, he had become "the favorite saint of nearly everyone." His good image survived even the Protestant reaction against saints, especially in Holland. And since Moore, a member of the New-York Historical Society, was interested in the city's early Dutch heritage, it's no wonder that that's where he, like Washington Irving before him, turned for his figure of Christmas.

    But there was no Santa Claus tradition in this country--no reindeer, no sleigh, no coming-down-the-chimney--until Moore invented it. And, as Nissenbaum notes, what was most interesting about his invention was that Santa Claus was not an authority figure, not a bishop or a patriarch. Unlike the mitred and robed Saint Nicholas, he was just a right jolly old elf with twinkling eyes, rosy cheeks, and the famous shaking belly. Not only that, he looked "like a peddler just opening his pack"--that is, like a lower-class tradesman. And yet he invaded your home not to cause trouble, demand food, and shake up the social order, but to leave presents! What a guy!

    Better yet, even as the new Santa reversed one social order, he left another intact. Since parents had to buy and wrap the presents that Santa Claus supposedly delivered to their children, the old idea of Christmas as a time to take care of the weaker, the dependent, was preserved. Grown-ups could have their cake--the feeling of goodwill that comes with being a beneficent lord--and not have to worry that some ruffian was going to steal it. So Santa Claus, and the rituals of giving presents, served to bring Christmas inside the home where it was safe. Very slowly but surely, the Christmas chaos in the streets subsided, replaced by the happy riot of gifts inside. As Nissenbaum points out, "this is not to say that the rowdy Christmas season simply disappeared"; for decades, he discovers, the December newspapers were filled with reports of out-of-control street revels. But they also were crammed with editorials welcoming the season of peace. And the tide was running in the direction of the living room and away from the street. "Let all avoid taverns and grog shops for a few days at least, and spend their money at home," advised the New York Herald in 1839. "Make glad upon one day the domestic hearth, the virtuous wife, the smiling, merry-hearted children, and the blessed mother." A new Christmas had been born, again appropriate to the needs of the day.

    That new Christmas was greeted with the greatest enthusiasm by the emerging class of American entrepreneurs, who saw in it a source of vast potential wealth. Consider the story Restad tells of F. W. Woolworth, who one year allowed himself to be persuaded to stock some German-made glass Christmas ornaments at his small store. In two days they had all been sold, and Woolworth "woke up." He was soon making regular visits to Germany, and ordering fifteen hundred gross of ornaments at a time (and remarking idly on the poverty of the bauble-makers, who might command a wage of three dollars per week). By the end of the nineteenth century, his Christmas trade alone netted Woolworth half a million dollars. "This is our harvest time--make it pay," he instructed his managers. There was a similar boom in Christmas cards--at one time, writes Restad, the "top event" of the New York art season was an annual competition sponsored by the chief lithography company for the next year's card designs.

    And of course there were the presents. Though historians can find newspaper ads for holiday gifts back nearly to 1800, the great boom followed this reinvention of the holiday as a family celebration. The department stores then emerging in the big cities started the custom of dressing their windows to attract the throngs of shoppers, who were now able to walk the streets without fear of reveling gangs. As early as 1867, Macy's was staying open till midnight on Christmas Eve. Bookstores sold enormous numbers of ornate "gift books" that publishers produced each fall. Toy stores, able to count on a guaranteed profitable season, began to spread across the land. Advertisers offered extensive catalogues of their wares--The Game of Pope and Pagan, The Game of Cup and Ball, Jack Straws, Dr. Busby's Cards; already the list was long enough to torture any child. As Nissenbaum points out, as early as 1845 there was even a children's game about the process of Christmas shopping itself, "the laughable game of `What d'ye Buy.' "Special candies poured forth from the confectioners, special songs from the sheet music companies. In a way, writes Nissenbaum, the new celebration of Christmas served as a way to educate Americans, traditionally distrustful of luxury and excess, to the joys of buying things they didn't strictly need. "It was the thin end of the wedge by which many Americans became enmeshed in the more self-indulgent aspects of consumer spending ... a crucial means of legitimizing the penetration of consumerist behavior into American society."

    But as might be expected, this new Christmas had no sooner solved one set of problems--rowdyism--than it began to be accused of creating another--selfishness. Almost from the start, many people worried at least a little that Christmas was getting out of hand. And almost from the start there were a few cranks and scolds, of which I suppose I must count myself as a contemporary version, who insisted loudly that the holiday was too commercial. Mostly, people worried that their children were being spoiled, that in Nissenbaum's words "the holiday season was an infectious breeding ground for juvenile materialism and greed." (He quotes from as early as 1829 a letter from a nine-year-old to her aunt expressing the hope "that Santa Claus has given you at least as many presents as he has me, for he only gave me four.")

    And one of the responses to those fears, oddly enough, was the spread of the Christmas tree. When I was growing up in Lexington, Massachusetts, we always purchased our tree from the stand set up by the Follen Unitarian Church--a church named for the progressive scholar who helped introduce the custom of Christmas trees to the country. Karl Follen (who changed his name to Charles when he hit these shores) was exiled from Germany for liberal political activities. He was successful on his arrival, earning a professorship at Harvard in German literature, but again his politics plagued him--he was too radical an abolitionist for the proper Bostonians, and he lost his job. That very Christmas, however, a visiting British writer and fellow abolitionist, Harriet Martineau, watched as he decorated his tree with dozens of wax candles and then, like a magician unhatting a rabbit, ushered in his son, Charley, and some friends. "Their faces were upturned to the blaze, all eyes wide open, all lips parted, all steps arrested. Nobody spoke, only Charley leaped for joy." She may not have actually seen the first American Christmas tree, but thanks to her widely read accounts, it became the first famous one.

    And as Nissenbaum makes clear it was no accident that progressive Unitarians like Follen tried to spread the custom of the tree across the nation. The abolitionists weren't just interested in protecting slaves; they were also often particularly concerned with that other group of weak and defenseless Americans: children. They did not share the Puritan conviction that children were deeply stained at birth by original sin and needed to have their will broken. Instead, the Unitarians were convinced children should be trained to develop their wills, to become strong enough to resist their impulses. Unitarian parents didn't spank, they didn't scream. They combined love and moral instruction--and apparently no little guilt. The Christmas tree ritual, as it was prescribed by these men and women, was a way to train their young. Instead of the old ways of getting presents (at the dinner table, or by rushing into a parents' bedroom early in the morning to demand a gift), the parents would now take total control of the process. They would set up the tree in a closed room, and arrange the presents beneath it, and finally spring the surprise, ushering in their offspring to see the glorious sight. Good children weren't supposed to demand presents; they were supposed to play "the passive role of silent, grateful recipients." They were learning "to control even their selfish expectations."

    If this early instance of politically correct parenting sounds slightly bizarre, it clearly made little real difference to the culture of Christmas. Most American children were perfectly happy to add the blazing tree to the list of annual treats, and perfectly happy to be normal, slightly selfish human beings about the pile of packages beneath. More to the point, the Unitarians, and indeed the rich and the middle class, represented only a minority of Americans--most of our forebears were still spread out around the country's farms or packed into its city slums. While the literary classes were fretting about Christmas materialism, most Americans were still enjoying the holiday enormously --enjoying, among other things, all the stuff. Indeed, Christmas was quickly becoming the one great American festival, the only holiday that was both religious and legal. Louisiana, in 1837, was the first state to declare Christmas a legal holiday; by 1860, fourteen more states from Maine to California had joined the list.

    More and more the festival was national in character, gradually losing the distinctive touches that had marked a Pennsylvania German or a New York Dutch celebration. Thomas Nast began drawing the Santa Claus we know in the 1860s, and soon decided that his workshop was at the North Pole (before, he had rather mysteriously simply appeared in his sleigh). Elves followed, and Mrs. Santa Claus; Santa in a few short decades had become the center of the holiday (to the point, Restad reports, that one Pennsylvania father in 1893 actually decided to come down his own chimney dressed in red and surprise his children; stuck halfway down, he began to scream, which so frightened his family that they fled the home. Neighbors had to tear the chimney down to rescue him). Santa's canonization was complete by 1897 when the editor of the New York Sun, Frank Church, penned his famous letter to wee Virginia, who had written to ask if there really was a jolly old man with a white beard and black boots who appeared to distribute toys. "Virginia, your little friends are wrong" when they doubt Santa, he wrote. Absent Santa, "there would be no childlike faith, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence."

    Christmas changed much less in the twentieth century than in the nineteenth--most of our rituals and customs still stem from the burst of invention in the decades either side of the Civil War. But the sheer scale of Christmas has grown enormously, as the advertisers and merchants have grown ever more adept at their marketing. Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli speculate in their book, Unplug the Christmas Machine, that once U.S. factories had geared up for World War I, they feared peace would be followed by excess capacity. The newly developing art of advertising--the psychological insinuation that went well beyond the old listings of goods--helped insure that didn't happen; indeed during the 1920s the country went on an unprecedented binge of luxury consumption.

    Ellis Gimbel organized the first Thanksgiving Day parade to promote his department store in 1920; Santa on a fire truck brought up the rear. Macy's started its competing extravaganza four years later, all in an attempt to instill the idea of a Christmas shopping season that stretched from late November. So successful were they that, during the Depression, the big department store owners actually persuaded FDR to move Thanksgiving back a week to insure a month-long window for undistracted shopping. A Santa Claus school operated in the town of Santa Claus, Indiana, by the 1930s; soon its graduates formed the National Association of Professional Santas. If there was much danger that anyone would still be paying undue attention to the stable in Bethlehem, the media soon produced one new Christmas story after another, from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (published by the Montgomery Ward department store) to Frosty the Snowman. By my childhood in the early 1970s there was an absolutely unvarying and ironclad lineup of Christmas TV specials, the syrupy scenes of the Charlie Brown gang, Bob Hope, John Denver, and dozens more all punctuated by Santa flying in and out atop a Norelco cordless shaver.

    As I said before, grousing about Christmas is almost as old a tradition as celebrating it. Nissenbaum quotes the opening of a Christmas story that Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote in 1850: "Oh dear," moans one character. "Christmas is coming in a fortnight, and I have got to think of presents for everybody! Dear me, it's so tedious! Everybody has got everything that can be thought of.... There are worlds of money wasted at this time of year, in getting things that nobody wants, and nobody cares for after they are got." By 1894, reports Restad, the editorialists of the New York Tribune were complaining that "the modern expansion of the custom of giving Christmas presents has done more than anything else to rob Christmas of its traditional joyousness.... Most people nowadays are so fagged out, physically and mentally by the time Christmas Day arrives that they are in no condition to enjoy it. As soon as the Thanksgiving turkey is eaten, the great question of buying Christmas presents begins to take the terrifying shape it has come to assume in recent years.... The season of Christmas needs to be dematerialized."

    That criticism, however, didn't strike very deep. For whatever reason, this newly invented, consumptive Christmas continued to serve the needs of Americans--probably because it was appropriate to a time of slowly growing wealth, and slowly increasing leisure. And it fit, roughly, with the various theologies of prosperity and success that dominated American Protestantism. The cornucopia--the bottomless stocking--of the American Christmas was emblematic of our way of life. So for a long time, Christmas brought considerable joy to most people: one has only to read the accounts of prairie Christmases along the frontier, of Christmases in the encampments of our various bloody wars, of Christmases in the slave quarters of the old South, to understand the enduring power of the holiday. It's only in relatively modern times, I think, that the grumbling about Christmas has become less good-natured, only in recent years that significant numbers of people have begun to rather dread its approach. The spell cast in the mid-nineteenth century is wearing off, and it's time for a new burst of invention. That's what this book is about.

    But as we consider new forms of celebrations, it's important to repeat one strand from this brief history: there's no uncorrupted celebration from some distant and pure time in the past that we can simply return to. Christmas has always been a concoction. So if we want to remake it in our image, we must first figure out what problems in our individual lives and in our society we might address by changing the ways we celebrate. We need to search ourselves for clues as to how we might remake this holiday.

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Introduction

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

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 6, 2013

    WWJBuy?

    This book is a guide to reclaiming the spirit of Christmas. Its a heartwarming invitation to say goodbye to the mall frenzy of marketing inspired "giving" gluttony that suckers us now.
    This book was an eye and heart opener for us, freeing us to really give and share with greater intention. Buy the hardcopy so you can share it - and then share it broadly!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 18, 2001

    EVERYBODY should read this book!

    This little book, a plea for taking the comsumerism out of Christmas, is so well-written, so sensible, so appealing, that I can't see why anyone wouldn't like it. Bill McKibben has to be a good man, and so sincere and passionate in his presentation that he could melt the heart of a Scrooge. I wish everybody would read this book, every teacher teach it, every church study it. It propounds an idea whose time has come, an idea which, if taken to heart by all of us, could change the world, could make a better world.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2000

    The Real Meaning of Christmas

    Yes, this book is a bit on thin side, but maybe that's the way the author hopes to reach as many readers as possible. Let's face it, the overwhelming movement to commercialize one of the year's most holy days doesn't exactly emphasize lengthy reading. The heart of this book is in the proper place.

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