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Important: Christmas Without Presents

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    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 1, 2009
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      "People who spend less and have less spent on them at Christmas actually
      enjoy the season more."

      "People who emphasized time spent with families and meaningful religious or
      spiritual activities had merrier Christmases."


      By Colin Beavan
      Yes! Magazine
      Winter 2009


      If Christmas is about presents, then in 2007, my little family and I had no
      Christmas. I mean, we had the caroling and the uncle playing the piano and
      the cousins running around with my three-year-old, Isabella, and the
      grandfather coaxing her to sit on his lap and the good food.

      We had, in other words, an amazingly good time.

      What we didn¹t have, though, was the average American¹s $800 hole in our
      bank accounts, gouged out by Christmas-present spending. Nor did we have the
      credit card debt still unpaid by June. Nor the forcing of smiles for gifts
      we didn¹t really want. Nor the buying of extra luggage to bring home those
      unwanted gifts. Nor the stressful rush of last-minute crowds at the mall.

      Without presents, you see, we didn¹t have the sensation that I, at least,
      normally associated with Christmas -- the stress. And without stress or
      presents, it¹s not Christmas, right? But of course it was. It was the best
      of Christmas, the part that, research shows, makes people happiest. It was
      all the upside without the downside.

      Let me back up.

      From November 2006 to November 2007, I and my little family -- one wife, one
      toddler, one dog -- embarked on a lifestyle experiment in which we tried to
      live with the lowest possible environmental impact (you can read about it on
      my blog http://www.noimpactman.com). Among other measures, the experiment
      included not making trash, not using any form of carbon-producing
      transportation, and not buying anything new.

      This may sound like a lot of meaningless self-deprivation, but the question
      we wanted to answer was this: Does consuming fewer resources actually feel
      like deprivation, or is it possible that consuming less opens up another way
      of life that provides more enduring satisfaction? Or put another way, could
      we find a win-win way of life that might be happier both for us and for the

      Sometimes the answer was no. It may be better for the planet if we all
      decided not to buy big hunks of metal otherwise known as washing machines,
      but -- believe me -- washing my family¹s clothes by hand did not make me

      On the other hand, eating local and riding bikes instead of driving cars
      allowed us to lose the spare tires around our guts, cure ourselves of
      longstanding skin problems and insomnia and become generally healthier. And
      not using electricity to power entertainment devices drew us closer together
      as a family and made us spend more time with friends.

      Our experiences illustrated that some uses of planetary resources improve
      quality of life and some may not. Indeed, we could go a long way toward
      dealing with the crisis in our planetary habitat if we found a way to avoid
      those uses that don¹t improve our lives -- like the packaging that comprises
      40 percent of trash in landfills, for example.

      But as Christmas 2007 approached, the more pressing question for us was, did
      the season¹s huge consumption of resources add to the Christmas experience
      or detract from it? Since one-sixth of all American retail sales (and as a
      consequence, a hefty proportion of our national planetary resource use)
      occurs during the holiday season, it¹s a question worth asking.

      I¹ve already told you enough to let you guess how my little family¹s
      experience played out, but you may be surprised to learn that our findings
      are backed up by bona fide psychological research: Even though oodles of
      presents at Christmas is the dominant American paradigm, it turns out that
      people who spend less and have less spent on them at Christmas actually
      enjoy the season more.

      This, anyway, is the conclusion of a paper published in the Journal of
      Happiness Studies by researchers Tim Kasser of Knox College and Kennon M.
      Sheldon of the University of Missouri-Columbia. After studying the Christmas
      experiences of 117 individuals, they found that people who emphasized time
      spent with families and meaningful religious or spiritual activities had
      merrier Christmases.

      ³Despite the fact that people spend relatively large portions of their
      income on gifts, as well as time shopping for and wrapping them,² the
      researchers said, ³such behavior apparently contributes little to holiday
      joy.² In fact, subjects who gave or received presents that represented a
      substantial percentage of their income, Kasser and Sheldon found, actually
      experienced less Christmas joy.

      Of course, this makes perfect sense. We all know in our hearts that
      treasuring meaningful experiences and spending time in valued relationships
      -- at Christmas or any other part of the year -- make us happier than
      getting more stuff.

      But try telling that to the grandparents at Christmas time!

      Try living out these lofty principles when the rest of your family and
      friends are swapping presents at the same rate as ever. You may find ³bah
      humbugs² shouted in your direction more than once. That¹s problematic,
      particularly if you¹re hoping to inspire more sustainable lifestyle choices
      in other people. Nobody will be convinced by dogmatism or Grinch-like

      The trick to a happy, sustainable, non-consumptive Christmas was not, we
      discovered, to ignore the expectations of the people we celebrated with. We
      didn¹t want our loved ones to feel bad. Those who expected presents should
      get them, we decided. Gifts, after all, are associated with the exchange of

      For us, the answer was to buy presents that did not require the exploitation
      of large amounts of planetary resources. My mother was very happy with the
      two massages she got. My father and his wife enjoyed the gift certificate to
      the fine dining, local-food restaurant in their neighborhood. Friends
      appreciated the theater tickets we bought them. And unlike those unwanted
      trinkets one sometimes buys for the ³person who has everything,² our
      sustainable gifts, we felt, actually improved the recipients¹ lives.

      Still, my wife, Michelle, worried very much that it would be hard for
      Isabella if all the cousins had presents to open, but she didn¹t. Try
      saying, ³The research says you¹ll be happier with less,² to a
      three-year-old. So Isabella¹s Aunt Maureen contributed toys that her
      children had outgrown, and we wrapped them for Isabella.

      When present-opening time came, Isabella didn¹t care whether the present she
      was opening was for her or not. She didn¹t even want the presents. She just
      wanted to open them. She didn¹t want something to have later. She wanted to
      participate now. And when her Uncle Joe started playing the piano and
      singing, she got bored with the present opening anyway and went to sit with
      him on the piano bench.

      Much to our surprise, she didn¹t even want to take her cousins¹ old toys
      home when the Christmas vacation was over. She¹d already had her presents.
      What was important to her was what turned out to be important to us: the
      singing, the charades, the laughter, the time spent with family, and of
      course, the celebration.


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