Five Steps Toward a More Meaningful Holiday Season


The room is full, a bit cramped, the crowd filling their seats. It’s snowing lightly through the half-windows behind the stage, just a few flurries coating the sidewalks above this basement. It’s December 2012. The windows weep from the indoor heat. I turn on the microphone and look over the crowd, avoiding eye contact, which’d just make me more nervous than I already am.

I begin my speech by telling a story about a child on Christmas morning: “Fast forward a few weeks from now, Christmas Day, as little Andrew unwraps Optimus Prime and a grin breaks across his features when the large toy lights up and nearly comes to life, flashing and beeping and driving Andy’s parents crazy.

“But in a few moments, Andy discards the toy and begins unwrapping the rest of his presents, extracting each box from under the tree, one by one—some long, some tall, some heavy, some light. Each box reveals a new toy. Each shred of green-and-red wrapping paper a flash of happiness.

“An hour later, though, little Andy is crying hysterically. Based on his fits, this has undoubtedly been the worst Christmas ever. Sure, Andrew received many of the things on his list, but he’s far more concerned with what he didn’t receive. That Power Ranger he wanted, that video game system he was secretly hoping for, that new computer that all his friends are getting. The toys in front of him simply remind him of what he doesn’t have.

“This sounds childish, I know, but don’t we do the same thing? Don’t we often look at the things around us and wish we had more? Don’t we covet that new car, those new clothes, that new iPhone?”

Several people in the crowd are nodding with identification.

“What if Andy was happy with the toys in front of him? And what if we were too?” I ask rhetorically.

After a brief pause, Ryan jumps in: “We are clearly in the throes of the holiday shopping season,” he says, speaking through his handheld microphone.

“Take a look around. Malls are packed with herds of consumers. Storefronts are decorated in green and red. The jingly commercials are running nonstop. The holiday season has officially peeked its gigantic, mass-mediated noggin around the corner. It’s here, and if we rely solely on billboards and store signage, then we might believe we have to participate.

“Retailers prepare months in advance for this—preparation that’s meant to stimulate your insatiable desire to consume: Doorbuster sales. New products. Gigantic two-page ads. TV, radio, print, billboards. Sale, sale, sale! Early bird specials. One day only! Get the best deal. Act now! While supplies last.

“Joshua and I would, however, like to shed some light on this shopping—ahem, holiday—season. Each year around this time, we all feel that warm-’n’-fuzzy Christmastime nostalgia associated with the onset of winter. We break out the scarves and the gloves and the winter coats. We go ice-skating and sledding and eat hearty meals with our extended families. We take days off from work and spend time with our loved ones and give thanks for the gift of life.

“The problem is that we’ve been conditioned to associate this joyous time of year—the mittens and decorations and the family activities—with purchasing material items. We’ve trained ourselves to believe that buying stuff is an inextricable part of Christmas. We all know, however, that the holidays needn’t require gifts to be meaningful. Rather, this time of year is meaningful because of its true meaning—not the wrapped boxes we place under the tree. I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong or bad about gift-giving during this time of year. However, when purchasing gifts becomes the focal point of the season, we lose focus on what’s truly important.

“Instead of concentrating on holiday shopping,” Ryan continues, “I’d like to encourage you to take five steps toward a more meaningful Christmas together:

“Step one. Avoid holiday doorbuster sales. Whether it’s Black Friday or any of the subsequent big shopping weekends, it’s best to stay inside. It’s important to understand that consumption is an unquenchable thirst.Retailers and advertisers and manufacturers know this too well, and these sales are designed to take advantage of our insatiable desire to consume. Instead, support your local businesses; support the people in your community who are making a difference.

“Step two. Gift your time. If you could receive only one Christmas present this year, what would it be? The answer for me is simple: time. The best present is presence…. [Read more at The Minimalists]

“Five Steps Toward a More Meaningful Holiday Season” is an excerpt from Everything That Remains, a memoir that will be published in January.