Do Like the Whos Do

December 24, 1998

By Michael Jessen

And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before! 'Maybe Christmas,' he thought, 'doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas perhaps means a little bit more!' -- "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" by Dr. Seuss.

The holiday season is arguably our greatest cultural paradox. Good will toward all has been supplanted by a consumerist binge. The hidden financial, environmental, and human costs of the commercialized holiday season are reflected in these statistics:

The average American planned to spend $800 on Christmas gifts in 1997. Compare that to the $280 annual per capita income of a Vietnamese citizen.

It takes an average of six months for a credit-card user to pay off holiday bills. Total U.S. credit-card debt now exceeds $450 billion.

Do you want a holiday wrapped more in meaning and less in stuff? If so, you're not alone. According to a recent national survey, 70% of Americans would welcome less emphasis on gift giving and spending.

If you love the holiday season but hate the stress that comes with it, simplicity guru Elaine St. James has some solutions for you.

St. James has put her suggestions to reduce holiday stress and exhaustion in her newest book, Simplify Your Christmas, 100 ways to Reduce the Stress and Recapture the Joy of the Holidays (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $20.95).

The first step to recapturing the joy of Christmas, says St. James, is to figure out what's complicating your holidays. Then, tell everyone in advance about the changes you'd like to make. You might discover that others in your family also feel overwhelmed by obligations and expense and want to keep things simple too.

"Just by changing or eliminating one or two stressful activities, you can create a wonderful holiday season with your family," says St. James, who has written three best-selling books on simplicity since scaling back her own life in the early '90s.

"If you are longing for a simpler Christmas, it's time to challenge the belief that the holidays are about crafting decorations for every room in the house, loading tables with foods that aren't on your diet, and shopping for -- or handmaking -- gifts of questionable value for everyone you know."

Some of St. James' suggestions are: Stop trying to get organized. Reshuffling the same work load by starting earlier every year isn't the answer. Simplifying Christmas, as well as your life, is about doing less, so that you have the time to enjoy more.

Let go of what you think are other people's expectations. The truth is, we're often competing with ourselves.

Say "no" to the latest fad toy. In the process, teach your children not to get sucked into the consumer mentality.

Less is more. If you feel overwhelmed by holiday home decorating ideas, try displaying just one symbol: perhaps a tree, a creche or an evergreen wreath on the front door. A single, symbolic statement has more dramatic effect than a house full of glittery tinsel.

Rethink your gift list. As families expand over the years, it can become a huge task to give gifts to everyone, especially people you hardly know. Instead, suggest drawing names or donating, as a group, to a charity.

St. James' book is about celebrating Christmas the old-fashioned way. It's about shifting our approach so the holidays are about ease, togetherness, and giving from our hearts rather than from our pocketbooks. It incorporates suggestions from scores of readers and friends who've shared their thoughts about making the holidays simpler and more meaningful.

You don't have to do it all. If you learn to make good choices, and keep those choices to a minimum, you can have your Christmas and enjoy it too.

However you choose to celebrate the Yuletide season, I wish you all a Happy Christmas and a Peaceful New Year. I thank the Nelson Daily News for publishing this weekly column and I thank you for reading it.

TRASH TIP - If the holidays bring you a little something you don't want -- debt -- stop worrying and start reading Mary Hunt's book Debt-Proof Your Holidays, How to Save a Sleigh-Load of Money, Wrap Up Your Bills, and Have the Happiest Holiday Ever! (St. Martin's, approximately $6.99). With wisdom, wit, and fabulous money-saving secrets, Hunt delivers family fun without spending a fortune.

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