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Merry Secular Christmas!

Christmas is filled with a lot of stuff. Literally – STUFF. People buy things for other people that the other people don’t want and people buy children so much crap yet the children still cry that they didn’t get the crap that they requested and adults just search for something (ANYTHING) to buy for that brother-in-law one sometimes cuts your lawn so you feel obligated to give him some crap. Well I want Christmas to mean more than that. If I have children (maybe, maybe not?) I don’t want them to be part of this rushed consumer Christmas that starts and ends with presents. I’d like to share with you my plan for having a meaningful, but secular, Christmas.

(Hint – this is also discussed in the coming episode of our shiny podcast!)

Did you know that Americans spend 581.6 billion dollars on gifts every Christmas? And that 83% of those gifts are unwanted? That means that 486.5 billion dollars (give or take) is spent on crap that people don’t even want to be given. If you know a nuclear family with a suburban home just picture their child’s room or play room or basement. Take a look at your own family’s collection of stuff. We have soooo much stuff. And Christmas has become centered around adding to all this stuff. Yet, when I ask friends (or when Grist asked people – see picture) it isn’t the gifts that people remember, it’s the experiences.


Ideas started pouring in when Grist writer, Greg, asked for ideas to help him have a gift free Christmas this year.

Christmas has always been super traditional in my house. One day of massive gift giving and a big honkin’ dinner with church on Christmas Eve. I grew up in a fairly religious family, my step-father is a minister. To be fair, we lived in a very small town where everyone was religious so you sort of just went to church or summer bible camp because that’s what everyone else did. Regardless, we were encouraged to question religion and seriously engage in it, rather than follow along believing whatever we were told. My brother took the staunch atheist path, my sister took the evangelical path and I took the in between path.

Now, however, I am about to marry someone who deems themselves an “agnostic atheist”. So when holidays come up he generally doesn’t want to do the churchy religious thing, while I’m still okay with them. Despite this being our 5th Christmas together we haven’t really created any traditions. So this year we’re trying out something new.

First of all, it is a multi-day thing. One thing that has always bothered me about Christmas is that we all rush rush rush to get ready for one big day, then rush rush rush to see all of our family and then it is all over and we’re out Boxing Day shopping before you know it. I want Christmas to last a few days, so we’re setting it out to last a week! So here is how it will go:

December 21: Since Christmas isn’t just about family – it is also about friends – we’re inviting everyone over for a Yule potluck. No gifts allowed! We just want people to bring their holiday spirit, some good food and maybe some delicious wine. We will also spend the time before our friends get here decorating the place up and making our addition to the potluck.

December 22: Experience day! On this day we will go out and do something together. Right now (and maybe forever) it is just me and my partner so we’re doing things together that we’ve never done before or going out to a holiday festival somewhere in the city. This year we were going to go to the science center, but instead we’re going to Hyde Park where they have hardcore decorated for Christmas and then to tour an old Victorian home that has also been decorated. We’ll also likely get some  hot apple cider and maybe go watch (maybe even join?) the people skating in Nathan Phillip Square.

December 23: Gift day. On this day we will wrap the presents that we did buy, make the things we’re going to give away (bath salt scrub and cookies this year!) and try not to make a huge deal about them. We’re also being very careful to not spend a lot of money on people, not because we’re cheap (well maybe he is) but because we’d rather go with meaningful – which I think we’ve achieved.

December 24: To grandmother’s house we go! We will all load up in a car (“all” meaning my brother for now, but perhaps kidlets in the future) and head off to grandma’s house. My mom loves having family around at Christmas, so why wait for Christmas day to go over there? We’ll go and spend two nights at Grandma’s house. On this particular day we will be sure to write a letter to Santa, focusing on what we’re thankful for rather than what we want, leave out milk and cookies and read The Night Before Christmas before going off to get all snug in our beds.

December 25: Christmas Day! Today gets kicked off with an early brunch with local, free-range meats and yummy baked goods (I love doing holidays at my mom’s because she lives close to a few farms, so she can actually get local, free range meats… I can’t… so it’s the one time I get to eat meat!). Then, in the afternoon, we’ll gather in the living room to exchange the gifts that we’ve gotten for one another. This usually takes a few hours in my house, because we all watch each other open one gift at a time, talk about it, laugh about it and have a jolly good time. Then, retire to the basement to watch a couple good Christmas movies. We also have a big Christmas dinner on this night where my step-dad will do a secular prayer allowing people to give thanks to who/whatever they believe in.

December 26: NO BOXING DAY SHOPPING! Instead we have a grandma and grandpa experience day! We’ve traditionally gone to the movies, tobogganing, or to a museum (if they are open) but other ideas that we have come up with are science centers, clay pot making (for kids or adults) or any other event that the city is putting on that day. In the evening we will all drive out to the outskirts and do some stargazing with my fiance’s telescope (if the night is clear).

December 27/28: Visiting other family. We have family all over Southern Ontario so we need to spend this time driving around to see them. My sister’s husband’s family does this big “wing-ding” on the 28th, where they all get together and play instruments really loudly and drink too much. It’s not my cup of tea but if you can find a quite spot in the house and someone interesting to talk to then it likely isn’t so bad. Kids love it, apparently. 🙂

And there it is – a Christmas that isn’t focused on gift giving, but on doing things together and enjoying one another’s company.

But I didn’t get zero gifts this year. I mean, there is still some resistance to dropping the gifts entirely, especially when you’re in a family that is so attached to gift giving, like mine is – they really get a kick out of finding funny stuff for one another. Every year I have tried to be creative with my gift giving doing baking or homemade gifts or donations. Etsy has made it so simple for us all to find ethical homemade goods to give to people. And there are so many charities, even off-beat ones if you don’t like the regular charity ideas. My mom is getting a 30 000 word book I wrote for her, my fiance and I got matching tattoos (and he got some cups off Etsy) and my step-dad got a charity donation.

Hopefully, when/if there are kids in my life people can respect the fact that I want gift giving kept to a minimum. I hope people can see that the way we have decided to celebrate Christmas isn’t focused on giving one another MORE STUFF and instead is about creating memories together.

Merry Christmas, Everyone! I hope you all have a wonderful and meaningful holiday.

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Katie is a graduate student from Canada studying the environment and systems theory. She also loves dinosaurs and baking cupcakes. Follow her on twitter @katiekish

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