Archive for November, 2008

Celebrating Christmas

November 30, 2008

Given our goal of making Christmas less superficial and material, more spiritual and meaningful, my wife and I have spent a fair amount of time mulling over how to accomplish this. It isn’t enough merely to avoid shopping on Buy Nothing Day, or to limit the money spent on gifts. There needs to be positive steps, rather than merely negative ones (Christmas commission rather than merely Christmas omission). What do you do to replace the malls and credit card charges?

We find that it starts with emphasizing activities. There are many community events available this time of year which can help make the season memorable. In theory, I’m less reluctant to spend money on events than gifts: while the event itself is more transient than a “thing,” the impact can last far longer than most material gifts. In practice, there are so many free events celebrating Christmas that we rarely attend events which charge.

For us, one of the greatest aspects of the Christmas experience is music. While I’m no fan of most of the “Christmas contemporary” genre, I find great joy in traditional Christmas music. There is little we look forward to more than the Christmas Carol Service of Salt Lake’s Cathedral of the Madeleine. The traditional Catholic music is so ethereal and reverential, and the Cathedral is such a gorgeous setting. We find ourselves awed every time. If you are interested, call early for (free) tickets.

They don’t seem to have any specifically Christmas programs, but I’ve attended a couple services at Salt Lake City’s Calvary Baptist Church in December. I really enjoy Gospel music, and the services are always jubilant. It’s a nice change of perspective.

There are virtually nonstop concerts around Temple Square for your enjoyment throughout December.

Last year we found that the Utah Cultural Celebration Center had a dozen or so Christmas concerts in December, from musical traditions around the world. My favorite was the Peruvian group—Andean music is entrancing.

Another event at the Cultural Celebration Center is the Trees of Diversity exhibit. Years ago, I went to the Festival of Trees and was terribly disappointed. Most of the trees were nothing more than marketing promotions: The Jazz had donated a tree with ornaments of players and logos; KSL’s tree was covered with news anchors, logos, and topped with a news chopper; Michael McLean had a tree adorned with CD cases from his latest albums. Do those displays say anything meaningful about Christmas? The Trees of Diversity exhibit, on the other hand, was beautiful. Each tree was decorated with handcrafted ornaments from a given traditional culture. We could see what each group valued about Christmas, and we learned a little something about their culture.

Convention says that the gift-giving tradition on Christmas is meant to represent God’s gift to the world of His Son, Jesus Christ. But a crucial aspect of that gift is that the gift of Jesus and the Atonement was given to a world entirely undeserving, and yet one in desperate need of that gift. In the same spirit, I think we symbolize the Christmas gift so much more by giving to those in need. So many lack material or spiritual sustenance. I can’t imagine a better gift to our Father than to memorialize his Son through service. Do we or our families need the new fashions, gadgets, or gizmos which typically make up Christmas? Or could our resources meet more crucial needs in others?

Giving generously to charity is certainly worthwhile. The Salvation Army and (for us Mormons) the LDS humanitarian services are a couple of the most prominent options. Several local organizations are sponsoring the Angel Tree program in Utah, which is a good way to connect specific individuals/families with donors, making it a more personal act of service. The Feminist Mormon Housewives team has created a Kiva Account to help raise funds for third-world people through the concept of microcredit, pioneered by Grameen Bank. One year we worked with my extended family to raise the funds to send an African student to college in concert with Signs of Hope international.

We have increasingly been looking to find situations in which we can contribute time as well as money. Last year a family in our neighborhood with three children under eight-years-old made a couple dozen Christmas cards, and then spent a day in a nursing home delivering cards, singing songs, and talking with the residents. For a recent Christmas, we arranged for our extended family to purchase materials for and then together assemble newborn “kits” for the Teddy Bear Den to distribute to needy single mothers. All of the young children in the family eagerly participated in filling the kits, thrilled to know that they were helping “babies.”

We still do some traditional gift-giving. I am intrigued by the idea of celebrating Christmas entirely without exchanging gifts, partly because I realize that celebrating Buy Nothing Day accomplishes nothing if you just spend the money a few days later. While we haven’t gone that far yet, we try to make as many of our gifts as possible. Over the last several years, we’ve had a lot of fun learning how to make wind-chimes, lamps, bean-bag chairs, homebound journals, art, etc. It isn’t necessarily cheaper than purchased gifts, but they are more personal.

When we must buy gifts (or the supplies for gifts), we try to shop locally owned businesses as much as possible. One good option in SLC is Earth Goods General Store, which honored Buy Nothing Day by remaining closed Friday, and which specializes in environmentally friendly items.

For a few more days, you have the option of a viewing the Old World Christmas Market at Gallivan Plaza, where you can buy hand crafted gifts from local artisans.

No doubt, it takes more work to make time for the various events and the service activities in which we want to participate. It can be hard to resist the allure of stuff. But we’ve found that our holiday is strangely less stressful and more rich as we focus on relationships and experiences.

What do you do to make your Christmas season meaningful? What events go on in your community, here or elsewhere, which you look forward to?

Buy Nothing Day

November 26, 2008

For me, the day after Thanksgiving has always been the real holiday. Neither the turkey nor the wall-to-wall football has ever excited me. But Friday was the day for unpacking the Christmas decorations, dusting off the holiday records, and welcoming in the Christmas season. This, I loved.

Among our Friday traditions was the mall crawl. Our family would pile into the van and brave the packed freeway to SLC, where we would wander three or four of the malls. We never got up in the wee hours to make the opening rush—as a family of night owls, I’m not sure you could get us up and out the door before first light if the house was on fire. But once we had taken care of the morning festivities, we wandered the malls until closing time.

Looking back, I’m rather embarrassed. Much of the thrill was simply seeing all the things I wanted, all the thing I might possibly get. Occasionally we would get gifts for others on the trip, but the tradition was primarily an opportunity to finalize our wishlists. Virtually our first act of the season was to pay homage to commercialism.

I’ve grown older, hopefully wiser, and have come to understand the shallow nature of consumerism, and appreciate the importance of sustainable living and simplicity. I’m no longer interested in celebrating C.S. Lewis’ aptly named “Rush.” Now I’m an advocate of Buy Nothing Day.

Honoring Buy Nothing Day isn’t very difficult. You simply don’t go shopping. There are plenty of other activities with which to fill your time.

Why not usher in the celebration of our Lord and elder brother by spending quality time with family? Black Friday is often spent with family, but I’m skeptical that time spent in lines, rushing to catch some special before stock runs out, or weaving over blacktop looking for a decent parking spot qualifies as quality time. Instead, why not spend the day making your Christmas decor? It isn’t so long ago that homes were not dressed for the holidays by Wal-Mart and Target. Families made their decorations, from the tree ornaments, to paper snowflakes, to the wreath, and even the nativity. How often do people still make those paper chains with which to count down the days until Christmas? While those earlier families may not financially have had the option of buying pre-made Christmas furnishings, I think they may have been better for the time together making their Christmases.

Not all of my enjoyment of Black Friday came from avarice. I am an extrovert by nature, and am energized by crowds. Being in among the (more or less) jolly throngs thrilled me. I love traditional Christmas music (and some few contemporary creations). Fortunately, I find that there are plenty of ways to enjoy the multitudes without offering up sacrifices at the altar of corporatism. Temple Square lights up for the season on Friday. Starting at 4:30, SLC’s Gallivan Center will host a “lights on” celebration, with a concert by Kurt Bestor and a children’s choir. Those less clumsy than I might enjoy Gallivan’s ice skating. Gateway is also sponsoring music and a tree lighting—just don’t be seduced into the stores lining the way.

Several local charitable and progressive groups are sponsoring at Coat Exchange at the Salt Lake City Library plaza, from 10:00-3:00 on Friday. Helping out at this or some other charitable activity would be a wonderful way to start the season.

What other traditions do you have to begin the holiday off right? What traditions have you considered starting? What other things are happening in your communities to ring in the season without a cash register?

Addendum

We just got through with being interviewed by Chris Jones for KUTV (channel 2) news about this post. Apparently he wanted to do a report on Buy Nothing Day in Utah, and googled my post. They came to our house, asked us some questions, and filmed us decorating our tree. Of all the posts I’d written, this is not the one I’d expected to get media attention. If you’re interested in seeing me being a stammering fool (as opposed to a typing fool), keep an eye on the news.

The future is NOW: Renewable Energy in Utah

November 21, 2008

Sponsored by HEAL Utah

  • December 8th, 2008 6:00 PM through 9:00 PM
  • Abravanel Hall: 123 West South Temple Salt Lake City, UT, 84101

Join us for a free panel discussion on renewable energy development in Utah from the people who are making it happen. HEAL Utah Executive Director Vanessa Pierce will moderate a discussion on the current realities, opportunities, and challenges facing renewable development in our state.

  • Richard Clayton, Executive Vice President with Raser Technologies, to discuss Geothermal Power
  • René Fleming, Conservation Coordinator for the City of St. George, to talk about a community approach to solar energy
  • Joe Thomas, the Mayor of Spanish Fork, to talk about a community-scale wind power installation
  • Søren Simonsen, architect, planner, and Salt Lake City Councilman, to talk about energy efficiency and green building

Join us afterward for light appetizers and drinks at the Second Annual Fall Reception where you will have the opportunity to to contribute to a new energy future in Utah by supporting HEAL’s pioneering energy work and nuclear watchdog activism.

Go to their webpage to rsvp.

A Slightly Different Take on the Election…

November 7, 2008

Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job

WASHINGTON—African-American man Barack Obama, 47, was given the least-desirable job in the entire country Tuesday when he was elected president of the United States of America. In his new high-stress, low-reward position, Obama will be charged with such tasks as completely overhauling the nation’s broken-down economy, repairing the crumbling infrastructure, and generally having to please more than 300 million Americans and cater to their every whim on a daily basis. As part of his duties, the black man will have to spend four to eight years cleaning up the messes other people left behind. The job comes with such intense scrutiny and so certain a guarantee of failure that only one other person even bothered applying for it. Said scholar and activist Mark L. Denton, “It just goes to show you that, in this country, a black man still can’t catch a break.”

Gotta love The Onion. It still doesn’t beat their all-time best Obama related report, “Black Guy Asks Nation For Change.”

Nov 5: Post Election Day thoughts

November 5, 2008

The seemingly interminable Presidential campaign has at last been terminated. Barack Obama will be our next president. With the day upon us, my wife and I breathed a collective sigh of relief. The relief only grew as drew on and the final results came in.

I was impressed by McCain’s concession speech. While it included many obligatory lines, I felt McCain made some very genuine, gracious statements. They recalled the man whom I admired in the 2000 campaign, for whom I voted in the primaries in 1999, and who has been absent far too often in the intervening years. I’m glad to have sighted him again. Hopefully he will reemerge in the new Senate.

I was rather confident that Obama would win this election, and I’m grateful that my confidence was not misplaced. I chose to vote for Nader as the best possible choice. But while I believe McCain would have been an improvement over the current administration (his choice for Vice President notwithstanding), Obama is the mainstream candidate under whom I have the most hope for a more progressive direction to our government.

Race is no reason to elect a President, but last night race certainly was a reason to celebrate a President. The ugly stains of bigotry were still dark and widespread in the fabric of our country not so long ago (it is within my lifetime that the LDS Church finally surrendered its own racist policies). Nor has racism been expunged from the republic. Yet this election is an enormous symbolic step for blacks and other minorities. We should relish that step and the jubilation of our minority sisters and brothers who feel empowered, inspired, and validated by this moment.

Obama’s acceptance speech was brilliant. I was moved by the humility, by the solemn tone, by the broader perspective of the task ahead. Of course, being a marvelous speaker does not make one a great president. I’ve been somewhat skeptical of the number of Obamaniacs who seem smitten solely based on his oratorical skills. Obama obviously has intelligence and incredible poise, but only time will tell whether he has the virtue, wisdom, and the fortitude to be a truly great president. We will see whether he has the character to bring people together to change course, or whether “Change” was merely a cynical political slogan. We will learn if he can make the honest political compromises necessary in government without being compromised.

But no matter how Obama turns out, we should take inspiration from his beautiful address last night. The focus of the speech was not “Yes I will,” but “Yes we can.” No matter how magnificent a president he may turn out to be, he cannot solve all of our problems. His wisecracks at the recent charity dinner aside, Obama is not Superman. Conversely, no matter how inept or unprincipled he might reveal himself to be, we are neither powerless nor incapable of reforming our nation from the grassroots up. As Obama pointed out, this nation has made remarkable steps towards overcoming its flaws—not without stumbles and serious deviations from time to time; but improvement nonetheless. That progress, slow as it may be, has only occurred through the determined effort of people throughout society.

In this period in which we face many serious challenges, we can and must harness the energy catalyzed by the Obama campaign before it fizzles out. We can mobilize the youth who supported Obama in such numbers to continue to follow the liberal impulses which drew them in. We can recognize that, despite what Palin and those of her persuasion believe, community activism and organizing are noble and meaningful pursuits. We can put aside the self-interest which has played such a dominant part of the nation’s ideology to instead focus on sustaining the community; looking to care for the earth which supports us all, as well as for the needy, the downtrodden, and “the least of these.”

Yes we can.


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