Posts Tagged ‘simple living’

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?


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.

Earth Day Reflections on Consumption

April 22, 2008

There is reason to be optimistic about the environmental movement as we celebrate this Earth Day. No longer the province of hippies and other “fringe” members of society, Earth Day has become more mainstream. While there may not be unanimity about global climate change, acceptance is spreading even among the ranks of the Republicans. While federal action has been mixed at best, many local governments such as Salt Lake City have taken bold steps to promote environmental values. “Green” architecture is becoming rather popular. There are more options for consumers to make renewable energy choices. Hybrid vehicles have been enormously popular. The selection of environmentally friendly consumer products continues to grow, from compact fluorescent light bulbs to cleaning supplies, to home building materials and furnishings. Local entrepreneurs have successfully opened environmentally friendly businesses, such as Earth Goods General Store, Underfoot Floors, The Green Building Center, and Green Peas Baby. The “green consumer revolution” is a positive development to see.

As grateful as I am to see the rise of environmentally friendly consumer choices out there, I’m skeptical about relying on new products, new technologies, and new energy sources to solve our environmental problems. Every new development comes with overlooked disadvantages and unforseen consequences. We’ve seen it happen before with hydroelectric power, with nuclear power, and now with much of the biofuels craze (nod to Jeremy). We have to realize that there are no perpetual motion machines, no magic pills to solve our environmental problems. It all comes back to consumption. Monica Hesse, columnist for the Washington Post, recently made some very keen points.

When renowned environmentalist Paul Hawken is asked to comment on the new green consumer, he says, dryly, “The phrase itself is an oxymoron.”

…The good thing is people are waking up to the fact that we have a real [environmental] issue,” says Hawken, who co-founded Smith & Hawken but left in 1992, before the $8,000 lawn became de rigueur. “But many of them are coming to the issue from being consumers. They buy a lot. They drive a lot.”

They subscribe, in other words, to a destiny laid out by economist Victor Lebow, writing in 1955: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction…in consumption…We need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”

The culture of obsolescence has become so deeply ingrained that it’s practically reflexive. Holey sweaters get pitched, not mended. Laptops and cellphones get slimmer and shinier and smaller. We trade up every six months, and to make up for that, we buy and buy and hope we’re buying the right other things, though sometimes we’re not sure: When the Hartman Group, a market research firm, asked a group of devout green consumers what the USDA “organic” seal meant when placed on a product, 43 percent did not know. (The seal means that the product is at least 95 percent organic—no pesticides, no synthetic hormones, no sewage sludge, no irradiation, no cloning.)…

…Really going green, Hawken says, “means having less. It does mean less. Everyone is saying, ‘You don’t have to change your lifestyle.’ Well, yes, actually, you do.” (“Greed In the Name Of Green

In her own essay on the subject for Sojourners, Kim Szeto noted

True environmental consciousness will challenge the way we respond to our culture of consumerism and create changes in lifestyles. I do think that you can be an environmentally conscious consumer. However, this will most likely mean being less of a consumer to begin with, and when you do have to put on your consumer hat, be critical and read between the lines of “brand organic” (as well as everyone else’s) advertisements. (“Green Greed“)

No matter how environmentally friendly a given product is, its production will generate some level of waste and pollution. The best way to conserve energy is not to use it in the beginning.

(for an interesting analysis of consumption, view The Story of Stuff )

There are other reasons besides environmentalism to try to reduce consumption. Over the course of the last few years it has been reported many times that average household consumer debt is at all all-time records (adjusted for inflation) as is the average household’s debt-to-savings ratio. This places our families in rather precarious financial positions, often causes a great deal of stress for (and friction between) couples, and distracts us from many of the more important aspects of life.

The U.S. has long been swayed by the siren song of overconsumption, wryly diagnosed as “affluenza.” Despite the fact that our families have almost halved over the past half-century, house size has almost doubled. The number of automobiles in our driveways have multiplied like rabbits, and have burgeoned in size—despite a persistent lack of passengers when on the road. I wouldn’t even hazard a guess at how much larger our television screens have grown, nor how many more we have per household. Then there is the proliferation of other electronics, the clothes, the toys—for adults as much as children.

Do the bigger houses, bigger screens, and more toys make us any happier or more fulfilled?

I don’t propose that we live as beggars or luddites. But I believe we can make more conscious choices about how we live. Can we live just as well in a smaller house? Would life be worse without all the video game consoles and other toys? Can we make do with one less car, or even without a car altogether (Local blogger Green Jen has been documenting her efforts to wean herself from her car)? Can we make do with what we have? Can we find another use for that which we plan to throw away? Have we considered the all-but-forgotten environmentalist maxim: Reduce, reuse, recycle? The answers and methods will legitimately be different for each of us, but I suspect there are few among us who cannot find ways they could significantly reduce consumption.

There has been a quiet movement rejecting conspicuous consumption and encouraging more frugality, providing a number of resources for those interested in exploring a simpler lifestyle. If you are interested, look into these.


Internet Resources

  • New Roadmap Foundation was founded by Dominguez and Robin to provide support and tools for people in their efforts to change their relationship with money and align their living choices with their values.
  • The Simple Living Network provides resources for people in their quest for a more simple life.
  • The Dollar Stretcher is a great online resource for ways to save money, reduce consumption, and be frugal.
  • Freecycle is an online community dedicated to reducing waste through re-use.

The local Utah Society for Environmental Educators sponsors and mentors discussion groups for people interested in starting programs in voluntary simplicity and sustainable living.

It is difficult to make frugal choices in a world which revels so much in reflexive materialism. The consumption is so much a part of our culture that our President’s answer to terrorism and to economic difficulties is the same: go forth to the mall and buy! Vice President Cheney claims that our lifestyle is non-negotiable. I disagree; persistent untreated affluenza will lead to ruin. Like any addiction, kicking the consumption habit is challenging—having been raised in a very consumptive family, I truly understand! But through the effort we can find greater peace of mind, more financial security, more time for the things we really value, a greater joy in our relationships and experiences, and a healthier planet to boot.