Simplifying the season

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Tell your family that you don't want Christmas gifts next year and they'll likely think you've lost your mind. Who doesn't want presents? But when it comes to simplifying the season, skipping the gift exchange sometimes makes sense.

In a world where Christmas shopping starts in October not December, the holiday season can become just too much to handle. And many people are opting out of the usual seasonal spending spree and choosing more meaningful and spiritual celebrations instead.

In her book "Simplify Your Christmas," author and columnist Elaine St. James, says the goal is to shift your approach so the holidays are "about ease, togetherness, and giving from our hearts not our pocketbooks."

The book offers 100 suggestions for how to simplify your holiday celebrations, ease your stress and enjoy the season.

Most of the suggestions aren't too difficult either, and won't mean you've turned into Scrooge.

St. James suggests that people choose only the holiday traditions that mean the most to them. So if you hate baking cookies for every neighbor on the block, let another family member do it. Or send a small donation to their favorite charity. Scale back the Christmas card list or eliminate sending them altogether. Decorate with only one symbol of the holiday: a wreath, tree or nativity. Skip big parties and huge meals that require days of preparation.

The point is to enjoy the season, not stress over it. Debbie Leoni of Main Street Fitness Center says it's important to remember what all the holiday rush is about, and why you continue to do it.

"When you take the dog for a walk it's a walk for the dog not for you, because you're stopping at every post," Leoni said. The same is true about the holidays -- some of the traditions have lost their sense of wonder.

The Rev. J. Friedel, director of Catholic Campus Ministries at Southeast Missouri State University, suggests returning to the tradition of 12 Days of Christmas, which would mean a shorter celebration time, and focused preparation for the holiday.

"I'm not trying to squelch people's fun but I want them to make sure they prepare for the season and that they're spiritually ready too, not just getting a head start on the decorations," he said.

Friedel and other campus ministry leaders spoke to university students last week about how to create a meaningful holiday. Most of the students who attended the discussion came because they were looking for affirmation for what they already were attempting, he said.

"We gave them ideas and none of it had to do with money," he said.

Leoni often takes her children "shopping without a purse." The concept is simple: go to the mall or store, visit Santa, see the decorations and buy nothing more than a cookie and a coke.

"Otherwise it becomes a 'gimme' game," she said. And it's better to start that tradition early with your children, she says. Then they learn that not everything is about buying and spending.

The spending during the holidays should be focused on time with relatives and friends.

Gift giving can be great, but giving the gift of self is also appropriate, Friedel said. Make time to spend with grandchildren, cousins, grandparents or siblings during the holiday season.

St. James offers some suggestions for how families can celebrate without going into debt, and ways parents can teach lessons on values too. Some families skip gifts altogether and create an "adventure of the month club" or a mystery outing on Christmas day.

She also suggests that when you begin to simplify the season you examine your motives and remember that it's a continual process that won't necessarily seem right the first time, but one that does get easier.

ljohnston@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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