Let’s Talk About the Holidays

Christmas in Bulgaria by Miroslav Trendafilov.

There’s no doubt that the materialism of the Christmas season in the US presents challenges to folks who are on the radical homemaking path. One action that’s helped around our household was to cut off commercial television, something we did many years ago.

A number of people mentioned that they really enjoyed hearing Shannon Hayes on our podcast talking about how her family celebrates the holidays. She has also written a blog post on the subject, “Murdering Santa and Other Tips for Enjoying the Holidays.” Like Shannon, we also don’t want to come off as a self-righteous Scrooge or further our lifestyle as fodder for future Portlandia scripts. At the same time I’m also haunted by the tension between tradition and its conflict with modern life (note Habermas’ 2010 dialog with Jesuit scholars if you want to fall down a ponderous and inconclusive philosophical rabbit hole).

Then there’s what I call the fake snow on Hollywood Boulevard problem. Living in a Mediterranean climate, as we do, is confusing. The days are short, but the hills are green. The fake snow gets coated in smog. Here’s the problem. The Christmas story is overlaid on Northern European winter traditions, yet the original version takes place in a climate similar to ours in California. The snowman/Jack Frost/North Pole/Santa thing seems forced and artificial here.

This a long winded way of simply asking you, our readers, to talk about how you celebrate this time of year. How you counteract its hijacking by commercial interests? What does Christmas in the southern hemisphere feel like, coming as it does in the middle of summer? What does it feel like to be Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian or none of the above and be surrounded by inflatable snowmen?

And can someone please explain the Bulgarian Christmas procession in the AMAZING video above? What’s with the bread? Who is the black hooded figure? I have to interject here that I’d love to permanently retire the “Rock Around the Christmas Tree” genre of music hell. More bagpipes, please.

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  1. My first thought was that the black, hooded character was Santa’s little kitty cat. Well, it DOES have little pointy ears doesn’t it?

    More realistically, I think it may be a (politically very incorrect) representation of the Black Peter character who accompanies Saint Nicholas in many European traditions. His role is to punish the naughty children, while nice, old Saint Nick gives presents to the good children.

    Even more scary, in some Southern European traditions, Saint Nicholas is accompanied by a hideous, devilish character called Krampus. If you’ve been bad, he puts you in his sack and carries you off to some unspecified, but doubtless unpleasant, fate.

    And YOU thought the worst that could happen to you was getting a lump of coal in your stocking!

    • I think it’s some kind of Slavic Christmas demon, so yes, like Krampus. And I was once in Holland during the Christmas season and was very shocked by the Black Peter character.

      Here’s some info I was able to dig up on Wikipedia about these processions, called “Koledari”. “Besides the singing, the koledari also chased away demons from the household. First they searched the house to find out where the demons hide. They looked everywhere, at the same time shouting, dancing, jumping, knocking on the floor and walls with sticks, and teasing Bride. When they found the demons, they drove them out of the hiding place, and fought with them swinging their sabers and clubs. After the demons were chased away, the koledari briefly danced the kolo, and then blessed the household. As a reward, they received a loaf of bread which the family prepared specially for them, and other food gifts.”

  2. My husband is Jewish, and completely doesn’t get Christmas. He tries for live and let live, but finds the whole hoopla rather annoying as well as baffling. I’m often in the position of translating, as it were. We celebrate a low-key Hanukkah, fully acknowledging the silliness of doing so when we don’t celebrate much more important Jewish holidays, except Passover. But we do like the lights, and I send out holiday cards, which I like to do.

    My family goes COMPLETELY overboard on Christmas and I think we’re going to have some conflicts with them over this as our two year old grows and they want to shower her with gifts we don’t want in the house and get her super hyped on non-reverent holiday cheer. She’s a sensitive little bug, and the overstimulation is hard for her. This year they bought her a plastic tree. I don’t want a plastic tree in my house!

    Still, I try to balance this with appreciation of rituals and connection. This is part of why I send cards – a little piece of our life to people we care about, especially nice now that we’ve quit Facebook. And I do love generosity and giving and light. I like to celebrate Solstice and I’m okay with celebrating Christ’s birth too, though I’m no longer Christian. Just not the crazy shadow of stress and consumerism and sugar. The balance is hard to achieve.

  3. I understand what you’re saying about the dissonance between your climate and the northern image of Christmas. We live in the cold, snowy north – and will be moving to a state even colder and snowier in a few months – and I cannot imagine the holiday season without the dark and cold. To me, it makes the holiday lights even more precious in contrast.

    My favorite day of the season is Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day, because I sense greater magic in the anticipation (Eve) than in the event (Day), although not in a religious sense, as I am not a Christian anymore. Anyway, our adult children come for dinner and the first taste of the Christmas cookies, then we all watch the 1984 version of “A Christmas Carol” with George C. Scott. Dickens understood better than most the real, ageless, message of the holiday.

  4. I grew up in New York state where the climate is not wholly out of synch with the Northern European mythos. I just came from spending the best part of a year in Vancouver which is soooo Christmas-y to LA which, to the best of my observation is perfectly in tune with Easterween with 85˚ temps and colorful dry leaves everywhere.

    What I’m sayin’ is the calendar says it’s Christmas so however confused I may be I’m puttin’ out cookies for Santa and belting out a carol. It seems to help.

  5. Rhiannon,
    Try my daughter’s technique. She would not allow anyone to give her son toys anytime of the year. She lived in a small apt and she wanted to be the Toygiver. Plus, she said she did not have room for anything. She especially forbade me to give anything with pieces to step on. I did buy toys but passed them by her for approval. She wanted clothes for her son or a gift card. She was brazen and got away with it…lol.

    I never think of Jewish celebrations as low key with all the days of celebration.

    As your child grows older, she won’t be so overstimulated but will be able to handle everything. just give everyone a talk every year about what you allow in your house.

  6. I’m Jewish, living with an atheist. I really like Christmas, including most of the decor and yard lights the neighbors put up. We usually put a up a string on our front balcony. It’s fun, it looks nice. The whole Christmas-industrial complex is a bit much (we don’t have an actual TV, but watch shows on Hulu and similar sites, and the deluge of Christmassy advertising is irritating and overwhelming starting in early November and going for two months straight) but honestly the commercialism doesn’t bother me in and of itself. I could do with fewer pop covers of old songs playing in every store.

  7. I am in a mixed marriage – I am a full fledged manufactured-holiday curmudgeon who is married to someone of the but a holiday-isn’t-a-holiday/can’t resist drugstore quality tacky plasticrap tribe. Holidays/birthdays and such are always a struggle to pick my scroogey battles. On the one hand, DH totally gets it and sees the benefits of the kids having few, but really great/open-ended play toys. OTOH, he just still has a *really* hard time eg feeling like one gift is enough, so fills in the gaps with abovementioned crap that breaks in 5 seconds. And that’s before the other relatives come waltzing through with their stuff that then finds its way quickly into the donate pile (and, for me, more sadly, often into the trash because it breaks and is nonrecyclable etc.) There were links to two great articles about the whole santa/commercialism thing in the latest “Simplicity Parenting” blog (the book by Kim John Payne is one of my eternal favs on the subject of helping simplify w/ kids – you’ll get a flavor of what he does in the first link):

    I also just found out this year what the whole “Elf on the Shelf” thing is all about and am soooooooooo grateful we’ve not infected our house with THAT nonsense at least.

    And don’t get me started on nonsense like needing to HAND someone a card when you are standing RIGHT THERE for things like B-days and holidays and fill-in-the-blank Hallmark-driven occasions. Not talking a long personal note, but just a signed commercial card. Kind of like an old-school version of texting someone across the table from you, if you ask me. But somehow, it can still be tough to get people to BELIEVE you when you say you really (or the kids etc) don’t NEED anything special for a certain day because the Mall said so. Give me a gift certificate in July, just because you feel like it. Call me up and let’s go out and DO something together. It’s much more meaningful to me when someone gives things when it’s obvious they FELT like it and it was truly something you’d like (like a hand me down from a relative’s house that you’ve always admired etc.), rather than being guilted into it.

    For kids’ bdays, we’ve done asking for donations of money or simple in-kind things for the wish list posted on the website of a local animal shelter (their lists often feature super easy things that you have around the house anyway – like paper towels or a jar of peanut butter). The shelter SO appreciates the gift, and my ds really loves getting the hand-signed thank you letter they send him. Getting their newsletters and/or driving past the shelter gives him a concrete sense that he’s DONE something good, and that makes him happy. Several parents have also done used book swaps for bdays – eg each kid brings a book or two (or more) that they are done with. Kids pile them at the event, then each kid goes home with a new-to-them parting gift 🙂

    Anyway, yeah, I get my bitchy on when I see Christmas decorations going up on city streets now right after HALLOWEEN, and the drugstores even sharing shelf space with H’ween decoration/candy and their XMAS stuff even before the big H has even happened. Jesus so loved the world that he wanted you to SAVE SAVE SAVE on sh$% you didn’t need ain’t my thing 😉

  8. I’m an observant Christian and Christmas makes me CRAZY. The obscene materialism and hyper activity is so pervasive – pervasive and antithetical to the Jesus I follow. My family keeps whittling back but I keep arriving at January 2 ready to either enter a monastery or run totally amok. Writing this reminds me to keep working toward a radical celebration that owes nothing to American excess and big business. Next year, for sure.

  9. I totally agree with you about the commercial television. I watch a few shows but we record them and take out the commercials. Another media I don’t get involved with anymore are magazines, trying to keep up with those glossy pictures of the perfect christmas dinner and the “perfect gift” is guaranteed to make you feel like a loser.
    We give gifts, but only to our sons and that’s more like helping them spend their inheritance or doing their shopping for them as,we buy from their list.
    I do have one little girl on my list and I knit and sew her gifts.
    I love the outdoor lights, I think of them as a gift to the neighbours, we decorate our shrubs(we use LED lights) but I hate,absolutely hate those inflatable monstrosities.

  10. I read Pratchett’s Hogfather and Christopher Moore ‘s Stupidest Angel every year. They cover all the seasonal bases -from blood on the snow to commercialism- with snarl and humor.

  11. I come from a side of the family that not only celebrated Christmas, but you’d better do it on the right day, dagnabit, regardless of what anyone’s work schedules or conflicting family or travel schedules were (so much fun when I’d come home from college with a single weekend to spend with Mom, Dad & his wife, Grandma, & my in-laws). Mom & the in-laws didn’t care when as long as they got to see everyone. Dad was a bit stricter on timing, but Grandma would come completely unglued if we weren’t at her house on Christmas day.

    These days, I’m down to my husband and his mom with me in our house, and going to see my siblings at my Dad’s & his wife’s house.

    I skip decorating entirely (after having been an enthusiast for years), I can’t stand listening to Christmas music (after working seasonal jobs in the malls all through college), and I’m definitely not a Believer (since pretty much always).

    Now that my siblings and I are grown, and their kids are pretty much grown, we’ve finally scaled back on the gift-giving. We’re mostly just making donations in each others’ names, with the occasional small present – up to $15, I believe (and usually a gift certificate to somewhere), or handmade.

    At home, the only present I ask for is for my husband to make me an Advent calendar. As I said, I’m not a Believer, but I do like counting down and looking forward to things. I’ve asked him for one every year. The only rules are that it count down from Dec 1st, and that some significant component of the calendar is handmade. He can print all the parts off the computer as long as he does the cutting and gluing himself. He can copy a commercial version exactly, as long as he assembles it himself. He’s very not maker-y (not just “he’s not very maker-y”), so this is kind of a big deal for him to do.

    It’s mostly been of the “print a background, print a foreground, cut the doors, past it together” variety. One year, he waited till the last minute and used a steak knife and some Sharpies on a piece of a cardboard box, but by ghods, I got my advent calendar. Two years ago, it was a separate haiku about our relationship for every day. This year it’s stanzas for a story poem using a character he made up for silly stories about three years ago.
    No matter what form it takes, I still love that he’ll do this for me.

  12. Pingback: 030 Christmas Eve Podcast | Root Simple

  13. We don’t celebrate christmas at all. We celebrate crazy-free with the winter solstice. We have dinner and a bonfire. We invite over good friends or family if they are around. As for presents one gift only per family member. We like the ease and simplicity and if feels special to us.

    I wanted to say that I checked out your book Making It from the Library and it’s awesome! Your first book got me hooked on this whole do it myself lifestyle, now this next book just brings it up a notch. Thank you!

  14. My husband Bear and I are working on developing simple, meaningful traditions for the holiday. Most of the time, we go to visit his family and don’t do much at home. This year, for the first time in our relationship, we stayed home and I wanted to decorate just a bit – just enough to feel like we were making the most of the chance to be festive.

    I scrounged some pinecones and windfall evergreen twigs from around the neighborhood, filled a vintage wooden bowl with little glass ornaments and pinecones, with a special Christmas candle in the middle. It’s on top of a little wooden bucket, with a couple of vintage dala horses and a carved rooster placed around it. Bear pulled his light-up robot snowman out of storage and put it by a glass jar with the twigs and the rest of the pinecones. That probably would have been enough, but I actually found a tree.

    I was out riding and came across a little fir tree that someone had left on a pile of leaves on the street, so I strapped it to the back of my bike and brought it home. We found a teeny tree stand at the thrift store and decorated it with ornaments collected over the years. Itty bitty glass mushrooms and acorns thrifted in previous years, a handful of little wooden birdhouses made in Norway, bought on sale last year. Hamdmade glass ornaments from local artists, and family ornaments from years past. We bought one little string of LEDs to light it up. It’s kind of perfect.

    I haven’t had a tree in years, so this has been really nice. It’s not this big extravagant thing, just a pretty piece of nature that someone discarded and we kept from being wasted. Maybe after Christmas, I’ll tuck it in the backyard, strung with popcorn and cranberries for the bird – create a little cat tv for our indoor kitties. We’ve wrapped our presents in wrapping cloths and cloth bags for the last few years, and we tend to be pretty big on local and handmade gifts.

    I’m the kind of person who gets down at the holidays – not much family of my own, and not really close. I’ve tried ignoring the holidays, I’ve tried going all out with all the “normal” stuff. Nothing really seems to change my annual depression around the holidays, but feeling like we can find our way into small, sweet customs (I’m increasingly liking the Scandinavian ways of celebrating the midwinter) that mean something to us – that make us feel cozy – feels really good.

  15. I love that you shared the Bulgarian video. Anyone else who loved this music is invited to the UCLA Bulgarian ensemble concert in May 2015! Assuming that you saw the video from my facebook activity 🙂 In Bulgaria they call these celebrations around Christmas “Koleda” which transliterated to “calendar” – you get a sense of how the traditions of Christianity and pre-Christian/Solstice practices are mixed in their culture as with so many places around the world. What I love about this time of year in LA is my freedom to associate and how alive the landscape feels now after having so much rain. I’ve been enjoying telling anyone who will listen about the origins of Santa and his reindeer being the psychoactive amanita mushrooms and the Sami shamans, reindeer and northern lights. Happy Whatever, we are saying to each other. Really just happy to have a break in everyday work, consensus reality, or business as usual, and to connect with one another and the world.

    • Hi Paula,
      Thanks for letting us know about the concert–send us details if you have any yet. I’m a graduate of the UCLA music department, by the way.

  16. Thank you for posting this. I’m a non-practicing Jew married to a non-practicing Catholic and my husband doesn’t get my feelings about Christmas at all. I’m a crafter so I enjoy decorating a tree with little things I knitted and whatnot, but I really draw a distinction between what I choose to do vs. what the rest of the world decides I have to do (I’m looking at you apartment building management who put a huge tree and wreath in our lobby).

    Even though I usually can get my in laws to just give me some yarn or a book as a gift, I think they still feel obligated to give multiple items because they always gave their kids tons of presents when they were small. I know they give from the heart and I try to focus on the nice feelings of them thinking about me when they bought my presents, and how wonderful it is for them to include me in their family, and to not dwell on how the expense of it makes me uncomfortable.

    I often get very curmudgeonly when Christian people try to argue that “in America, Christmas is basically a secular holiday.” Well, it’s possible some non-Christians feel that way, but definitely not all of us. (I mean, I don’t think Christmas is the same in, say, Turkey.) And no token menorahs please!

    My last job was at an office that had a children’s Christmas party where some junior staffers would dress up as Santa and elves and hand out presents to employees’ kids. I felt so excluded and out of it and like such an outsider (I don’t belong in my own office!), my second year there I just called in sick that day. I’m an economist and work with totally nerdy, straight laced geeks, so seeing junior colleagues wearing costumes in our big conference room felt out of place and also kind of undignified. I feel strongly that religious things don’t belong in an office of a non-religious organization, and definitely not in public spaces like a courtroom.

    All that said, I can see the huge Rockefeller Center tree out the window of my new office and I am just delighted by all the twinkly lights and knowing that tourists from all over the world are in the crowds who came to check it out. It’s awesome and totally “New York” to me. So, I guess my feelings are…complicated?

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