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Kingston, NY, Friday, Dec. 5, 2008

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Claiming Our Own Unique Holiday
By Judith Gayle | Political Waves

ON THE DAY after Thanksgiving, what is called Black Friday to indicate a turning point in corporate profit, stores opened at dawn and before to welcome bargain hunters. This happens every year, yet this season it brought with it a dark side.

A young man in Long Island, a Wal-Mart greeter, was trampled by hundreds of anxious customers in an attempt to get to discounted goods double-quick. They pushed the front door off of its frame and mowed down anything in front of them. The 34-year-old part-time clerk died at the scene -- few people are reported to have quit shopping, and cameras caught some of them laughing.

This feels like swarming behavior to me; in pursuit of stuff, we can become a singularly destructive force -- like locusts descending on a fertile field, consuming everything in sight. While I don't discount the psychology of this horror, I'm wondering how much our current financial insecurity factors into this. Maybe we have more of an edge, this year. Yesterday, the nation was finally informed that it was in a recession (as if we didn't already know); statistics show we've been in one for almost a full year.

I don't get a paper in the Pea Patch. Here in Southern CA, the paper arrives, slim enough, but is fleshed out with pounds of fliers and ads. They're irresistible. I have to look, then I pine for a while. It's no wonder we're all made crazy by this season. The stuff -- shiny, inviting, appealing, cheap -- is everywhere. But ultimately, in dicey times, it's not cheap enough.

The various families I've visited in the last weeks have all changed their buying plans this Christmas; most of them took the occasion of Thanksgiving gathering to negotiate simpler gift-giving, buying for the children and perhaps doing a gift exchange for adults with names drawn from a hat. Some will be bypassing adult gifts altogether. A number of friends are considering eliminating cards; most are downsizing their celebrations and decorations.

The truth is that Christmas is the toughest time of all to practice fiscal moderation; we would suffer consumer-withdrawal in any of the other 11 months -- in December, we'd be manic. We are not just socialized around the holiday events that come at the end of the calendar year; we count on them. This is the one month in 12 in which we are conscious of giving, of receiving; this is also the singular period that asks us to be a little milder, a little kinder and a lot more inclusive of neighbors and friends.

If we have made it a financial monstrosity, a guilt-provoked pay-back period and a stressful tabloid of activity in which we can never meet our desire to create the holiday as perfectly as we would like, well -- that's human nature. That's the human heart, seeking to recapture the delight and innocence of childhood. And honestly, I think we try to perpetuate it as much for ourselves as for our children.

We're competitive creatures, even with ourselves; with our version of the past and the illusion of perfect childhood holidays that were, in all likelihood, as stressful for our parents are they are for us now. The child comes out in us during this season; so does the stressed and overwrought adult. For instance, here in Southern California, the weekend after Thanksgiving launched the Christmas Light Wars. As wars go, these are non-lethal and somewhat amusing; but wars they are, seeking clear victories.

My son-in-law takes particular pleasure in entering this competition. He's more engineer in this process than the average guy, carefully planning the combinations of light strings and putting them on individual timers. He gets a bit giddy by the second day, when the lawn ornaments go up. By then he's lost his ability to say 'when' -- and just keeps adding. The results are always spectacular, and the mood infectious. A few years back, his was one of the only lighted homes in this area; now, most of the block participates.

This is, sad to say, no green activity; the amount of extra power drawn is considerable. But it does delight the child in each of us. Cars have already started the slow, admiring cruise through the neighborhood, and folks are walking in the evening to experience the lights. They stop and chat; they visit and laugh. This is the Christmas spirit, albeit early. It's hard not to want to do everything we can think of to extend this feeling, and make it even better.

Which brings us to the flawed notion that more is better, although surely by now we know that ain't necessarily so. This year, with everything so speculative, we can take some steps toward learning that, if we will. Stuff is not what that Christmas spirit is all about, and we know that. The Grinch stole Christmas but it arrived in Whoville anyhow, didn't it?

Sharing is what the holiday spirit is about -- acknowledging and including one another; lifting our hearts toward peace and love, together. The holiday season is the traditional season of hope, in this year when hope has filled the headlines and captured our imaginations. Hope is here, but we can kill off the joy of it if we don't re-think the coming holiday season.

We cannot go on as we have in the past; the otherwise good citizens that trampled a Wal-Mart worker hadn't gotten that memo yet, as they turned their Christmas shopping into blood sport. Our buying is mindless and compulsive. All this reminds me of one of my favorite movies, The Jerk, when I think of out-of-control consumption. Bernadette Peters whines that, "... it's the stuff!" that she doesn't want to do without always makes me laugh.

And that would be rueful laughter. We are all in a somewhat dysfunctional relationship with the stuff; a little just isn't enough. And once we're on a role -- as in throwing a holiday party, or getting those cards out or even lighting up the yard -- we can't find the e-brake with either hand. More seems better. It will take some re-creation to get the hang of less.

It would be productive to meditate on how we can change the holidays to be less stressful and more loving, to ourselves as well as others. There are any number of ways to deal with this differently. Black Friday was also a day some responded to as Buy Nothing Day; I think of this as the cold turkey approach to pre-season bargains. Oprah has several pages dedicated to experiencing a thrifty holiday -- this is more a slow weaning effort. Yes Magazine gives us an education on 'stuff', itself, and how to become mindful consumers.

In the spirit of 'more is not better', perhaps we can find that thing that makes us the most hopeful, the most happy, and do more of that this holiday. Gifts, you might be surprised to learn, do not increase our happiness; it's the traditions of the season that bring us together for sharing and fellowship that does.

A friend who has already sent his Christmas cards, bought in last year's after-Christmas sales, reminds me that as we're privileged to reconsider our holiday traditions in a more mindful way, cards are always welcome and personal. He is not celebrating with gifts this year, but he refuses to eliminate cards; perfectly suited to his Gemini Sun sign. Sending them makes him happy; I'm sure that can be felt as the envelope is opened.

For me, as for many, this will be a lean Christmas, but I'm going for the happiness this year. I'm hoping to embrace as much simplicity as possible. I will give as much of myself away as I can; better, I think, than some impersonal remembrance.

I will decorate, being something of a magpie -- if it's shiny, it cheers my heart; I suspect that's the Leo in me. I trust that entering a bedazzling space will do the same for visitors. I'm already in the habit of making gifts, when I can; nothing seems so intimate to me.

Some of those gifts have been amazingly simple but they have lasted longest in the hearts of the recipients. I once gave my daughter a jar of little notes, each describing an event from her childhood that prompted warm memories; I told her to open the jar and select one when she missed me. That gift still holds a place of honor in her cupboard.

This year I will bake. Cookies put a smile on people's faces. I plan to make Snickerdoodles for friends, neighbors, the mailman and anyone entering my personal space. I'll use my great-grandmother's recipe; I'll put my enthusiasm and love into their creation, and they will reciprocate by filling my kitchen with cinnamon incense. I'll follow that with a batch of gingerpersons, because I love to paint on their decorations with frosting, raisins for the eyes and red hots for the buttons.

Snickerdoodles were famously called Depression Cookies; they don't taste depressing, though -- they're wonderful. My grandkids adore them. I suppose the simplicity of the ingredients define them as a frugal choice; all the better. And this talk of sharing has me in the mood, so here -- from me to you:
400 degrees | 8-10 minutes

1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup margarine, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs

Sift together:
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
dash salt

Mix together, roll into walnut-sized balls. Coat cookie dough in a mixture of equal parts sugar and cinnamon. For bigger cookies, flatten them using the bottom of a glass, coated in sugar -- or bake as is for mounded cookies with crinkly tops.
Re-create your traditions this year. We don't have to do everything in order to feel the blessings; we only have to find our own unique signature to stamp on the season. Be imaginative, and do what makes you happy. That way, happiness will show up in your gifting. Nothing will seem obligatory; everything will seem personal. That nice warm feeling will last a lot longer when it feels genuine.

Too much is a glut; too little, a shame. We will find what's just right, as we reconsider how we want our holiday to look. We are carrying traditions from the past into the present -- but we are making new traditions, as well. Make them with love.

When we come from the heart, from a moment of awareness in the now, we're in the present. That's what we'll call it – a Christmas present. If we give that away, there will be more joy than angst, more pleasure than duty in the coming weeks; and we may find that less is a lot more, and a lot better than we thought.

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