Sitting around the dinner table out at the farm last Thanksgiving, the subject of what to do about Christmas came up. How would we organize a family gathering now that we kids are grown and scattered across the state? Whose house would we use? How would we deal with the whole gift-giving thing?
Everyone seemed completely unenthusiastic about engaging in another orgy of shopping and crowds and waste. True, there was the sense of duty: to tradition, to the nation. TV newscasters claimed that the very health of the U.S. economy depended upon our generous holiday spending. Christmas consumerism is patriotic. Don't think about it too much -- just shut up and shop.
After confessing distaste for the entire affair, one rebel relative proposed that we just bag the whole holiday. The lobbying for this option was fierce and convincing. And for an agnostic family, ignoring Christmas altogether seemed like a perfectly viable option.
Though we really enjoyed coming together for a midwinter celebration, the very thought of shopping seemed to ruin Christmas. Wasn't there another option? Didn't we have the right to reclaim the holiday and create our own family tradition?
After an hour of discussion, and a few more glasses of wine, we arrived at a solution: Recycled Christmas.
It turned out to be the best Christmas since I was a child. Here's how it works. Everyone is invited to give presents to anyone else, but these rules must be followed: You can give only previously owned gifts, nothing new; you can make a present, a painting, a song, a poem, or whatever; you can give away something you already own; you can buy your gift at a secondhand store or garage sale; and all gifts should be wrapped in newspaper (Sunday comics are OK, if you want to get fancy).
That's it. Simple.
Well, not exactly. As it turns out, giving the perfect Recycled Christmas present is a much more personal experience than just going to the mall with a credit card. When you give a present from a garage sale, or from your attic, you must understand and care about the person on the receiving end. Another tie for dad or bath-soap set for auntie just won't do. You really have to think about who your loved ones are as people.
My mother found some used photo albums for each of us kids, filling them with pictures from our childhoods. She had written personal memories next to each picture. I was in tears seeing photos that had lingered in shoeboxes and drawers for 20 years. I gave my intellectual cousin one of my favorite novels that she instantly curled up with, reading by the fire till she fell asleep.
My father received a big plastic lawn goose with a light bulb inside. It was the perfect gift for a man who had discovered his love for raising birds on the farm in his 50s. He giggled with delight as he turned it on and placed it proudly on the mantel.
My aunt gave her favorite cookbook to my girlfriend, with the best recipes clearly marked by gravy stains -- a subtle hint to make sure I was eating right. My brother and I baked loaves of beer bread and handed them out to family members still warm and wrapped in tinfoil. The gift-giving went on late into the night, with each person revealing what they'd been thinking when they chose the gift. We laughed and felt like a family again. We participated in the holiday on our own terms.
And the advantages of Recycled Christmas quickly became apparent: We all saved a ton of money. We had a lot more fun. We never even set foot in a mall or felt the crush of holiday traffic. We contributed nothing to the local landfill. Best of all, we knew the all presents we gave and received had come from the heart.
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