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Christmas excess: more joy for less


"Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas," by Bill McKibben. Simon & Schuster. 95 pages. $12.

USA Today reports that the average consumer will spend $914 on Christmas this year, $35 more than last year, and almost half of us can't remember a single gift we received.

It seems that Christmas is memorable only for the money we spend, and for the time we spend spending it. Christmas has become something to be endured, not enjoyed. It is enough to make January - cold, gray and uneventful - look appealing.

Environmental writer Bill McKibben, who gave up a job with the New Yorker to live with his wife and daughter in the Adirondack Mountains of New York and runs the Sunday school at his Methodist church there, proposes a different kind of Christmas, one of community and contemplation, in "Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas."

His slim volume, less than 100 pages and wrapped in a brown paper jacket printed on a solar-powered press - can be read in less time than it takes to put together a child's bicycle, and though it is probably too late to scale down Christmas madness this year, it will put you on the road toward a holiday that feels more like a holiday next year.

McKibben chose $100 because it sounded good with "holiday." This is not a guide to 50 Christmas gifts you can make for less than $2. (He does have some suggestions, but making chicken sausage for all your friends might not appeal.)

Though McKibben makes the case that Christmas is bad for the environment and shameful in the face of so much poverty, this book is not about a cheaper Christmas. And it is not nostalgic for some Christmas past because this holiday has not been pure since the Three Wise Men showed up in Bethlehem with gifts.

This is a book about how Christmas can be more joyful, not less expensive. Christmas is a time when we should fill the empty places inside of us - not with rich food and drink - but with friends, family and nature. We should respond to our human impulse to connect with the divine, however we define it. And we should take time to reacquaint ourselves with the comforts of silence.

"The crime of Christmas isn't that it has become a retail holiday," McKibben writes, "it is that it has separated us from what we long for ... solitude, connection with those we love and those who need our attention, the natural world, and the divine."

McKibben argues that we, unburdened of stuff and stuff to do, will find the energy to be festive. And if Christmas were not so crazy-making, we might not feel so let down the minute the packages are opened.

But he also writes, quite practically, that this will be a tough sell to the relatives, especially the kids, who will think that you are auditioning for the role of Grinch. It may take several Christmases to alter your rituals and you may never scale back to $100.

But his point is not to save money on gifts; the point is to give things that matter: time, attention, memories, love, whimsy.

A good first step might be to give this book to someone you love. Someone who might consider you to be the best gift under the tree.

Susan Reimer has written for The Sun for 20 years, the first 14 as a sportswriter and the past six as a family life columnist for the features department. She is the author of "Motherhood is a Contact Sport," a collection of essays. During the Christmas shopping season, Reimer takes her meals and her mail at the mall.

Pub Date: 12/06/98

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