Environmentalist Bill McKibben is the author of Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas.
I’ve been called my share of names, but the only one that ever really stung was "grinch." The year that a few friends and I started the Hundred Dollar Holiday program through our rural Methodist churches, several business page columnists in the local papers leveled the G-word – we were dour do-gooders, they said, bent on taking the joy out of Christmas. And, frankly, their charges sounded plausible enough. After all, we were asking our families, our friends, and our church brethren to try and limit the amount of money they spend on the holiday to a hundred dollars – to celebrate the holiday with a seventh or an eighth of the normal American materialism. There’s no question that would mean fewer "Pop guns! And bicycles! Roller skates! Drums! Checkerboards! Tricycles! Popcorn! And plums!" Not to mention Playstations, Camcorders, Five Irons, and various Obsessions. Perhaps my heart was two sizes too small.
So it was with some trepidation that I carefully reread my daughter’s well-worn copy of the Seuss classic, neatly shelved with Green Eggs and Ham, Horton Hears a Who and all the other secular parables. There on the cover was the Grinch himself, red eyes gleaming malevolently as he plotted the sack of Whoville. He hated the noise of the kids with their toys, and he hated the feast of rare Who-roast-beast, and most of all he hated the singing. "Why,for fifty-three years I’ve put up with it now! I MUST stop this Christmas from coming! But HOW?" Simple enough, of course. All he had to do was loot the town of its packages, tinsel, trees, food, even the logs in the fireplace. Even the crumbs for the mice disappeared back up the chimney.
But of course it didn’t work. That Christmas morning, listening from his aerie for the wailing from Whoville below, the Grinch heard instead the sound of singing. Christmas had come. "It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes or bags!" After puzzling three hours till his puzzler was sore, the Grinch was forced to conclude that Christmas came from no store.
And so I breathed a sigh of real relief. Not only was I not a grinch trying to wreck the meaning of Christmas, it was abundantly clear who the grinches of our culture really are: those relentless commercial forces who have spent more than a century trying to convince us that Christmas does come from a store, or a catalogue, or a virtual mall on the Internet. Every day, but especially in the fall, they try their hardest to turn each Cindy Lou Who into a proper American consumer – try their best to make sure her Christmas revolves around Sony or Sega, Barbie or Elmo.
But Dr. Seuss’s message went deeper for me. You see, when we’d begun thinking about Hundred Dollar Holidays, it was mostly out of concern for the environment or for poor people. Think of all that wrapping paper, we said, all those batteries, all that plastic. Think of all those needy people who could be helped if we donated our money to them instead. Think of all those families who went deep into debt trying to have a "proper" Christmas.
All those issues are important. But the more we worked on our little campaign, traveling around our region having evening meetings at small rural churches like the one I attend, the more we came to understand why people were responding – indeed, why we had responded to the idea. It wasn’t because we wanted a simpler Christmas at all. It was because we wanted a more joyous Christmas. We were feeling cheated – as if the season didn’t bring with it the happiness we wanted.
Christmas had become something to endure at least as much as it had become something to enjoy – something to dread at least as much as something to look forward to. Instead of an island of peace amid a busy life, it was an island of bustle. The people we were talking to wanted so much more out of Christmas: more music, more companionship, more contemplation, more time outdoors, more love. And they realized that to get it, they needed less of some other things: not so many gifts, not so many obligatory parties, not so much hustle.
The Real Reason to Change
This is not an exercise in nostalgia. What are the problems peculiar to the moment that we might help ease by changing some of the ways we celebrate this greatest of national festivals? Problems? Well, the environment, surely that’s one. Our enormously increased populations and levels of consumption are filling the air with carbon dioxide, changing the very climate. I’ve spent my career dealing with these issues, and they are vital, urgent, critical, alarming. Name your adjective. But these issues aren’t fundamental. The damage we’re doing to our atmosphere, our water, our forests, stems from deeper dilemmas, I think – and so does the damage we’re doing to the poorest people in our nation and around the world.
So the reason to change Christmas is not because it damages the earth around us, though surely it does. (Visit a landfill the week after Christmas.) The reason to change Christmas is not because it represents shameful excess in a world of poverty, though perhaps it does. The reason to change Christmas – the reason it might be useful to change Christmas – is because it might help us to get at some of the underlying discontent in our lives. Because it might help us see how to change every other day of the year, in ways that really would make our whole lives, and maybe our entire 365-days-a-year culture, healthier in the long run.
I am writing this book in the spring of 1998, just as a new television program aimed at one-year-olds, Teletubbies, premieres on our public broadcasting system. Its characters are already being transformed into talking dolls, plastic figurines, jigsaw puzzles, pajamas, all aimed at "filling the one-to-two-year-old niche" in the market. "If this isn’t the most important toy at Christmas this year, then something desperately wrong will have happened," said the man with the rights to all the Teletubbies products. Well, maybe. Or maybe something desperately wrong has already happened.
For the moment, forget the effect of all this stuff on the environment, though of course it’s enormous. (According to the Worldwatch Institute, North Americans have used more natural resources since the end of World War II than all of humanity used in all the time before.) Forget all the figures about debt and bankruptcy and our general failure to save for our old age. Consider only the effect of this stuff on us. Up to a certain point, it’s delightful – we live in comfort, which is a new and still not widespread phenomenon. But past that point, and most of us are miles past it, there’s something oppressive about our gear, our equipment, our trappings, our stuff. If nothing else, despite our ever-larger houses, we have no place to put it. I wager that behind the fixed grin with which we greet some grand Christmas present, many of us have thought: Where on earth is this going to go? Here’s the bottom line: we have so much stuff that a pile of presents is no longer exciting, no longer novel. And we don’t get so excited by stuff – or, rather, we do, but not for long. We’ve been so carefully trained to buy more that we find ourselves shopping when we’re bored or depressed, but the lift from the new thing hardly lasts the drive home.
The Long Lost Silent Night
But that’s not the real culprit. Much more, it’s the way all the noises that we choose to listen to have infiltrated our minds. We’re caffeinated, buzzed, wired, plugged-in. In one recent survey, only 19 percent of Americans said they wanted a "more exciting, faster-paced life." Excitement can’t excite us anymore.
What can excite us – what can make us salivate the way a circus could make some Kansas farm boy salivate – is the prospect of a lull, an interlude. Stillness scares us (that’s why the TV goes on when we walk in the hotel room) but it attracts us, too. If there’s one thing we’d really like from Christmas, I think, it’s a little of that "season of peace" that the greeting card writers are always promising. It’s one of the reasons "Silent Night" is the all-time favorite carol. There’s a moment when we sing it each year at the end of the Christmas Eve service, with the lights out and everyone holding a candle that frames their face with soft light, and that marks for me the absolute height of Christmas.
If there’s one way in which the world has changed more than any other since 1840, one thing that’s truly different about our lives, it’s that we’ve become such devout consumers. That consumption carries with it certain blessings (our lives are long and easy by any historical standard) and certain costs (first and foremost the damage it causes to the rest of creation). But the greatest cost may be the way it’s changed us, the way it has managed to confuse us about what we really want from the world. We weren’t built just for this life we find ourselves leading – we were built for silence and solitude, built for connection with each other and the natural world, built for so much more than we now settle for. Christmas is the moment to sense that, the moment to reach for the real joys.